Irma Rosenstein of Lexington called Wednesday morning with a request. She wanted me to change what I had planned for that evening to watch CNN and Voices of Auschwitz, a documentary featuring Jewish survivors of concentration camps in Poland that were operated by Nazi Germany in World War II.
"You watch it and I will call you tomorrow and see what you think," she said.
I sensed urgency in her voice and decided to do as she asked.
I had met Rosenstein in 2011 and admired her passion for social issues and her willingness to act.
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This time, though, she was burdened with sadness for those who had lost their lives in Europe because of intolerance and even hatred, as well as those who had survived the death and labor camps only to be haunted by horrific images and memories.
Later that evening, I also received a text message from a member of my Bible study urging the group to watch.
Rosenstein and members of my study group, who are mostly black, represent a time when the persecution and oppression of certain groups were sanctioned by some segments of society and ignored by others, allowing hate crimes to blossom.
When Rosenstein called the next day, she seemed even more depressed than the day before. She was astonished that more was not acknowledged locally of the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz by Soviet Union soldiers.
"I thought it was the demarcation of a very important anniversary," she said.
So many people died, some say as many as six million Jews during the Holocaust, and about 1.1 to 1.3 million Jews, Gypsies, disabled people, gays, dissidents and political prisoners in the Auschwitz camps alone. We need to remember that, Rosenstein said.
Born and reared in New York, Rosenstein, now 92, still remembers the loss of innocence.
"We had never felt or heard anything like that in our lives," Rosenstein said. "We were young, bright Americans. How could you believe something like that could happen?"
The anniversary serves as a trigger for waves of sadness and a reminder to people to never forget. Those people who died "would say please remember us," Rosenstein said. "They died for a reason and the reason is still there."
That's true. Anti-Semitism is alive and well, as evidenced by the killing of four Jews in a kosher market in Paris last month by an Islamic radical.
"Have we learned anything at all?" she asked, rhetorically.
Some of us have. Others still use intolerance as a footstool on which we stand taller than others.
The lessons that should be learned from the Holocaust all hinge on acceptance of diversity, and tolerance of differences, Rosenstein said.
Trouble begins when ordinary citizens choose to remain silent while others are mistreated, which is what happened in Europe before World War II and seems to be gaining a foothold again, she said.
"News from the headlines about the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe have some clear connections to the themes of the Holocaust, but so do examples closer to home," she said. "The rising intolerance against new immigrants (in the United States) and the stark disconnect between so many African-Americans and police serve as examples of how easy it is to create and marginalize minorities."
The Holocaust is a case study of the moral consequences of citizens allowing those in authority to negatively label a group of people so that the group's mistreatment seems justified. When we are willing to abandon our consciences, our sense of fairness, just to be accepted by the group in authority, we make the extreme palatable.
There is danger in seeing 'us' as individuals and 'them' as a monolithic mass, Rosenstein said.
"The murder of six million Jews could not have happened on such a scale without the participation of masses of ordinary citizens," she said. "Killing Jews had no major political or economic justification; it was an end in itself."
They were Jews. They weren't seen as German or Polish or Russian. They were non-human and, therefore, OK to kill.
"That is such a stupid thing," Rosenstein said. "That is stupidity. I can't use any other word."
That scenario should never be allowed to unfold again. We all must remember the lives lost in the Holocaust so that we won't allow that to recur. Not to Jews. Not to blacks. Not to Hispanics. Not to gays. Not to anyone.
"The Holocaust prompts us to continually reflect on the role individuals have in shaping history," Rosenstein said. "It teaches us that the choices they make every day — in thought and in action — can have an effect on each other and on history.
"The lessons of the Holocaust prompt us as Americans to ask what it means to be a citizen in a democracy," she said, "and to understand how to exercise our rights and responsibilities to create a more compassionate world."
While there wasn't a big deal made in Lexington for the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, there will be a public observance of Yom HaShoah, or Holocaust Remembrance Day, on April 19 at 10 a.m. On that day, Lexington's Jewish community invites all of us to Temple Adath Israel to join in the commemoration of the six million Jews killed by Nazi Germany between 1933 and 1945.
The least we can do until then is study the mindset that allowed the Holocaust to happen so that it never happens again.
Thank you for reminding me, Irma.