‘Never again’ – all over again

Their experiences and life lessons learned and lived seem to imbue many with a quality of moral authority that leads all of us to sit upright and listen.

The site of the former Nazi German concentration and extermination camp Auschwitz is pictured during the ceremonies marking the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the camp and International Holocaust Victims Remembrance Day, in Brzezinka near Oswiecim, Poland, January 27, 2020. (photo credit: REUTERS/NORA SAVOSNICK)
The site of the former Nazi German concentration and extermination camp Auschwitz is pictured during the ceremonies marking the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the camp and International Holocaust Victims Remembrance Day, in Brzezinka near Oswiecim, Poland, January 27, 2020.
(photo credit: REUTERS/NORA SAVOSNICK)
If you have the opportunity to meet a Holocaust survivor, ask them their greatest worry. From the many I have interviewed, the most common answer is the rise of antisemitism in the Western world, which fills them increasingly with fear and trepidation of what the future holds.
“Never again” became the hallowed mantra of two post Holocaust generations as a way of protecting ourselves from future discrimination. It is most often the central refrain of Holocaust memorial ceremonies; it reverberates through the echo chambers of many of the world’s Holocaust museums and memorials. Sadly, despite the sentiment and the hope, I fear the impact of this message has become significantly diminished.
For many of us, myself included, the Holocaust and especially the survivors themselves are almost sacred. Their experiences and life lessons learned and lived seem to imbue many with a quality of moral authority that leads all of us to sit upright and listen.
With humility, I would like to broach a painful question. Perhaps it is time to question whether “never again” really is the most appropriate and considered educational response to the tragedy of the Holocaust and, in addition, whether this really is the overarching message of our incredible survivors.
Over Hanukkah, a photo of a makeshift Hanukkah menorah made out of a hollowed out potato and a wick was circulating on social media. At first, I nearly dismissed this image as some new age, vegan Hanukkiah, but after a little investigation, I was surprised to find that the true story was a remarkably powerful one. The creator of this unique menorah was Nathan Berney who, as a boy spent several Hanukkahs during the Holocaust on the run from the Nazis.
Stripped of all his possessions, but with a burning desire to celebrate Hanukkah, his mother scavenged a potato, and fashioned a candle, which they lit in secret, at no small personal risk. Every year since, as a reminder of his own personal miracle of survival through the worst atrocities of modern Jewish history, alongside the regular one, he still lights a potato menorah.
On the second night of Hanukkah this year, the emergency volunteer corps Hatzalah was called out to the Berney home in New Jersey. As the patient was being whisked out of her home on a stretcher, she asked the crew to wait a few minutes to allow her husband to light the Hanukkah candles. After kindling the menorah, he then lit a solitary wick in a potato.
Intrigued, the Hatzalah volunteer snapped a photo which went viral online. I happened to be with family in Florida over Hanukkah. When I heard this remarkable story of faith, courage and remembrance, I knew I had to meet this survivor. On the fifth night, I flew to New Jersey and had the privilege of lighting Hanukkah candles with Mr. Berney.

WITH GREAT effort, Mr. Berney kindled his Hanukkah candles and the wick in his now famous potato menorah. I looked into his eyes; eyes that had witnessed and experienced some of the worst cruelties and deprivations known to man, but also at the single, courageous flame of faith that flickered from the potato Hanukkah menorah.
I realized that it was no longer enough to merely chant “never again.” It is critical that we don’t treat Holocaust education as just another chapter in a textbook or minimize its lesson to a clichéd mantra; we must connect our children to the personal histories of the survivors and the myriad of foundational lessons they have learned so painfully yet so steadfastly clung onto for two generations.
We need to do this now, whilst we are still fortunate to have some precious Holocaust survivors, our own national treasures among us. Let us sit at their feet and allow them both to relate their stories and share the values that energized and propelled them to build our communities and our people out of the ashes.
That’s why I won’t hesitate to travel from one side of the world to the other, to meet a Holocaust survivor, to capture their rare story, their spirit and preserve them for others to learn from. Given that so few survivors still have the strength to tell their personal history, the value of capturing each one is immeasurable.
The world is a bewildering place for our children; they face many difficult life decisions, but we have an enormous cache of life wisdom living among us. Many survivors I have met truly understand and appreciate what life is about. They have guarded and nurtured genuine life values, appreciating their loved ones, their religion, their history and life itself. Whether it’s lighting a candle in a potato to observe Hanukkah to remind them of their miraculous survival, learning resilience from surviving a death march, or learning the fundamental importance of treating others with empathy and respect, we have much to learn.
At the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, 300 Holocaust survivors attended a ceremony at Auschwitz. This year at the 75th anniversary, there will only be 120. There can be no denying that hearing the story of a survivor directly has an incredible impact on the listener.
Now, however, we must also consider alternative ways to educate our children, not only in the personal histories of the Holocaust but to also ensure more sophisticated, more profound investigation and study of the social, moral and ethical messages that are the legacy of the fast dwindling survivor generation. Perhaps this is the best effort to which we can collectively commit in order to build a world in which “never again” rings deep and true.
JRoots will continue to do our best to honor survivors’ legacies by taking up the mantle of education, long after they are no longer with us. We aim to transform “never again” into actions and values that people live with; resilience, respect, determination and commitment to ensuring a vibrant Jewish future.
The writer is founder and chairman of JRoots, which partnered with the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial Foundation’s 75th Remembrance, honoring 120 Holocaust survivors in Poland.