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Finding Life in “the Largest Cemetery in the World”

We visit Yad Vashem, the world's preeminent memorial to the Holocaust

"I have a problem with numbers," Yad Vashem guide Hazey Freund told our group at the entrance to the world's preeminent memorial to the Holocaust. "Please remember that every single number was a person, just like you and me, with the same hopes, dreams, and aspirations."

Freund guided us through the "jungle with no morality whatsoever," where "moral dilemmas plagued every single second of every single day," stopping every few minutes to highlight the specific story of a child, a mother, a doctor, a rabbi, or an artist — pulling a few faces out of the shadows of millions whose lives and identities were stolen so cruelly.

We shed tears over the story of desperate mothers in a Lithuanian ghetto who threw their newborn infants, condemned to death in the ghetto, over the ghetto walls — hoping against hope someone would catch them and care for them.

After our time with history's blackest chapter, we went outside to enjoy a breathtaking view of Jerusalem, the capital of the sovereign Jewish State. Then we were privileged to have a private meeting with Yad Vashem's Chief Historian, the Head of Tel Aviv University's Kantor Center for the Study of Contemporary European Jewry Prof. Dina Porat, to assess the state of anti-Semitism in our world.

"There is no way to deny the recent wave of anti-Semitic violence and the worsening of cruelty in all acts of terror in general," said Prof. Porat. "As the level of cruelty in the Middle East rises, with ISIS in Iraq and Syria, it spills over onto the streets of Europe."

Prof. Porat said that previously most anti-Semitic attacks targeted synagogues, but this year more than half the incidents were perpetrated against Jewish individuals. "We have seen a return to classic anti-Semitism, in national newspapers like El Pais in Spain, for example," Prof. Porat said. "International conflicts are being portrayed as based on religion, rather than politics."

"It's amazing that non-Jewish populations in the West don't seem to realize that the hatred and threats afflicting Jewish communities are bound to affect them as well," our "Campus and Beyond" Co-Chair Jon Gurkoff observed.

"Do you have a sixth sense, when you walk through Yad Vashem today, that we could be poised to experience something similar in the next 10 years?" Rich Edlin asked Prof. Porat, who answered with a shake of the head.

"There are three reasons this won't happen: First, we have seen top-down efforts by governments all over Europe to contain anti-Semitism; second, we have the State of Israel; third, we know what happened, and we carry it always in our minds."

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