Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau gave a powerful speech on Monday, at the March of the Living event in Auschwitz-Birkenau in honor of Holocaust Memorial Day.
Rabbi Lau began by saying that remembering the Holocaust is "our survival, our existence, our eternity, our immortality."
To illustrate this, he told a story.
"In California, in the US, lived a survivor of Auschwitz," Rabbi Lau began. "He lost here in Auschwitz his wife and his children. He survived by himself, went to relatives in the US after the war, became successful in business - made a new life, married and remarried, had children - [he was] very successful."
"But when you looked at him you never found a smile on his face, his eyes were extinguished, no vitality no life [. . .] [he was] very sad," Rabbi Lau continued. "He looked like a sick man."
"When asked why he looked so sick, [Yankele] answered, 'Physically, I am ok [. . .] but my daughter, Mirele, aged 12, died of starvation in my arms. My wife here in California knows exactly what I used to eat, what I loved to eat. She prepares for me the most delicious things. I come back home every day, I find my plate, my cutlery...everything is arranged. [But] the moment I put my fork in my mouth, she - Mirele - appears in front of me. My Mirele, sick, very thin - asking for bread. 'Father, give me bread. Give me a piece of bread!'. At that moment, I push it away. I can't look at it. This happens every day.'"
Rabbi Lau continued that while Yankele has passed on, his story illustrates to him why the Torah tells us to remember [Amalek] by saying "zachor - lo tishkach" (translated: 'remember - do not forget.').
"Why twice?" he asked. "Zachor is in order [to tell us] to do all efforts to remember, like this march. [But] lo tishkach [means] 'you will not remember to forget' - either Neo-Nazis will remind you or your memories will run after you. You can rebuild life [. . .] but something in your heart is dead."
Optimism for Holocaust Education in the Future
Rabbi Lau also addressed the question of what will happen in the future. As a former March of the Living member stated at the beginning of the ceremony, this generation will be the last to hear personal testimony from Holocaust survivors.
"The question is asked, what will be when the last survivor passes away?," Rabbi Lau stated. "I am an optimist."
Rabbi Lau explained that Judaism, itself, focuses on remembering and connecting to the past.
"We are a nation with a very phenomenal memory. Who remembers, today, from the time of the Exodus, when Moses and Aaron went out from Egypt, from slavery to freedom? 3,320 years ago," he said. "A few days ago, Jewish people around the world sat at the Pesach seder and ate the same menu that our ancient fathers ate in Egypt - matzot. What a memory."
Rabbi Lau also gave the example of the Hanukkah story.
"There was a story with Judah the Maccabee, with the oil - instead of one day, [he had] eight days," Rabbi Lau stated, referring to one of the leaders of the Maccabean Revolt. "When 25 Kislev comes around, all the Jews all over the world [. . .] light Hanukah candles. What a memory we have."
"Such a tragedy that you can see here the footsteps of [Holocaust victims]," he continued. "They will never be forgotten. Even when we will not be here, our grandchildren will be here, and our great-great grandchildren will tell mankind the truth - say 'Look in the mirror! See the truth! How did you behave 70 years ago - or 700 years ago?"
"This is unforgettable," he concluded. "You cannot forget."
Judaism as the answer to Nazism
Rabbi Lau also took a few moments to address survivors at the ceremony, and encourage them not to abandon their faith.
"I have been here since the very first march, Yom Hashoah 1988," he said. "I'm not sure how many more years the Lord will give me to stand here in front of you, like 26 years already, to speak. I pray that Lord give me the strength, health, and ability to be here."
"But I see you, brothers, walking a little difficultly, listening a little bit heavily, not the same. I know that some of you - and I don't blame anyone - some of you are full of anger and have an open bill with Lord almighty, [asking] 'why did it happen?"
"But showing him your back is not the solution," he continued. "He will never go bankrupt. If I did not put on tefilin every day, he won't lose - but we will. We lose. We will never understand. He is not giving us reports, we have to give him one."
Rabbi Lau urged survivors to embrace Judaism as the answer to Nazism.
"Do I have to remind you, when they pushed us into the train stations and our relatives - how many times did you hear them calling us?," he said. He described grandparents calling their grandchildren's names as they were pushed into the trains. "Remember that you are Jewish. We owe it. We owe it to them and we owe it to ourselves. So please, brothers and sisters, come back home - home to old tradition and old heritage."
"The Nazis and their assistants...they declared a war not just against Jews physically, but against Judaism, Jewish tradition," he said. He cited Kristallnacht as a prime example. "1,400 synagogues burned and destroyed throughout Germany, to show that [the Nazis were] not just the enemy of the Jews, but also [enemies of] Judaism."
"We will not give them victory - we will be the victors," he concluded. "We will go back home and observe the old tradition and be what our bubbies and zaydies asked us to be."
"This will ensure our survival, our eternity, our immortality - as they used to say, Am Yisrael Chai."