We were fortunate some years back to be in Washington D.C. when the United States Holocaust Museum opened. We stood in line for hours to get tickets, and hours more to get in. Hundreds and hundreds of people were there to see and remember.
Once inside, we walked in a silent, solemn procession through the exhibits. The setting had a sacred feel to it. It was as if we were expecting to meet God there, and perhaps we did.
We wept together as the depths of human cruelty unfolded before us is gruesome detail. In graphic photos, and dramatic displays, the deathly effects of prejudice and hate became apparent.
We were shocked by the sheer magnitude of the tragedy. There was one photo of nothing but hair, mounds of human hair shaved from the heads of victims as they entered the camps. There was so much hair it filled a warehouse. They measured it in tons.
We saw pictures of shoes piled high as roof tops. Toothbrushes and hair brushes taken from prisoners filled entire rooms. Eye glasses, jewelry, personal items of every description were taken and thrown into piles having no further use. Eventually, many of those who gave up these items were also thrown into awful piles. We saw their pictures as well.
The museum had obtained a train car that had been used to transport men, women and children to concentration camps. We followed the procession through the doors and into the car. As we stepped in I noticed an elderly man speaking softly to a young girl he was holding by the hand. There were tears running down his face. He was looking all around the freight car and I could hear him saying to the little girl, “They jammed us in so tight, we could hardly breathe.”
Why was he telling her that? Why put that awful piece of information on her? Why keep reliving those terrible moments again and again? And why subject a young girl to his pain, making his memories alive in her?
I once heard a Holocaust survivor deal with questions like this. He said, “If I fail to remember it would be as if my family was murdered all over again. In my memories my anger still burns, but so does my resolve that this kind of madness does not happen to anyone else.”
We alone among God’s creatures have this ability. It is memory that makes it possible. It is God’s gift to us. For if we can remember, there is hope that eventually we will stop making the same mistakes over and over again.
Today we observe Memorial Day. We set aside this time to remember faithful servants who gave their lives in times of war. Sadly, there are many to recall. But we must remember them. And we must help our children remember them. We need to take our children by the hand and walk them through cemeteries telling the stories of our loved ones who have died in war. We need to weep in the presence of our children so they will understand the cost of war.
Our hope for the future is that our children learn our past and refuse to repeat it.
James L. Evans is pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church in Auburn, Ala. This column appeared previously last Memorial Day.