In the opening pages of Wiesel’s Night, the alert reader is quickly conscious of a recurring trope. The first instance immediately follows the portrayal of the expulsion all Jews unable to document Hungarian citizenship from Wiesel’s hometown of Sighet (in present day Romania). Crammed into cattle cars by the local police, the brutal deportation of their foreign neighbors was a shock to the Jewish community. Nevertheless, as Wiesel recalls:

Several days passed. Several weeks. Several months. Life had returned to normal. A wind of calmness and reassurance blew through our houses. The traders were doing good business, the students lived buried in their books, and the children played in the streets

Sometime later, Wiesel finds that one of the deported, Moshe the Beadle, has returned. He brings desperate tidings of the fate of his doomed transport: self-dug graves in the forest; mass shootings; children and infants tortured and killed; his own escape by feigning death:

“I have been saved miraculously. I managed to get back here. Where did I get the strength from? I wanted to come back to Sighet to tell you the story of my death. So that you could prepare yourselves while there was still time. To live? No, I wanted to come back, and to warn you”.

No one, of course, believes this prophet in their midst. And so: “Life returned to normal”. Throughout 1943 life proceeds uninhibited: the radio brings good news of allied progress against the Germans; business and social life occupy the general attention; there are holiday celebrations and family visits; and Mother Wiesel begins deliberations regarding the betrothal of Hilda, the eldest daughter.

Then, in the early spring of 1944, the first German vehicles appear in town. Over a period of eight weeks the Jewish community endures a succession of decrees: compulsory wearing of the yellow star, prohibition against entering restaurants or cafes, against traveling on the railway, or attending synagogue, or being on the street after six o’clock. This is followed by mass evictions and the forced installation into one of the two Sighet ghettos. Even then the Jews thought all would be well: “We should no longer have before our eyes those hostile faces, those hate-laden stares. Our fear and anguish were at an end. We were living among Jews, among brothers.” Thus: “Little by little life returned to normal.” The community expected to remain in the ghetto until the war’s end and liberation by the Red Army. Then, “everything would be as it was before”.

Undoubtedly, Wiesel intends the antiphrasis. Four times within the space of seven pages he recalls the community’s belief in its return to normal life as all the while it teetered at the threshold of doom. Looking back, it is clear that normal life for the Sighet shtetl was over, at the very latest, in 1942, when SS-Gruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich convened his January meeting in Wannsee, formalizing the Final Solution and mandating that all Jews, everywhere, would die.

By the time those German vehicles appeared in Wiesel’s hometown, Miklós Horthy, Hungary’s enigmatic and complex leader, had finally failed at his complicated dance of submission and resistance to Hitler’s repeated demands regarding the Hungarian Jewish population. Fed up with Horthy’s obdurate refusal to begin mass deportations, the Führer called him to a meeting in Austria as a ruse; meanwhile the Wehrmacht invaded and occupied Hungary. On his return, Horthy was effectively stripped of ruling powers and compelled to install a Nazi-sympathetic Prime Minister. The final spasms of the Holocaust had begun.

Even as the Sighet Jews were acclimatizing to increased repression, Auschwitz-Birkenau was readying to receive them: a new railway spur was built to allow transports to enter directly into the Birkenau camp, the crematoria chimneys were reinforced, the furnaces relined, and a significant increase made to the ranks of the Sonderkommando, work units composed of prisoners, typically Jews, forced to aid in the extermination process. “The Germans were already in the town, the Fascists were already in power, the verdict had already been pronounced,” Wiesel laments, “yet the Jews of Sighet continued to smile. It was neither German nor Jew who ruled the ghetto – it was illusion”. Auschwitz is proof that humanity had let its guard down.

Today, May 5th on the Gregorian calendar, Israel will observe Yom HaShaoh, Holocaust Memorial Day. Always held on the 27th day of the month of Nissan, Yom HaShoah is different than the Holocaust Memorial Day the world observed on the 27th of January to commemorate the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp system. On that day, we tend to also call to mind the mass slaughters perpetrated in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, and elsewhere. Today, rightly, it is about the holocaust, the Shoah – the attempted eradication of all Jewish life and culture; first from Nazis-held Europe, then the rest of it, and finally from world entire. The day will serve as a memorial of those who were taken in the moral convulsion of the Shoah, by those drunk on old hatreds and a lust for Jewish blood. Today will also be an occasion to instruct the young and to remind one another about humanity’s extraordinary capacity for inhumanity; today is a reminder to never put our guard down again.

But today is also a day for remembering something more. Yom HaShoah Ve-Hagevurah is the day’s full name – Hebrew for ‘Day of the Shoah and the Heroism.’ Names have power – and this one reminds us that even as we mourn the victims, we are to also honor the survivors who, along with others, resisted Nazism in the limited ways they had available to do them. Resistance might have been armed – as it famously was in the uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto or in the sonderkommando revolt at Auschwitz in late 1944. But resistance was also seen in myriad other ways – fasting on Yom Kippur, saying kaddish, helping a friend, taking one more breath. Resistance was also found in those who hid their Jewish neighbors, who threw cheese or bread over the wire, who fought back, or who simply prayed when there was nothing else they could do. It is also found in those who stormed the beaches and helped take Europe back.

Reflecting on the 20th Century reminds us that living in illusion is not a Jewish temptation alone. While history proves that life was never again going to be normal for the Sighet Jews long before they grasped that fact, there remains a deeper, theological grounding to assert the same: after Eden, human life has never been normal.

In everyday usage, “normal” refers simply to that which is the usual, typical, or regular state or form of something. But this is a shift. Etymologically, “normal” derives from the Latin normālis, meaning made according to the carpenter’s square. It is equivalent to norma which signifies the square itself and which is rendered in English as “norm” – an objective standard, prototype or pattern. So while the contemporary English “norm” is clearer than “normal” in signifying the objective, both words emerge from the notion of using a T- or L-shaped tool to draw or test right angles. In other words, “normal” is what we call something when it corresponds to the dimensions of its objective standard, when it is what it ought to be. This is more than semantics. That Jews have been targets of extraordinary malevolence throughout history does not make antisemitism normal, but merely common. There is nothing normal about a world that can conceive Auschwitz. Human life has been common for some time, but it has not been normal for ages.

Jean Bethke Elshtain, blessed be her memory, insisted that the primary purpose of government was the provision of at least an approximation of peace, justice, and order – political goods without which no other goods – such as life or health – can long endure. Being made in the image of God, means that human beings are given responsibility to exercise care for the conditions of history. Love, neighbor-love, means concern not just for our proximate, next-door neighbor but for those far off as well. Moreover, concern for our far-off neighbor must include concern for the conditions of their neighborhood. If those conditions are not conducive to peace, justice, and order, and if after prudent consideration we realize we can do something about it, then do something we must. Happily, this can sometimes be done with more gentle means of compulsion. Unhappily, it sometimes, in the last resort, cannot. The danger, as Elshtain saw it, was that many of us in the West are forgetting this.

My own experience corroborates her observation: the Western understanding of neighbor-love is increasingly maudlin, refusing to countenance anything it finds harsh or coercive. We see this in the recent conference in Rome, co-hosted by several Catholic peace organizations and endorsed by groups like Sojourners, that has appealed to Pope Francis to jettison just war teaching in favor of a commitment to nonviolence. By categorically ruling out coming to the victim’s aid in the last resort, when all other means of deliverance have failed, those committed to nonviolence put a practical limit to the expression of Christian love. They abdicate their responsibility to be their brother’s keeper. Today, of all days, we ought to accept that if violence (force really, there is a difference) can sometimes be right then nonviolence can sometimes be wrong. Some folks will not be talked out of their evil – therefore they must be knocked out of it.

So today in Israel, families of the dead will go to synagogues to light six candles – one for every million of the victims. The names of the dead will be read out. A siren will be blast across the country – once at 11AM and once again at sunset – and both vehicular and pedestrian traffic will come to a halt for two-minutes of silence. Theatres, cinemas, pubs, and other venues of public entertainment will be closed. And Jews will remember.

A friend recently taught me that in Hebraic poetry ideas are expressed in couplets, in which the two lines repeat the same sentiment in different words. On Shabbat, among the many prayers, there is one verse sung both when the Torah is taken out and when it is returned again. This honored prayer translates: “The Lord will give his people strength / The Lord will bless his people with peace.” Yom HaShoah Ve-Hagevurah reminds us that peace and strength must be one. As if to emphasis this, hard on the heels of Yom HaShoah will come Yom Hazikaron, Israel’s commemoration of those who have fallen while on active duty in Israel’s armed forces. Immediately following that, Israel celebrates Yom Ha’atzmaut – the day of independence.

Taken together these days remind us that in the here-and-now of history, the continued condition is vigilance; one attuned to the major and minor attenuations of goodness happening around us as well as one ready to strike like tinder and ignite our resolve to push back against those hell-bent on despoiling goodness. We do this to make the normal more common. We do this lest we falter and forget and once again let our guard down; lest our children are stolen away in the fog, lest the transports catch us back on our heels.