Days of Remembrance

by Dr. Robert Kane
Air University director of history

4/25/2014 - MAXWELL AIR FORCE BASE, Ala. -- Each year, the United States government observes the Days of Remembrance in April to commemorate the victims of the Holocaust during World War II and other genocides since 1945.

At 2:30 p.m. Tuesday, Maxwell will present its memorial ceremony in the Air University Academic Facility small auditorium, building 803. This year's theme is "Confronting the Holocaust: American Responses."

The guest speaker for the program is Max Herzel, a Holocaust survivor currently living in Birmingham, Ala. Born in Antwerp, Belgium, in 1930, he and his family fled to France after the Germans invaded Belgium in May 1940. After being separated from his parents, Herzel spent the war in four successive French orphanages and on a remote French farm, posing as a Catholic.

Although Herzel lost his father and other relatives during the Holocaust, he was reunited with his brother and mother after the war. They immigrated to the United States and became U.S. citizens. He served four years in the United States Air Force and eventually settled in Birmingham, where he retired.

In April 1945, American and British troops, advancing into Germany, encountered the horrors of the Nazi regime when they liberated tens of thousands of starving, disease-ridden and dying prisoners in numerous Nazi concentration camps across Germany.

Yet, despite the appalling conditions of these camps, western troops did not see firsthand any of the death camps where the Nazis murdered about three million Jews from all over occupied Europe by shooting or gassing them between mid-1941 to February 1945 as all but one of the death camps were located in Poland, liberated by the Soviet Army in spring 1945.

Another two to three million European Jews died from disease, starvation and execution by the Nazis and their European collaborators between January 1933, when Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany, and the end of the war in Europe in early May 1945.

European Jews, however, were not the only victims of Nazi racial policies during the war. The Nazis caused the deaths of 500,000 Romani (Gypsies), more than 15 million non-Jewish Soviet citizens, about two million non-Jewish Poles and 200,000 mentally and physically handicapped Germans.

This memorial ceremony on Tuesday not only remembers the victims of Nazi persecution during World War II but also similar acts of genocide since 1945, such as the 1975 "killing fields" of Cambodia, the 1994-95 Rwandan genocide and the 1994-2000 "ethnic cleansing" in the Balkans.

In addition to the memorial ceremony, Chaplain (Maj.) Travis Yelton and Dr. Dan Puckett, professor of history at Troy University Montgomery, also will host a "brown bag lunch and learn" session in the Airman's Resiliency Center, building 18, to discuss the meaning of the Holocaust and other genocides since 1945 at noon Wednesday. The final event for the "Days of Remembrance" commemoration is a presentation, "The Holocaust Prejudice to Extermination," at the Maxwell community library at 3 p.m. Thursday.

As Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi of the Jewish community in England, once said, "Yom HaShoah [Day of Remembrance] is a vital day in the Jewish calendar, providing us with a focal point for our remembrance. We cannot bring the dead back to life, but we can bring their memory back to life and ensure they are not forgotten. We can undertake in our lives to do what they were so cruelly prevented from doing in theirs."

Echoing the thoughts of Rabbi Sacks, Col. Trent Edwards, 42nd Air Base Wing commander, commented, "I encourage our Maxwell team and family members to support the 'Days of Remembrance' programs that the wing will host next week. Their purpose is to remember and never repeat the atrocities of persecution, genocide and ethnic cleansing that have inhumanely occurred around the world.

"Each of us has an opportunity to make a positive difference and take a stand against acts that disrespect the dignity of others," Edwards continued. "I am very proud that Team Maxwell is taking time to remember those who lost their lives and those who survived and endured persecution. Their story and acts of courage serve as an inspiration to us all."

Editor's note: The author is the grandson of Jewish immigrants from Ukraine