Yom HaSho’ah

Yom HaSho’ah by Rev. Fred L Hammond delivered to the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tuscaloosa in Alabama on 11 April 2010 (c)

Yom HaSho’ah was presented as a day of remembrance for Jews and it has been embraced by other faith traditions so that we will never forget the millions of lives nor the horrors that occurred. It is in the hope that we will learn its lessons to never allow it to happen again.   Unfortunately, this day of remembrance in recent years has also included remembrance of holocausts that have occurred since this time period.  The genocides in Cambodia, in Bosnia, in Rwanda, and in Darfur have been incorporated in honoring all the lives lost.   New countries are being added to the list of atrocities by the non-profit organization called Genocide Watch.   There are things that we can do to help prevent the conditions that allow genocide to occur.

Anne Frank, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Norbert Capek, Solomon Perel, Elie Weisel, Bruno Bettelheim, Rena and Danka Kornreich, Corrie tenBoom, Martha and Waitstill Sharp, and Oscar Schindler.  These are only a few of the names of people who died, who survived, and who helped rescue a few of the lives caught up in the web of the Holocaust in Nazi Germany.  Here are some of their stories.

Danka and Rena Kornreich were sisters and the youngest of the Kornreich family in Tylicz, Poland.  There was a small Jewish community there and the Jews and Gentiles lived in relative peace together.  There was a young gentile by the name of Andrzej Garbera who had a crush on Rena… it was a crush that was mutual albeit forbidden by Jewish custom. Theirs was a secret affair kept afar.  He wanted to marry Rena but Rena turned him down because to do so would have broken her parents’ heart.  When the Germans invaded Poland, it was Andrzej who assisted in Rena’s escape to the border into Slovakia.  He assisted many Jews to escape to the border.  One night on his return from the border there was a search by the SS with dogs. He hid in a tree for the night; nearly frozen he fell out of the tree.  The next day some of the villagers found him and brought him home but he contracted pneumonia and died a few weeks later.

Rena in an effort to protect those who gave her shelter in Slovakia decided to turn herself in and enlist for the German Work Camps.  She is taken to Auschwitz where she is tattooed with the number 1716.  The huge sign at the gates, declares “Work will make you free.”  And everyone entering Auschwitz with Rena that day believes the sign.  “‘We are young,’ we remind ourselves. ‘We will work hard and be set free. We will see what happens.’ But on the outside we are walking as if we are doomed.  It is raining, chilled like March rain. We are lost in thought but it is too cold to do much thinking.  Everywhere is gray.  My heart is turning gray. “

“There are men along the barbed-wire fences, in striped jackets, caps, and pants, watching us. Their eyes reflect nothing.  I think to myself, This must be an insane asylum, but why would they make the mentally ill work?  That’s not fair.” [1]

A few months later, she is reunited with her younger sister, Danka.  Danka is frail of health and Rena worries about her surviving the harsh conditions of the coming winter.  Rena is selected by Dr. Mengele for a “special” work detail.  Rena thinks this might be an indoor job as he has done in the past and arranges for Danka to join her.   They are sent to a room where they fed more than their daily ration of slice of bread and broth.  They think that perhaps this is a good thing for all concerned. After a few days they are told to remove their uniforms–Uniforms that once belonged to Russian prisoners of war who were shot –and to wear dresses with aprons.   Rena notices that they are not asked to place their numbers by which they are known on the outfits.  She sees one of the elites remove a young woman from the line up.  She notices the woman did this with an air of authority. And decides she and Danka must get out of this group.  With bravery, with a feeling of self-importance they return back to where their uniforms were.  The uniforms are all piled up and together, if they can get their uniforms back on they might be able to be in time for roll call.  Frantically, they find their numbers and change back into their uniforms. They run back outside where the roll call is still taking place, they are in time and they are counted.

A few days later, Rena hears that the special work detail was for sterilization and shock treatments.  All of the women either died from the shock treatments or from the infection that set in from the sterilization procedure.   Rena tells in her narrative, “There is a pressure screaming for release against my eyes, I don’t cry.  It takes time to cry and there is no time.  I fight to find a reason, but there is no reason in this place.  What did they do when they discovered there were three numbers missing in the experiment detail?  Did the woman who snuck her cousin or sister out of line just place somebody else in her place?  Why didn’t they search us out?—they had our numbers written on a list.  Why are we alive and the other girls we were selected with not?   Will there ever come a time when we can thank God for being alive today before we have to ask the same privilege tomorrow, and the next day?  Is life a privilege or a curse?”[2]

Bruno Bettelheim, a survivor of the Dachau and Buchenwald concentration camps writes in The Informed Heart: Autonomy in a Mass Age, “to have some small token experiences of being active and passive, each on one’s own, and in mind as well as body—this, much more than the utility of any one such activity, was what enabled me and others like me to survive.  By contrast, it was the senseless tasks, the lack of almost any time to oneself, the inability to plan ahead because of sudden changes in camp policies, that was so deeply destructive.  By destroying man’s ability to act on his own or to predict the outcome of his actions, they destroyed the feeling that his actions had any purpose, so many prisoners stopped acting. But when they stopped acting they soon stopped living.”  [3]

Danka and Rena Kornreich are among the survivors of the Holocaust.  Their actions enabled them to survive.  When one sister despaired of life, it was the other sister that acted on both of their behalves.  Of course not all people who took on small actions of deliberate choice in the holocaust survived to see the liberation of the camps by the allied forces.   But if Bettelheim is correct, it is these small acts, no matter how insignificant in our eyes, that enabled the survivors to retain some level of integrity.


Solomon Perel’s story is a remarkable and unbelievable true story of courage and wit.  The Perel family were shoemakers in Germany and were persecuted by continual vandalism.  In 1935, they relocated in Poland.  When the Germans invaded Poland, Solomon and his brother Isaak attempted to escape to Soviet-occupied Poland.  The brothers were separated and Solomon, lived in a Soviet orphanage.   When the orphanage was taken over by the Germans, because of Solomon’s perfect German, he was able to convince them that he was a German living outside of Germany.  He adopts the name of Josef Perjell. The German soldiers took him in as a German-Russian interpreter.  He played a key role in the capture of Stalin’s son, an officer in the Soviet Army.  This made him a hero in the eyes of the Germans.   However, he had to continually hide his true identity and being circumcised was made all the more difficult.

Because he was a minor, he was sent to a Hitler youth school in Germany.  He did what he had to do in order to survive. He “does confess later on that it was difficult to play the role he did where he had to pretend to be German. He writes in his autobiography, ‘I gradually suppressed my true self. Sometimes I even ‘forgot’ that I was a Jew.’”[4] Yet, he pledges that the essence of who he is would never be exterminated.   Solomon survives the war, learns of the fate of his family, learns for the first time of the horrors of the concentration camps and is reunited with his brothers David and Isaak.  Solomon moves to Israel in 1948.

It is only before a critical open-heart surgery that he decides to tell his story.  Part of his delay in telling this incredible story was because in his words, “What would those who had survived the death camps think of me?” (Perel, p. 196) “I constantly found myself comparing their bitter fate with what I had endured, and I realized how much life had spared me.” (Perel, p.200-201.)[5] While this story seems too incredible, it is estimated by researcher Bryan Riggs, that several hundred Jews masquerade as German soldiers in order to survive Nazi Germany.   Survivor guilt is strong in the people who lived to see the end of the war and the end of the holocaust.


“Rev. Waitstill and Martha Sharp were American Unitarians who visited Norbert Capek’s Unitarian congregation in Prague, Czechoslovakia throughout the 1920’s and 30’s.  When Czechoslovakia fell to the Nazis in 1938, the American Unitarian Association chose to send ‘commissioners’ to assess the needs of the refugees and the Prague church.  Rev. Waitstill and Martha Sharp were distraught over what was happening in Europe.  ‘These were our friends’, Waitstill would state later and something needed to be done.[6] While reluctant to leave their two young children, the Sharps arrived in Prague in 1939, the very day that the Nazis marched in.  Their work enabled many to escape to the U.S. and gave rise to the establishment of the Unitarian Service Committee, still in existence today as the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee.  The Sharp’s barely escaped arrest and detention.  They returned to Europe in 1940, where Martha Sharp arranged for 29 children and 10 adults to leave Nazi-occupied Europe.   The Sharp’s work combined with the founding of the Unitarian Service Committee ensured the rescue of 3500 families from Nazi controlled Europe.[7] The Sharp’s became known as the ‘Guardian Angels of European children.’

“Martha Sharp was said to have asked her daughter-in-law, ‘What important work are you going to do for the world?’ This is a statement of strong conviction that with our lives intricately connected to the world around us we carry a responsibility to that connection.”[8]

What important work are you going to do for the world?  It may seem impossible for us to prevent the atrocities in another country say Uganda, where legislation is proposed to eliminate the HIV/AIDS and homosexual threat by executing those who are living with this disease or who are homosexual in orientation.

Will this legislation if enacted result in Genocide?  First we need to understand the definition of Genocide.  It is important to know because many deny genocide based on a misunderstanding of what constitutes genocide.   According to international law: genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group, as such:

(a) Killing members of the group;
(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

The phrase “in whole or in part” is where many people trip up.  Genocide does not need to be the whole population; it can be a part of the population that is being harmed.  While sexual orientation or disease is not stated explicitly in the definition; the rest of the definition would classify such action as genocide.

There are distinct stages that a country progresses through en-route to committing genocide.  The first two stages are common to our human nature.  There are examples here in the United States and it does not mean that genocide will occur.  But it is clear from all the holocausts this world has experienced in the last 100 years, every single one, Armenia, Germany, Rwanda, Bosnia, Cambodia, and Darfur all began with these two stages that escalated to the third stage.

First stage:  Classification.  What divides us from them?  Is it race? Ethnicity? Religion? Nationality?  Sexual orientation?  There is a preventative in the form of education of tolerance, acceptance, and understanding.  The President of Genocide Watch, George Stanton states, “Th[e] search for common ground is vital to early prevention of genocide.”  Part of the important work that we can do for the world is to educate others about who the other is.  The other is just like us in more ways than we may even currently acknowledge. It is vital that we speak up when we hear hate speech or derogatory statements that dehumanize the other.

Stage two: Symbolization.  These are names or other symbols we give to those we classified as other.   From our own history, this would be the derogatory terms used to describe people of color or sexual minorities or political conservatives or political progressives.

These first two stages are not necessarily going to result in genocide unless they lead to the next stage; dehumanization.   Hate speech and hate symbols can increase the likelihood of advancing to the next stage.  The key is to remove the power behind the symbolization.  The act of setting up a donation table to solicit funds for organizations that support HIV/AIDS treatment or Gay civil rights where ever Fred Phelps’ church calls for the death of homosexuals is one way of removing the power his symbols might carry.

Stage 3: Dehumanization.  The humanity of the other is denied by equating them to vermin, animals, and diseases.  We have heard this dehumanization increasing in our country in the past few years.  Television talk show hosts have been accused of hate speech that dehumanizes or degrades the opposing political opinion.   Words such as “being the cancer of America” and to reload and take aim at those politicians who have supported allegedly the wrong bill have been heard.  This is dehumanization.    These are hate speeches aimed at dehumanizing the other.   Genocide Watch suggests “Local and international leaders should condemn the use of hate speech and make it culturally unacceptable. Hate radio stations should be shut down, and hate propaganda banned. Hate crimes and atrocities should be promptly punished.”

Stage four: Organization.  There is always organization behind genocide.  It is usually supported by the government where the genocide is taking place but organized through militias so the government can deny responsibility. This is the case in Darfur.

Stage five: Polarization.  Hate propaganda is broadcasted informing this is for the best interests of the country, further polarizing those who might act to stop it. Laws are passed outlawing behaviors associated with group, such as gathering for worship on Friday evenings for Sabbath.  Laws forbidding social interaction may also be passed. It became illegal in Germany to shop at a store owned by Jews.

Stage six: Preparation:  Groups are separated out from the general population.  They are forced into ghettos, concentration camps or regions with no or limited resources for survival.  Our own history revealed this being done to the Native Americans who were forced off their land and into desert regions we called reservations.  Symbols are also used to designate these people and these are forced on the people.   In Germany it was the yellow star or various colors of triangles.  In Cambodia it was a blue scarf.

Stage seven: Extermination.  Mass killings begin and this is called genocide.  Those doing the killing do not believe their targets are human.  Rapid international armed intervention must be given in order to stop the genocide.  Safe zones that are protected by international forces must be developed for refugees.  Unsafe, safe zones are worse than no safe zones because they become targets as was the case in Darfur, where the international armed forces abandoned the safe zones allowing for Janjaweed, an African Arab tribal militia, to enter and massacre the refugees.

Stage eight: Denial.  Actions are taken by the government to deny the genocide took place.  Obstructions to investigations occur.  A label of civil war may be used to cover up the genocide, such as in Darfur and Bosnia. It is important that an international council is set up to investigate and bring the proponents of genocide to justice.[9]

Survivor of the Bosnian genocide, Kemal Pervanic, stated at the first annual Holocaust Memorial Day conference in the United Kingdom: “Most Bosnians learned to regard all Serbs as murderers, killers: they believed something was wrong with them. I don’t think like that.  It’s OK to be different. We are all different, but on the other hand we are all the same, with the same rights to life, love, dignity. Lots of people aren’t prepared to share these values with others who are less fortunate than them.”[10]

Through out the eight stages of genocide there is a drive to destroy, to drive out, to reduce to sameness, to kill the human spirit that creates us as all unique.  Yet, as these few stories point out and in every story of survival of genocide I have ever heard, the human spirit has never been able to be fully crushed.  There is always some spark, some insignificant moment or choice made that restores a sense of dignity, of integrity, even if for that one brief moment that beckons the will to live another day. There is always a creative way for the human spirit to seemingly instinctively change course as Rena and Danka did with mysterious surging bravado, or to be a chameleon in the midst of enemies in order to survive like Solomon Perel did or causes Waitstill and Martha Sharp to reach out a hand to save a few from falling into harm’s way.   The human spirit cannot be fully crushed.  It can be repressed.  It can be oppressed. It can be held down and shackled.  But its spark can never be fully snuffed out. There will always be something of the human spirit that will declare its existence, its shout of I AM.

Anne Frank who lost her life in the Holocaust wrote in her diary “… in spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart. I simply can’t build up my hopes on a foundation consisting of confusion, misery, and death. I see the world gradually being turned into a wilderness, I hear the ever approaching thunder, which will destroy us too, I can feel the sufferings of millions and yet, if I look up into the heavens, I think that it will all come right, that this cruelty too will end, and that peace and tranquility will return again.” [11]

May it be so in our life times.

[1] Rena’s Promise by Rena Kornreich Gelissen with Heather Dune Macadam.   Page 60

[2] Ibid.

[3] Bruno Bettelheim, The Informed Heart  © The Free Press 1960  pg 148

[4] http://www.history.ucsb.edu/faculty/marcuse/classes/33d/projects/jewishlife/JewishPerelRuth.htm

[5] ibid

[6] Roots and Visions: The First 50 years of the UU Service Committee, page 15

[7] http://www.brownalumnimagazine.com/storydetail.cfm?ID=2628

[8] Originally from the sermon, “How to be A Hero” by Rev. Fred L Hammond  © February 26 2006

[9] As found at http://www.genocidewatch.org/aboutgenocide/8stagesofgenocide.html © 1998 Gregory H. Stanton. Originally presented as a briefing paper at the US State Department in 1996.   (The eight stages presented here is adapted from this work of Gregory Stanton.  The comparisons of some of the stages to the political scene,  past and present,  in the US is my commentary and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of  Genocide Watch.

[10] As found at http://www.hmd.org.uk/news/item/holocaust-memorial-day-trust-1st-annual-conference

[11] as found at http://www.buzzle.com/articles/holocaust-quotes.html

Published in: on April 16, 2010 at 12:51 pm  Comments Off on Yom HaSho’ah  
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