We also remember the number 5,000 — the number of Jews rescued by the villagers of Le Chambon, France — one life saved for each of its 5,000 residents. Not a single Jew who came there was turned away, or turned in. But it was not until decades later that the villagers spoke of what they had done — and even then, only reluctantly. The author of a book on the rescue found that those he interviewed were baffled by his interest. “How could you call us ‘good’?” they said. “We were doing what had to be done.”
That is the question of the righteous — those who would do extraordinary good at extraordinary risk not for affirmation or acclaim or to advance their own interests, but because it is what must be done. They remind us that no one is born a savior or a murderer — these are choices we each have the power to make. They teach us that no one can make us into bystanders without our consent, and that we are never truly alone — that if we have the courage to heed that “still, small voice” within us, we can form a minyan for righteousness that can span a village, even a nation.
Their legacy is our inheritance. And the question is, how do we honor and preserve it? How do we ensure that “never again” isn’t an empty slogan, or merely an aspiration, but also a call to action?
I believe we start by doing what we are doing today — by bearing witness, by fighting the silence that is evil’s greatest co-conspirator.
In the face of horrors that defy comprehension, the impulse to silence is understandable. My own great uncle returned from his service in World War II in a state of shock, saying little, alone with painful memories that would not leave his head. He went up into the attic, according to the stories that I’ve heard, and wouldn’t come down for six months. He was one of the liberators — someone who at a very tender age had seen the unimaginable. And so some of the liberators who are here today honor us with their presence — all of whom we honor for their extraordinary service. My great uncle was part of the 89th Infantry Division — the first Americans to reach a Nazi concentration camp. And they liberated Ohrdruf, part of Buchenwald, where tens of thousands had perished.