Remember the Days of Remembrance

At the ground level of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., is a brass marker that delineates the physical center of the District of Columbia. From this point emanates the quadrants that
divide our capital city into the familiar NW, NE, SE and SW.

Arguably, this is also the figurative center of our nation. According to legend, George Washington himself chose this as the site for the seat of our great experiment in democracy. Directly above this is the Capitol rotunda, the magnificent sanctuary of freedom in which presidents and dignitaries have been honored with the privilege of lying in state.

In fact, one of my earliest recollections of anything civic is of our fallen President John F. Kennedy lying in repose, as millions of grieving Americans — black, white, Christian and Jewish — filed past his flag-draped coffin.

So here I was in spring 2003, on a stage in the middle of this building, overlooking a standing-room-only audience, with C-SPAN cameras and other outlets filming the event. Directly in front of me were Elie Wiesel and Colin Powell. To my right was Danny Ayalon, the Israeli ambassador to the United States.

In those heady days after we thought we had vanquished our enemies in Iraq and erroneously assumed that the mission had been “accomplished,” Secretary of State Powell was arguably the second most powerful man in the world. At that point, my question to myself, as I sat there for an hour and a half waiting for my turn to speak, was, “What the hell am I doing here?”

The occasion was the national observance of Yom HaShoah during the period that is officially known in America as Days of Remembrance, the period designated under an act of Congress to commemorate the Holocaust in the United States, as part of the same legislation that established the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

The answer to my question as to how I came to be on this platform, 58 feet below the frieze depicting the founding of our nation — from the landing of Columbus through the tribulations of Pocahontas, the reading of the Declaration of Independence, the discovery of gold in California and the birth of aviation in the United States– lies in the creation of this museum, now the second most visited in Washington. In 2002, I had been appointed by President Bush to serve on the museum’s council, its governing board.

Five weeks before this event, I was asked if I could read Hebrew, and if so, if I would like to recite Kaddish at the close of the ceremony. Given that the ashes of my grandparents and two of my uncles (ages 5 and 7 at the time of their murders) are scattered among the dust at Auschwitz, I could think of no higher privilege. So here I was.
As I waited my turn to speak, staring at the back of Powell’s head for an hour and a half, I scanned the crowd and saw many survivors. Included among them was my mother, along with my wife and four young children. Every time my eyes would come in contact with those of my mother’s, I would see her eyes welling up with tears, causing mine to weep, as well.

Such were the emotions of this day. The one question that haunted me during that time — and will forever — was whether my grandparents, as they were facing a certain death, separated from four of their children, ever imagined that any of them would survive, let alone prosper. Indeed, what could they have been thinking during those bleak moments? I will never know. What I know for certain is they could never have imagined this.

The day progressed with the lighting of six candles by survivors, each accompanied by a member of Congress. Then there were speeches by Wiesel and Powell, followed by a stirring rendition of “El Moleh Rachamin,” the prayer for the dead.

Finally, I rose to recite the Kaddish, which I felt I was doing for millions of people who had no one to recite it for them. To do this in this place, in the center of our Capitol, where presidents lie in state, in a spot picked by Washington himself, was among the most powerful experiences of my life, and one which I shall never forget.

At the time of my mother’s liberation at Bergen-Belsen, then ravaged by epidemic typhus, she weighed less than 40 kilograms and undoubtedly was near death. Now, 52 years later, she sat in the third row of the rotunda, surrounded by statues of Lincoln and Jefferson and magnificent portraits of our founding fathers, as well as four grandchildren, and watched me recite Kaddish for her parents and brothers.

The reason I tell this story is not to talk about me. Rather, it is to reflect on the greatness of this nation that has opened its arms to the Jewish people and to so many others. There is no other country in the world where this could happen. None. On Thursday, April 19, Yom HaShoah will again be marked by a ceremony in the Capitol rotunda. The day before, President Bush will pay a personal visit to our nation’s Holocaust Memorial Museum. So in addition to lighting a yahrtzeit candle Saturday night, please remember to say a prayer and thank God for the privilege of living in this great land.

May the souls of those who perished in the Shoah rest in peace and may God bless America.

Joel Geiderman is currently the vice chairman of the United States Holocaust Memorial Council.