Addressing a standing-room-only community Yom HaShoah service, the Rev. Bruce Bramlett posed the essential question to the interfaith gathering last week at San Leandro's Temple Beth Sholom.
"Why should we keep on remembering this?" asked the spiritual leader of St. Paul's Episcopal Church in San Rafael.
To remember, he said, is to know who you are, where you came from and how you should live in the future.
"To forget is to no longer be human," Bramlett said.
In silence, six survivors accompanied by second- and third-generation children of survivors came to the bimah. Each lit a candle representing 1 million of the 6 million Jews who died in the Holocaust –one of the few traditions universally adopted in the observance of Yom HaShoah.
"It is time for a new generation to take over, to carry stories [of the Holocaust] on, which is also a mitzvah," said Rene Molho, Auschwitz survivor and service organizer. "Our generation is dwindling. We're in our mid-70s. Someone must say Kaddish for the 6 million." The mood was somber as people filled Beth Sholom during the April 15 service. Extra chairs were added to more than double the room's capacity. By 7:30, every seat was filled and people stood along the walls.
Even the weather seemed a metaphor for the observance: Dreary, overcast and rainy with the sun breaking through occasionally.
The service began with cellist Wendy Howe playing the mournful Yiddish melody "Oyf'n Pripetshok." Some people hummed along.
Songs of resistance, hope and promise rounded out the service, including Yiddish folk tunes, and poems of Hannah Senesh and Moses Maimonides set to music, sung by the middle school choir of Tehiyah Day School in El Cerrito. Cantors Ilene Keys of Oakland's Temple Sinai and Linda Hirschhorn of Beth Sholom also sang.
Sarah Church read an excerpt from "Fragments of Isabella" by Isabella Leitner, about a mother talking to her six daughters as they rode in a crammed cattle car bound for Auschwitz. The mother talks of hope, love and courage — the promise of tomorrow. A scene replayed thousands of times, by millions of Jews during the Holocaust.
Emphasizing that Yom HaShoah is not just a Jewish commemoration, Molho invited Bramlett, a Christian Holocaust scholar, to speak.
"The Holocaust was a problem for the whole world," Molho said. "We commemorate the story but Christians have to know the whole story and know what they did wrong."
During his sermon, Bramlett acknowledged the complicity of the Christian community in the deaths of Jews before and during the Holocaust. Such revelations have been difficult for Christians today.
Even though the memories are painful, Bramlett continued, "Memory is the key to morality."
Directing his sermon particularly at the young people in the congregation — underscoring Molho's message — Bramlett reminded the congregation of its obligation to be vigilant and to protect other human beings, whether at home, in Bosnia or elsewhere.
He applauded the incredible power of the human spirit of resistance: non-Jews, albeit too few, who risked everything to hide and help Jews; Jews who continued to worship and teach their children under the threat of death.
"There were Jews who stood to say Kaddish in death camps when they did not have the strength to stand," Bramlett said.
Bramlett closed on a positive note.
"Remembering is to celebrate life," he said. "Remembering is to say it won't happen again. Remembering is to strengthen us on our way."
Following Kaddish, which was interspersed with the names of death camps, Holocaust survivor David Galant lit the seventh candle, the candle of hope.
"For 20 years I have been lighting the seventh candle," Galant said. "It's harder every year. When I look around the world, I see the lesson of the Holocaust hasn't been learned."
In the closing benediction Rabbi Steven Chester of Oakland's Temple Sinai again reminded the congregation of its responsibility.
"The world had eyes but chose not to see," Chester said. "We have the choice to see, to act, to remember."
The Beth Sholom service was one of several East Bay Yom HaShoah events. Others were held at the Contra Costa Jewish Community Center and at Rossmoor, both in Walnut Creek; Temple Beth Torah in Fremont; and Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley, co-hosted by Berkeley Congregation Beth El.