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'We are here' -- in memory and in hope

The song composed in the Jewish ghetto of Vilna, Lithuania's capital, is defiant. "Mir zaynen do!" it thunders. "We are here!"

For all its bold determination, this song, known as the Partisan Hymn, always used to strike me as unspeakably sad. So few of those who sang that song back then survived. "We are not here" would seem more fitting.

Several years ago, when I went to Lithuania, the land of my Jewish forebears, I was seeking a connection to the past. But to my surprise, I also found hope for the future.

This Holocaust Remembrance Day, as I remember the 6 million who perished, I also hold in my mind the brave people — Jews and non-Jews alike — who are extending hands across disparate heritages in an effort toward mutual understanding.

In Lithuania, I spoke with educators who design Holocaust curricula for public schools. One of them showed me the teacher's guide she was writing, which included searing questions for high school students — questions that I think all of us should ask ourselves. They included:

•Have you ever been in a situation where someone needed your help and you didn't provide it?

•Have you ever gone along with what other people were doing, even if you thought it was wrong, rather than listening to your own conscience?

•Is there a connection between your answers and the behavior of people during the Holocaust?

A similar spirit of repair animates several cross-cultural events held at the Lithuanian Embassy inWashington, D.C., which have drawn local members of the Jewish and the non-Jewish Lithuanian-American communities alike.

Inspired by these efforts toward education and mutual understanding, I've been asking myself new questions. How do we move forward from a history of tragedy? Can we remember the Holocaust and honor its victims without perpetuating the fears and hatreds of the past?

To my mind, these questions are relevant to the Jewish community, the Lithuanian community, and all of us with an interest in preventing future genocides.

For those who lived through the most terrible times, it may be difficult or impossible — perhaps even inappropriate — to put hatred behind us. But for people like me, members of the generations after the Holocaust, I see a different role: an opportunity to reach beyond old divisions.

Endeavoring to open our minds and our hearts, to listen and to comprehend — this, I believe, is where hope for the future lies.

Now, for me, the song of the Vilna ghetto embodies a new meaning. Yes, it still evokes the absence of all those who are not here. But in its stirring words I also hear a bid for all of us who will shape the future to stand together, as fellow beings with the capacity for moral choice.

"Mir zaynen do!" We are all here.

Ellen Cassedy of Takoma Park is the author of "We Are Here: Memories of the Lithuanian Holocaust" (University of Nebraska Press, 2012). Her email is ellen@ellencassedy.com.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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