It was almost three years ago when I first set foot in Germany and Poland, as part of a group of 60 diverse Canadian student leaders, to retrace the calamity inflicted upon my family, and those of so many others, during the Nazi Holocaust.
The March of Remembrance and Hope (MRH), run formerly by the impactful Canadian Centre for Diversity, was a trip unlike any other. More than a passive encounter with history by a group of strangers, our fabric was a mosaic of Canadianness, embodying the hopefulness captured in our trip's namesake; any country where our differences could meld and strengthen us in such a way would never host the seeds of hate that sowed the Holocaust.
As a Jewish participant, though, I grappled mightily with the idea of 'exceptionalism' -- that the atrocities of the Holocaust were committed upon my people and my family; that this is my people's history and our burden to carry alone.
After sharing this with one of the trip leaders, she recalled for me how historian Yehuda Bauer used to describe the uniqueness of the Holocaust. It was only during his later years when he adapted his paradigm to refer to the unprecedentedness of the Holocaust. Far from a semantic difference, this notion captures the fact that we, as Jews, possess no monopoly on persecution -- even for the monstrous inferno that claimed an unfathomable 6 million of our people.
In our community's efforts to maintain the continuum of memory that will survive our precious few remaining Holocaust survivors, it is too often forgotten that our Holocaust very literally also consumed the lives of hundreds of thousands of Roma ("Gypsies") and the disabled, and millions of Poles and Russians. Many others, including homosexuals, Jehovah's Witnesses, Communists, and Socialists, were targeted and sometimes murdered for their politics, ideology, or behaviour.
On April 7, Holocaust Remembrance Day ("Yom HaShoah") in Israel and in Jewish communities the world over, we honoured our martyred and our heroes, the fallen and the survivors.
In Toronto on Sunday, watching the faces etched by life and loss of those, like former partisans Faye Schulman and Peter Silverman, who lit candles to commemorate various forms of resistance, I couldn't help but think: How many times do we pass those same faces in the street without thinking twice about the actions they took -- and the courage it took them to do so -- that may have saved our very own lives?
Without action, our remembrance feels strangely hollow.
The purpose of remembrance is not simply to honour but also to teach: To teach our children and ourselves what can happen when even one person chooses -- because it absolutely is a choice we make -- to stand idly as a bystander to injustice.
Hate begins as a seed. In words and deeds. In the smallest of places.
Confronting hatred, persecution, intolerance, and indifference is done equally in the smallest of ways: by guarding our speech, educating ourselves and our friends, celebrating difference, showing kindness to strangers. Faigie Libman, one of the two remarkable survivors who accompanied us on MRH, likes to say that we have only one heart -- will we use it to love or to hate, because there isn't enough room within it to do both.
Thinking about what we can do to improve the lives of Syrians, North Koreans, Sudanese, and other communities at risk of ethnic and political violence can leave one feeling desperate and powerless.
But if we Jews and all other citizens of humanity actually mean the words we speak when we say, "never again," then we must take a stand, today, and actively choose to care and to defend justice by celebrating the uncelebrated and by protecting and giving voice to the voiceless among us, and to say that hatred and intolerance, in any shape or form, no matter how small, has no place in this world.
To paraphrase cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead, never doubt that the actions of a few caring people can change the world.
Flowers lay on a slab of the Holocaust Memorial to commemorate the victims of the Nazi regime at the International Holocaust Rememberance Day in Berlin, Sunday, Jan. 27, 2013. (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)
White and red roses are placed on a memorial at the former Nazi concentration camp Buchenwald near Weimar, Germany, Sunday, Jan. 27, 2013. (AP Photo/dpa/Martin Schutt)
People gather to light candles and to attend a memorial ceremony during the International Holocaust Remembrance Day on Sunday Jan. 27, 2013, at Raoul Wallenberg Square in Stockholm, Sweden. (AP Photo/Scanpix Sweden/Leif R Jansson)
A woman lights a candle as she attends a memorial ceremony during the International Holocaust Rememberance Day on Sunday Jan. 27, 2013, at Raoul Wallenberg Square in Stockholm, Sweden. (AP Photo/Scanpix Sweden, Leif R Jansson)
A woman wearing a headscarf and playing the accordion sits in the Memorial for the Murdered Sinti and Roma under the nazis regime, in Berlin, Germany, Jan. 27, 2013. People remember the victims of the Nazi regime on the International Holocaust Day. The International Holocaust Day marks the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp on Jan. 27, 1945. (AP Photo/dpa/Soeren Stache)
A participant wearing a kipa, attends a memorial ceremony to remember the victims of the holocaust in Dresden, Germany Sunday Jan. 27, 2013. (AP Photo/dpa/Arno Burgi)
Visitors stand in front of the gate of the former nazi concentration camp Sachsenhausen in Oranienburg, eastern Germany, Sunday Jan. 27, 2013. (AP Photo/dpa/Patrick Pleul)
Holocaust survivor Stella Knobel, poses next to her teddy bear during a new exhibition of Israel's national Holocaust memorial and museum in Jerusalem, Sunday, Jan. 27, 2013. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)
Holocaust survivor Stella Knobel's teddy bear on display at the memorial's "Gathering the Fragments" exhibit at Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial and museum in Jerusalem, Sunday, Jan. 27, 2013., Sunday, Jan. 27, 2013. When Stella Knobel's family had to flee World War II Poland in 1939, the only thing the 7-year-old girl could take with her was her teddy bear. For the next six years, the stuffed animal never left her side as the family wondered through the Soviet Union, to Iran and finally the Holy Land. "He was like family. He was all I had. He knew all my secrets," the 80-year-old now says with a smile. "I saved him all these years. But I worried what would happen to him when I died." So when she heard about a project launched by Israel's national Holocaust memorial and museum to collect artifacts from aging survivors - before they, and their stories, were lost forever - she reluctantly handed over her beloved bear Misiu - Polish for Teddy Bear- so the fading memories of the era could be preserved for others. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)
Holocaust survivor 83-year-old Shlomo Resnik and his wife attend the memorial's "Gathering the Fragments" exhibit at Yad Vashem of more than 71,000 items collected nationwide over the past two years in Israel's national Holocaust memorial and museum in Jerusalem, Sunday, Jan. 27, 2013. His item was the steel bowl that he and his father used for food at the Dachau concentration camp. His father Meir's name and number are engraved on the bowl, which serves as a reminder of how hard they had to scrap for food. "We fought to stay alive," he said. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit
Roses are placed in the Holocaust Memorial commemorating the persecution of the Jewish people during World War II, in Thessaloniki, northern Greece, on Sunday, Jan. 27, 2013. There were some 50,000 Jews living in Thessaloniki at the start of World War II, and almost 45,000 perished at Auschwitz concentration camp, and Greece officially commemorates the Holocaust every Jan. 27. (AP Photo/Nikolas Giakoumidis)
People attend a ceremony at the Holocaust Memorial commemorating the persecution of the Jewish people during World War II, in Thessaloniki, northern Greece, on Sunday, Jan. 27, 2013. (AP Photo/Nikolas Giakoumidis)
A rose is placed on top of a sign that reads "Stop" with a skull painted, near the gate at the concentration camp during a ceremony marking the 68th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz by Soviet troops and to remember the victims of the Holocaust, in Auschwitz Birkenau in Oswiecim, Poland, Sunday, Jan. 27, 2013. (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)
Serbian military honor guards stand to attention as people attend commemorations for victims of the Holocaust at a monument erected in the former World War II Nazi concentration camp of Sajmiste in Belgrade, Serbia, Sunday, Jan. 27, 2013. (AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic)
Serbian military honor guards participate in commemorations for victims of the Holocaust at the former World War II Nazi concentration camp of Sajmiste in Belgrade, Serbia, Sunday, Jan. 27, 2013. (AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic)
Memorial candles are lit in front of a photo taken during WWII showing refugees fleeing from the Nazis at a ceremony marking International Holocaust Remembrance Day in Russias first Jewish Museum in Moscow, Russia, Sunday, Jan. 27, 2013. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko Jr)
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