Throughout the ages, the Exodus from Egypt — and God's revelation of the Torah at Mount Sinai — has represented the paramount moment of the Jewish experience.
Yet the nadir — the deadliest in a line of calamities that have befallen the Jewish people — is so much closer to the present day.
The two disparate epochs — the revelation and the Shoah — could still potentially have something in common, something that could shape Jewish collective memory for generations to come, according to Michael Berenbaum, a noted author and Holocaust scholar.
"We have the great model in the Passover story, which says in every generation, one must view himself as if he had been in Egypt," said Berenbaum, who teaches theology at the University of Judaism in Los Angles.
Author and editor of many books, including the newly released second edition of the Encyclopaedia Judaica, Berenbaum has spent a great deal of time wondering how the Holocaust story will be transmitted once the generation of survivors is gone, and he said the Passover story's model of retelling is one that should apply to the Shoah.
"With the Holocaust, we are its bearers. We must become the witnesses of the witnesses," he said.
Berenbaum, 61, who served as director of the United States Holocaust Research Institute at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., has been selected as this year's keynote speaker for the city's Annual Memorial Ceremony for the Six Million Jewish Martyrs on Sunday, April 15. The ceremony begins at 1 p.m. at 16th Street and the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, at the Monument to the Six Million Jewish Martyrs.
The theme for the event is "The Urgency of Holocaust Remembrance in the Madness of Our Age." The program is sponsored by the Memorial Committee for the Six Million Jewish Martyrs of the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia.
Whether he's in Mexico or Poland, much of the work Berenbaum has done falls into the category of retelling the story of the Holocaust. For example, he often works as a consultant on films, documentaries and television programs that deal with the cataclysm. He also works with designers of museum exhibitions.
Unlike several other noted scholars, the Queens, N.Y., native was not the child of survivors. But growing up, he knew a good number of them — back then, they were called refugees — and many had difficulty explaining to children the nature of their experience. That's an issue he's struggled with throughout his professional life.
"How do you educate the next generation?" he asked rhetorically. "I've had the awesome privilege of being able to shape that communication."
Berenbaum said he hopes his talk will place Holocaust remembrance in its evolving context: the dwindling number of survivors among us, Holocaust denial and apocalyptic threats coming out of Iran, and the ongoing occurrence of genocide in contemporary times.
Contending with Holocaust denial emanating from Europe and the Muslim world is a major concern, he acknowledged.
And while Berenbaum is certainly alarmed by the rhetoric and actions associated with radical Islam, he stated that the fundamentalist strain in all religions may be one of the biggest obstacles to a peaceful future.
"How do you come to terms with evil?" he posed. "How do you moderate and transform those parts of a religion that dehumanizes the other? How can we believe without essentially saying the other is alien and demonized?
"By the way," he added, "I think that every religious tradition has elements of that demonization."