ONE DAY 16 OR 17 YEARS AGO, my father, who rarely blows up over anything, lost his temper over a piece of bread.
It was lunchtime, and my siblings and I were goofing around at the table. One of us, in play, threw a slice of bread at another. My father exploded.
"What's the matter with you? That's food! Don't you ever let me see you treat food like again!"
I remember being startled by his angry outburst. The words, however, didn't really register. It wasn't until much later -- years later -- that I finally understood that flash of anger: To a man who has lived through hunger, seen those around him die of starvation, nearly starved to death himself -- to such a man, a piece of bread is not a joke.
On Passover, which ended a few days ago, observant Jews do not eat ordinary bread. Instead they eat matzo -- the dry, flat, unleavened "bread of affliction" meant to remind them of their forebears' deliverance from slavery in Egypt. At the ceremonial Passover meal, they read aloud from the Haggadah, which tells the story of the Exodus:
For in every single generation, they rise against us to annihilate us.
In all the generations of Jewish history, never did "they" come as close to succeeding as the Germans did in this very century, one brief generation ago.
On the last day of Passover in 1944, the Nazis arrived in my father's village of Legina -- a microscopic dot in the Slovak countryside, hard by the border with Hungary. The knock on the Jakubovices' window came on a Sunday morning before daybreak; like Legina's other Jews, they were ordered to gather their things and be ready to leave in half an hour's time. They were put on horse-drawn wagons and carried to Satoraljaujhely ("Ujhely" for short), a large Hungarian town a few miles away.
For six weeks, they stayed in Ujhely's Jewish ghetto, which grew increasingly crowded as Jews from all over the region were brought in.
After a month, the transports began. A tenth of the ghetto's population was removed at a time; my father and his family were taken away in the third transport. On a Thursday, with only the belongings they could carry by hand, they and 3,000 other Jews were marched through the streets to the train station -- to the waiting boxcars. As each car filled, its doors were chained and padlocked.
They were bound for a place called Auschwitz.
The train heading north into Poland, my father assumed, was taking him and his family and the other Jews who'd been corralled into Ujhely to a work site somewhere.
How could he have known otherwise?
How could he have guessed that he and all those boxcars crammed with Jews were just a tiny fragment of the vast works that had been constructed to annihilate the Jews of Europe? How could he have understood that all over the continent, Jews by the millions were being uprooted from their homelands -- lands, in some cases, where Jews had dwelled for 900 years -- to be sent to special killing grounds where all the science, industry, and manpower at Germany's command would be pooled for purposes of quickly and efficiently exterminating them? How could he have imagined that the world would allow this horror to take place -- a horror so unprecedented that a new word, genocide, had to be invented to contain it? How could he have dreamed that in less than seven years, two out of every three Jews in Europe would be a corpse, or the ashes of a corpse?
The train out of Ujhely moved for three days. It stopped early on a Sunday morning, six weeks exactly since that knock on the window in Legina. The doors were unchained. Suddenly there were screaming guards, barking dogs, floodlights. The boxcar opened onto a ramp, at the top of which a man with a crop in his hand waved people to the right and to the left.
My grandparents, David and Leah Jakubovic, were waved to the right. So were their 10-year-old son, Yrvin, and 8-year-old daughter, Alice. They died in the gas chamber that day.
My father's teen-aged brother, Zoltan, was gassed a few days later. His sister Franceska suffered horribly for a while; she died the following spring.
Somehow my father survived Auschwitz, the death march to Mauthausen, the camps at Melk and Ebensee. Somehow he survived the typhoid fever, the unstoppable diarrhea, the starvation that reduced him -- at 19 years of age -- to 65 pounds.
I cannot explain the miracle of his survival, let alone the fact that he can still laugh, and love. That was -- is -- God's doing.
But the Holocaust was man's. The Germans could get away with systematically butchering 6 million Jews because good men and women, through their indifference, let them get away with it.
For in every single generation generation, they rise against us to annihilate us.
Today is Holocaust Remembrance Day, a part of the struggle against indifference, a reminder that what could never happen has happened.
And can again.
For only one thing can stop a holocaust: memory. On this one day, at least, let us remember the millions of innocents who died, and honor the few who survived. But above all let us reflect, if only briefly, that in the end nothing can shield us from the building of a new Auschwitz except our undimmed rage at the old Auschwitz.
(Jeff Jacoby is the Boston Herald's chief editorial writer.)