I recently saw Schindler’s List again. Even though I knew what was coming, I couldn’t help but avert my eyes from the horrific combination of the intimate suffering of unique individuals and the mechanical precision of mass murder. There are images from that film that will haunt me always: the thin lips of the SS Officer announcing that six centuries of Jewish thriving in Krakow are hereby over, and henceforth, only a rumor; the little girl in a red dress, the only dash of color in the whole film, winding up in a wheelbarrow like so many millions.
And of course, the image of Oskar Schindler: an unlikely hero, who begins the film as a war profiteer. But one day, while out riding horses on the hills of Krakow, he sees the Nazi rampage through the Jewish ghetto. He begins to see a different purpose to his life – what I believe is the original purpose of all of our lives.
Tomorrow is Holocaust Remembrance Day. Last week, I had the privilege of speaking at an interfaith breakfast at the newly opened Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center in Skokie, Illinois. The museum is a feat of the local, a truly mid-west initiative fueled by survivors who live in Skokie and their neighbors, and backed by Chicago philanthropists through a decade of work.
This isn’t surprising from this city, this state, which through history has maintained an ethos of creating a common world together. From Jane Addams, who in 1889 built the Hull House that welcomed the unwanted, calling it a ‘cathedral of humanity,’ to the 1893 Parliament of the World’s Religions, to the first meeting Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1963 at a conference on religion and race. And now, the architects of this new Museum write the next chapter in this state’s commitment to what King called the Beloved community, his dream of a society where all people live in equal dignity and mutual loyalty.
This is an institution where people enter in darkness and bear witness to perhaps the most horrific period in human history. They emerge in light committed to the fundamental truth: we have to save each other, it is the only way to save ourselves.
What might Oskar Schindler think of all this?
When the trains started running from Krakow to Auschwitz, he spent a good part of his fortune purchasing his Jewish workers from the Nazi officials and sending them to his new factory in Czechoslovakia. He spent the rest of his fortune making sure that factory failed to produce a single item that contributed to the Nazi war effort.
And when the war was over, and Schindler prepared to make his escape, he wept for not doing enough. He said “I could have saved two more lives with this watch. I could have saved ten more with this car.”
The response came from his soft-spoken and stoic accountant, Itzhak Stern. “There will be generations because of you.”
Let that be the legacy of this new institution and all who helped create it: that when visitors exit, they will each ask what more they can do. Because I have no doubt that the halls of this museum will produce generations of righteous persons.