By Logan Woodard
I recently visited the American cemetery in Normandy, where 9,386 American service men and women are laid to rest and where an additional 1,557 names of our missing service members are written. Most of these men and women died during the D-Day landings on June 6th, 1944, and the ensuing months.
The cemetery overlooking Omaha beach, one of the five landing sites on D-Day, is lined with rows of crosses and Stars of David – a visual representation of the human cost of liberating France from the Nazis and creating an allied foothold in Europe.
While there, I was reminded of the poem First They Came by Martin Niemöller.
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
At that moment, I felt small and found myself reflecting on the darkness that still exists in our world 78 years after the D-Day landings. Then it occurred to me that I was surrounded by the graves of those who stood up and spoke out. I was reminded that there are people who are willing to step up and run toward darkness even when the stakes are unfathomably high. Those who exemplify the Jewish value of chesed.
Chesed is often translated as kindness or loving-kindness. However, chesed is more than just committing an act of kindness. For chesed to occur, one must actively pursue an act of kindness and put the other before themselves. Rashi, one of the most influential Jewish commentators born in France 900 years before D-Day, explains that an act of chesed occurs when one fulfills the commandment of “love your neighbor as yourself.” Active selflessness. Chesed is more than doing – chesed requires the act of pursuing.
I am grateful to those who gave all in the pursuit of freedom and liberation. I am comforted knowing that our Jewish and American history is full of those willing to put themselves before others in the pursuit of chesed. I am grateful to those who actively seek to help others, then and now.
Logan Woodard is the Director of Engagement at Hillel of Buffalo.