Around the world today, sirens are sounding, candles and torches are burning, and people are gathering to pray and mark the day of remembrance for the Holocaust. The Nazis murder of six million Jews is still used as a touchstone for modern day genocide. For NPR's Jeffrey Katz, it is a personal day of remembrance and more.

JEFFREY KATZ reporting:

Of the millions of people affected by the Holocaust, the person I think most about is a teenager named Rudy. He attended school in Essen, Germany and worked in a department store there until Nazis banned Jews from doing so.

Rudy had records to show he and his two younger brothers were fifth generation Germans. Even so, Gestapo agents came looking for him immediately after Kristallnacht, the start of an intense program against Jews in 1938. He went into hiding. It was too late for Rudy's whole family to leave Germany, so they had him smuggled into a refugee center in Belgium.

He got out of Belgium about a year later, and just in time. The Germans overran the country shortly after he left. Rudy settled in Philadelphia and started the arduous task of trying to rescue the rest of his family. He got enough money for their trip to the United States and sent his parents a telegram to make sure they could get an exit visa.

That was on December 6, 1941. Japan bombed Peal Harbor the next day. Communication between America and Germany ceased. After World War II, Rudy reestablished contact with an aunt in Germany. She told him the rest of the family had been taken to a concentration camp. I cannot imagine the grief Rudy must have suffered then. Years later when he had two sons of his own, he rarely talked about this experience.

You see, Rudy was my father. I didn't even know that he left Germany as a refugee until I was in my twenties. My parent's attitude about the Holocaust seemed best characterized by the expression, you shouldn't know from it. But I did learn about it and as a result my thoughts on Yom Hashoah are not just about remembrance but about reconciliation.

I learned many details of father's deep roots in Germany, from people who lived in my grandmother's town. Most of them are not Jewish. They're from the generation after World War II and they don't understand why more people didn't defy the Nazis. So they're doing what they can to keep alive the memories of those who perished. They helped me retrace my dad's steps in Germany some years ago.

We went to the marketplace and walked where my relatives bought their produce and meat. We went to the old synagogue in Essen where my father attended services. I saw a book with the names of Essen's Jews killed in the Holocaust. I stared at four of the names, my grandparents and uncles. I felt their loss more profoundly than ever. My father died a few years ago. I still think about his harrowing journey to America and about what he left behind, a family I never had the chance to know. It's impossible to comprehend genocide or to understand how someone could let a neighbor become a victim. My trip to Germany helped me honor a heritage that nobody can take from me.

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MONTAGNE: Jeffrey Katz is the senior producer of NPR Digital Media.

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