TAMBURA COUNTY, SOUTH SUDAN -- I recall the stories I heard about the Holocaust as a child. Perhaps that explains why I am here, the reason behind my many trips to this area -- the stories, the images, the films had an indelible impact on me.
I remember the first time I saw the numbers which had been branded on a survivor's arm, or the picture of an emaciated child who had just been liberated from the death camp. More than the unfathomable statistics -- 6 million Jewish lives and the other 5 million human beings who perished during the Holocaust -- I think of the individuals. Sitting here in this lush land filled with mango trees (much of South Sudan is dry dessert), it is hard to imagine how much blood has been spilled here on this soil: 2 million people lost their lives, and 2 million people saw their villages, homes and lives destroyed. The reasons for all this are explained in lengthy papers, but it boils down to one fundamental thing: man's inhumanity to man.
The 20th century was marked by so many advances -- scientific, medical, technological, industrial to name but a few -- but one has to wonder: Did we progress as humane human beings? In Genesis, the first brother kills his brother. The 20th century saw the slaughter of more human beings than ever before, from the Armenian Genocide to the one in Rwanda. New terms were invented to describe what we experienced: Holocaust, Genocide, Scorched Earth and Ethnic Cleansing. Can there be a way of really describing the horrors that we have inflicted upon each other?
The Holocaust has been the nadir of the human experience but from it we vowed Never Again; that we would remain vigilant. We pay best respect to the dead when we renew our commitment to eradicating genocide. That is not an easy task, as we know. There does not seem to a decade that passes where we add another Again. Acting on Never Again first means remembering.
What does it mean to remember? Remembering requires learning, understanding and ultimately integrating the narrative into one's core. Each year that transpires after the horror, there are fewer survivors to tell the story. As the decades pass, regrettably, the incomprehensible nightmare become part of history and seems to be replaced by new nightmares -- South Sudan, Darfur, Congo.
We seem to be forgetting a lot all the time. Remembering requires the essence of what it is to be human: to know that one is not fundamentally different than 99.9 percent of any other precious human being who has ever lived. The qualities of compassion, empathy and vulnerability allow us to take human suffering into our hearts.
Remembering only becomes activated by relating into one's personal life and the social reality of our time. It is no easy task to teach the Holocaust or genocide. What is clear is that we need to consider innovative and bold ways to teach the lessons, so that we do not have to keep adding another Again to Never Again.
I will never forget the words I saw inscribed on the monument at the concentration camp Bergen-Belsen: "Earth conceal not the blood shed on thee." The blood is there and everywhere for us to see, if only we could open our eyes wide enough to see the blood that had been shed on lands throughout the world. Perhaps the inscription on our hearts should be: "Human being, do not conceal that blood that has been shed by your hands."
What are some of the lessons? That even in a highly civilized, cultured Germany that this occurred. Somehow we seem to think it is in these faraway places like Rwanda or Darfur that is where these things happen. The Holocaust dispelled that erroneous notion. The change in Germany did not take place overnight: The seeds were sown for years but most could not foresee the implications of the laws (so to speak) and their long term impact. The hatred and vitriol grew and grew; and regrettably most people did not know what to do, suffering from the plagues of denial, indifference and feeling powerless. I remember visiting Dachau and realizing it is a suburb of Munich.
Genocide is larger than any of us, but only when it renders us powerless and overwhelmed. South Sudan, Darfur, Congo, Rwanda are part of our awareness, but one wonders whether the world could be doing much more. During the Holocaust, the world stood by until it was too late; in Rwanda, we rationalize and say it happened too quickly. In this area of Sudan and Darfur, there has been a movement that indeed has made a difference, but could it have gained more traction?
Remembering is not a passive act, it is an active cultivation of conscience and commitment. Where in our schools and communities do we teach what it is to have a conscience, the quality of compassion, the mandate to not stand idly by? Jewish tradition teaches us that to save one live is to save the whole world. Regrettably, for many this has become just another maxim, not a moral mandate on how to live.
On July 9, these people who have suffered every imaginable atrocities for decades, will become the world's newest country -- The Republic of South Sudan. What I hope for is a country that will be shaped around humane values so that never again on this land or on any land will people have to suffer the horrors that human beings reflect on each other. I see hope in the eyes of the people.
It is by remembering that I remain resolute in my belief that the central question of our time remains; What values form the core of a human being? I remain hopeful because of the people I have met here and because of the many people I know throughout our community who remain vigilant in their work to stop genocide. Perhaps each and every day a few more people will really remember the horrors of the past and present by vowing to never let it happen it again and taking the actions that might just make that happen.
Rabbi Lee Bycel is president of CedarStreet Leadership, a Leadership Development Group. Full descriptions of his trip to South Sudan can be found at the CedarStreet website.