04/08/2013 05:27 EDT | Updated 06/08/2013 05:12 EDT

Holocaust Remembrance Day: Take Action Against Hate Everywhere

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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.

International Holocaust Remembrance Day