The sirens blared for two minutes last evening at sundown in Israel. This time it was not because of some immediate terrorist attack. The sirens marked the beginning of Yom HoShoah, the Day of Remembrance which concludes this evening at sunset.
Why do we need such a day? Can anyone forget? Well, yes, many do! Humankind seems to have a perverted capacity to replicate, again and again, such inconceivable brutality and unspeakable violence. We remember because we must be reminded never to forget. We delude ourselves if we think the Holocaust could never happen again.
The precedent of the Armenian genocide provides a timely admonition. Pope Francis unleashed quite a diplomatic stir last week by marking the 100 anniversary! 1.5 million Armenians were exterminated by the Turks — yet, the government in Ankara took quite the offense that anyone would call it for what it was and remind others of the unspeakable horror some would have us forget.
Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin doesn’t want us to forget the Armenian genocide either. Salkin is the spiritual leader of Temple Beth Am of Bayonne, N.J. and author of numerous books on Jewish spirituality and ethics. The rabbi observes that the Armenian Christians, like the Jews, were seen as a threat by the traditional hierarchy of Ottoman society.
Salkin reminds us that “like the Jews, the Armenians became better educated, wealthier, and more urban.” Isn’t this often the aspiration of many minority populations as well as the paranoid response of entrenched hierarchies? The rabbi writes, “like ‘the Jewish problem’ that would be frequently discussed in Germany, in Turkey they talked about ‘the Armenian question’.”
The Turks had precedents to guide and encourage them as well. The rabbi tells how the Turks delved into the records of the Catholic Inquisition in Spain and revived its torture methods. So many Armenian bodies were dumped into the Euphrates that the mighty river changed its course for a hundred yards.
Rabbi Salkin would admonish us today…
In America, the newspaper headlines screamed of systematic race extermination. Parents cajoled their children to be frugal with their food, “for there are starving children in Armenia.” In 1915 alone, the New York Times published 145 articles about the Armenian genocide. Americans raised $100 million in aid for the Armenians. Activists, politicians, religious leaders, diplomats, intellectuals and ordinary citizens called for intervention, but nothing happened.
The Armenians call their genocide Meds Yeghern (“the Great Catastrophe”). It served the Nazis well as a model. Not only the act of genocide itself — but also, the passive amnesia about that genocide. “Who talks about the Armenians anymore?” laughed Hitler.
We want to claim some sort of moral superiority today — claiming it cannot happen again, citing occasions like Yom HoShoah, Meds Yeghern and moral voices like that of Rabbi Salkin. But, it can happen, it does happen, it is happening.
Sometime today, let’s each take two minutes, just two minutes. No sirens will wail, no rabbis or popes need exhort. Sometime, this day, let us set aside a mere two minutes — not so much to recall the past but to acknowledge the present.
Will anything change? Will we be the generation to finally put a stop to the horror of ethnic cleansing? Historic precedent suggests the odds are not in our favor. But, try we must. Like the Pope and Rabbi’s solitary voices, each of us is called to speak the truth.
Each of us, if only for two minutes sometime today, can pray. But even more we must resolve, “Never Again!”
Rabbi Salkin’s really fine article can be found [here].