Oct. 22: At 7:20, the sun rose over the horizon announcing the beginning of the day. Low-angled light accentuated shapes and forms, creating long shadows on the cold morning concrete. Towering buildings eventually blocked the sunlight, leaving sections of the city cast of gray. At 16th Street and the Ben Franklin Parkway, the Philadelphia Holocaust Memorial Plaza, a place of remembrance and contemplation, was set to open.
Oct. 27: At 9:44 a.m., a man yelling anti-Semitic slurs and carrying an AK-15 semiautomatic rifle and three handguns entered a synagogue in Pittsburgh and killed 11 people as they practiced their religious freedom.
We lower our heads in deep sorrow and disbelief.
Later, we nod in agreement with the words of Tree of Life Rabbi Jeffrey Myers who sees seeds of violence taking root in bitter invective.
Speaking at a Sunday vigil in Pittsburgh, he reached out to politicians of every stripe.
“It starts with speech. It has to start with you as our leaders. My words are not intended as political fodder. I address all equally,” he said. “Stop the words of hate.”
At the Philadelphia memorial, we are reminded to never forget. Never forget as we stand before the Six Pillars that memorialize six million Jewish men, women and children exterminated by Nazi Germany.
We are reminded to never forget as we touch railroad tracks from the Treblinka death camp where Jews were transported and led to gas chambers labeled “showers” where they were poisoned.
We are reminded never to forget as we stare at newly planted trees that symbolize the woodlands that hid sites of Nazi mass murder and concealed sites of escape and resistance.
We are reminded never to forget as words such as the master race, totalitarianism, Nuremberg laws, religious persecution and death camps cause us to flinch as we fail to find any rationale for actions that defy explanation.
We are filled with anguish, contempt, grief and heavy hearts.
And then we put our hands to our faces and contemplate.
We read the words human equality, American democracy, natural rights, freedom of religion, protecting life and liberty, liberation and bearing witness engraved on the Six Pillars of stone. Our spirits slowly lift from the darkness.
Respect and dignity come to mind as we glance at the eternal flame illuminated within the Remembrance Wall, representing a sign of light and a reminder never to forget the toll of human suffering during the Holocaust.
On Sunday evening at 5:30, we join a standing-room-only crowd at Temple Rodeph Shalom on North Broad Street for an interfaith vigil to commemorate those killed in the Pittsburgh shooting. We feel the need to share this sorrow, to be part of something bigger than ourselves: unity among like-minded people sharing values that have sustained us in our daily lives.
We listen to sincere speeches about moving forward, standing up for ourselves, being strong, praying for spiritual direction and coming together as a community to fix what is broken. At times, we find ourselves removed from the moment, impatient, distracted by thoughts of the Parkland, Florida, shooting that took the lives of 14 high school students and three staff members.
The shooting ignited emotions around the world, and protests filled streets and parks and social media sites. But our lawmakers ignored all that, and our gun laws haven’t changed. Eight months later, here we are again — this time sitting in a pew inside a synagogue to pay respect to the dead.
And although we gather to denounce hate and bigotry, we struggle to understand how insults have fanned a spark into a conflagration of moral destruction. Differences of opinion or opposing ideas are to be expected, but little can be gained for the greater good if common decency is extinguished. The waters we trusted to carry us forward have been muddied by elected officials absent of character and integrity.
We stand together and sing a hymn of hope.
Peter Tobia was a staff photojournalist for The Philadelphia Inquirer from 1993-2008. petertobiaphotographer.com