Jews are no strangers to suffering. Throughout the ages, many others have also been victims to unspeakable cruelty, but the judgment of Winston Churchill is almost certainly the definitive description of the uniqueness of the Holocaust: "The Final Solution is probably the greatest, most horrible crime ever committed in the whole history of the world."
Holocaust scholar Deborah Lipstadt points out two reasons why the German program of genocide remains in a class by itself as an example of evil: "It was the only time in recorded history that a state tried to destroy an entire people, regardless of an individual's age, sex, location, profession, or belief. And it is the only instance in which the perpetrators conducted this genocide for no ostensible material, territorial, or political gain." In fact, the Holocaust remains incomprehensible. But that is all the more reason why it must at the very least be remembered.
Perhaps the most inexplicable of all the aspects of the Holocaust – the question that forces us to come to grips with the very meaning of the word "civilized" – is the realization that took place in the twentieth century and was the work of so-called "cultured," "civilized," highly educated Germans.
"The death camps," as Franklin Littell pointed out, "were designed by professors and built by Ph.D.s." Nazis tortured by day and listened to Wagner and Bach at night. They put down a violin to torture a Jew to death. They used their advanced scientific knowledge to design crematoria and, most amazing of all, they had highly skilled people devise the most fiendish medical experiments to test levels of pain, how long someone could be immersed in freezing water before dying, and even, as the infamous Dr. Joseph Mengele (chief "physician" at Auschwitz) was fond of doing, performed gruesome experiments on twins such as sewing two children together to create a "Siamese pair" and to measure their reactions.
Romain Gary, author of The Dance of Genghis Cohn, bitterly came to this shocking conclusion: "In the ancient times of Simbas, a cruel, cannibalistic society, people consumed their victims. The modern-day Germans, heirs to thousands of years of culture and civilization, turned their victims into soap. The desire for cleanliness, that is civilization."
The Holocaust was different because it came at the hands of those we would have been certain were incapable of committing atrocities. The Holocaust forces us to rethink the meaning of culture not rooted in a religious or ethical foundation.
What is this seeming obsession Jews have to remember the Holocaust?
Jews are a people of memory. In the Ten Commandments they are commanded to "remember the Sabbath day." In the Bible they are told to remember the exodus from Egypt, as well as the Amalekites who attacked them as they wandered in the desert. Memory is the key to survival. Indeed, as the philosopher George Santanya so perceptively put it, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."
That is why the Jews feel a special obligation today to add yet another commandment of "remember" to their liturgy. Remember the Holocaust – so that its millions of victims at least the gift of living in our memories. Remember the Holocaust – so that as the philosopher Emil Fackenheim has demanded, we do not give Hitler a posthumous victory by having us forget our past and our heritage. Remember the Holocaust – because, in the words of Elie Wiesel at the dedication of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington in 1993, "To forget would mean to kill the victims a second time. We could not prevent their first death; we must not allow them to be killed again."
from "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Jewish History and Culture" (Alpha Books)