On Monday, I read their names.
The names of some of the men, women and children who were among the 6 million Jews who were killed during the Holocaust.
As part of Yom Hashoah Holocaust Remembrance Day, Voices of Hope and the Mandelll Jewish Community Center in West Hartford, Conn., sponsor a Community Wide Reading of the Names.
A member of my parish alerted me to it, and so I signed up for a time slot and went there to read the some of the names of those who were murdered in places like Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen and Dachau. I wore a clerical collar, both as an act of solidarity and contrition, since Lutheran clergy in Germany played a very mixed role in the rise and normalization of Hitler and the Third Reich.
Voices of Hope is an organization created by descendants of Holocaust survivors to collect, categorize and share the experiences of Holocaust survivors for the benefit of future generations. Its bold mission is to foster a culture of courage and social action against hate, bigotry, intolerance and indifference.
After learning over the weekend that almost a quarter of all millennials knew nothing about the Holocaust and 41 percent of all Americans (66 percent of millennials) had never heard of Auschwitz, the importance of reading these names became more apparent.
We are living in a country that is quickly forgetting the consequences of hatred driven marginalization of a specific race or creed. And now, more than ever, we need to remember what happened in Germany when good people looked the other way, ignoring the facts when their neighbors were isolated and then removed, objectifying them, rather than seeing them as individuals.
What happens when you read the names is that it becomes personal. No longer is the Holocaust 6 million nameless, faceless people. It is Chave Friedman, Jacov Freidlander and Mordichai Fuchs. Real people, with real stories, who bled and died in the ghettos of Warsaw or who were gassed in camps like Buchenwald.
What struck me, as I read name after name from the same family, is that entire generations were eliminated. Brothers, sisters, parents, grandparents and grandchildren. Genocide is a horrible thing. And seeing it in print and reading the names aloud, made it real.
We live in a world where we see both the horrors of war and genocide up close, as we see victims in living color, and yet we become immune to it. Only the rare photo, like the blood-stained face of the Syrian boy Omran Daqneesh, whose trauma after a bombing captured the price of that horrific war, breaks through and makes these people real. Otherwise, it simply becomes the story of a war in Syria or Afghanistan — not the story of lives disrupted or refugees fleeing in terror.
I think of the victims of genocide and mass slaughter — the bodies of babies thrown into a pit in Cambodia, the Native Americans perishing after a smallpox- laden blanket wiped out entire communities, the mass graves in Bosnia — they are more than simply a number. Each statistic represents a flesh and blood person, whose story came to a horrible end for no reason other than hate that went unchecked.
And I think of the people I met in the refugee camps in Uganda who are fleeing a genocide in South Sudan, and the Palestinians, who are facing a slow and deliberate choking out of existence through the illegal seizure of lands and assaults on unarmed resisters who are helpless to do anything but scream as their way of life and identity is being robbed from them.
Their stories need to be told. Their names need to be said aloud — like the thousands killed in South Sudan in recent weeks or the 17 unarmed Palestinians who were shot in Gaza. When we hear their stories, we are able to understand more deeply the pain that drives them and the struggles that unite them.
When we lump people into a group by their nationality, or their religion, or their color, we take away their individuality. It is easier to hate a group than it is to focus on the person who is being targeted.
Voices of Hope gave me a chance to say the names of those who were killed nearly 80 years ago, killed because the majority did not stand up to say “no” in the face of bald hatred and vicious lies, scapegoating a people and tolerating the indefensible.
I read their names, knowing that those who don’t remember the past are condemned to repeat it. And understanding that a genocide does not begin in a day. Instead, it happens because good people look the other way for too long, until what once was seen as horrific becomes normalized and acceptable.
And today, I will continue to say the names of Stephon Clark, Philando Castile, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray and others because their lives, their stories matter, too.
We can’t look the other way or we become complicit. So Monday, I read the names from the past, committed myself to share the stories of those facing a genocide today and joined in a bold venture to continue to say these names aloud too, to help tell their stories.
As Edmund Burke once said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” So we need to do something. And it begins by saying their names.