When will “Never Again” mean “Never Again?”

  (photo credit: Nick Romanenko, Rutgers University)
(photo credit: Nick Romanenko, Rutgers University)

That’s the question that hangs over this year’s commemoration of Yom HaShoah.     

The words Never Again reflect the world’s abiding horror at the Holocaust.  In their name, governments the world over have reaffirmed the commitment embodied in the Genocide Convention to prevent and, if prevention fails, to punish acts of genocide and crimes against humanity.   

In their name, for over forty years, on the anniversary of the liberation of the death camps at Auschwitz and Birkenau, thousands have undertaken to replicate the death march from Auschwitz, the work camp, to Birkenau, the site of the murder and cremation of over a million people in Nazi Germany’s systematic effort to exterminate the Jewish people.  Never Again, we have said each year.   

At the same time, from Cambodia to Darfur, Rwanda to Srebrenica, Ethiopia to Myanmar, Syria to Iraq, the slaughter has continued.  Millions have been targeted for execution because of their ethnicities, their religious and other affiliations, their cultures.  Although the Holocaust is singular in the scale of its rationalized ferocity, its industrialized brutality, the genocidal impulse has manifested itself in many contexts, among many cultures, and in diverse places around the world in the years since.   

Beginning with Nuremberg, moreover, the successful prosecutions of some of the leaders and perpetrators of genocide and crimes against humanity may have brought individuals to justice, but have failed utterly to deter future acts of genocidal hatred. 

Not surprisingly, given this history, many have concurred with David Rieff’s observation that “never again” has been reduced to “Never again would Germans kill Jews in Europe in the 1940s.”  That cynicism has been echoed in recent days by Ukrainian Prime Minister Volodimir Zelensky, who said simply “We don’t believe the world” leaders who say “never again,” because their inaction fails to comport with their rhetoric.

This year on Yom HaShoah, a delegation of European police leaders, victims of antisemitic violence, and citizens of Ukraine will participate in the March of the Living.  Their participation is anything but naïve.  The victims of antisemitic violence have felt directly the force of hatred; police have frequently, as in Brussels, Paris, and Copenhagen, themselves fallen victim to antisemitic violence; and Ukraine is under an existential threat from an invading nation whose propaganda verges increasingly on genocidal in tone and whose crimes against humanity are being documented graphically for the world to see.  Sponsored by the Miller Center for Community Protection and Resilience at Rutgers University, the groups will march in full recognition of the world’s failure to date to honor the commitment inherent in the words “Never Again.” 

Why then?  Because “Never Again” is a profession of faith as much as it is a statement of policy; like the plea for universal peace that closes the Kaddish, it is a prayer-like invocation of an as-yet unrealized world, a world in which humanity’s moral progress will someday match its military prowess. 

The world to dread, after all, is not a world in which aspirations like Never Again are affirmed but unrealized, but a world in which prayer ceases and the words Never Again are supplanted by the windswept silence of the world’s unending Birkenau.