A few weeks ago, while I was at home for winter break, I visited my grandparents at their apartment in Baltimore. My grandfather, Sergey Gerzhoy, is 77, and even at this age, his mental agility never ceases to amaze me.

As they often do, our conversation on this day segued into politics. And like many Jewish individuals across the nation and the world, both of us seemed to have only one topic on our minds: Iran. I would soon discover, however, that in spite of the familiar theme, this particular discussion would be unique.

In June 1941, Hitler’s forces invaded the Soviet Union and quickly subsumed Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova into the territories of the Third Reich. Among the places occupied was my grandfather’s town of Ribnitsa, in modern-day Moldova. In the round-ups that followed in August, the entire Jewish population of Ribnitsa was sent to a concentration camp not far from the town.

My grandfather, 12 years old at the time, spent three months there waiting to be moved to an extermination camp. He escaped in October, but returned to his town of Ribnitsa, which had since become a ghetto. He spent the next two years there, starving and suffering, until Red Army soldiers under the command of Marshall Ivan Konev liberated his city in March 1944.

My grandfather is the most sympathetic man I have ever met. His kindness, his dedication to his family, his intelligence, and his lighthearted and probing sense of humor make him impossible not to admire and love. It is difficult for me to understand how anyone could do such horrible things to such a good man. But perhaps because of my love for him I have been hesitant to ask him about his experiences during the war, for fear of opening old wounds.

This time, though, he brought up the topic in the form of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s threats to “wipe Israel off the map” and his vociferous denials of the very events through which my grandfather struggled. My grandfather recalled a letter he received in the 1990s from Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust Memorial Museum, asking for any names of individuals he knew personally who had perished in the Shoah (the Hebrew word meaning “calamity,” used for the Holocaust).

My grandfather told me of how he had sat down to write the letter, intending to send the names of several young boys who had disappeared from Ribnitsa during his absence and were probably murdered by Nazi soldiers. His eyes began to well with tears when he told me that, as he began to write, he realized that he had forgotten their names. As the tears fell down his cheeks, I realized that he blamed himself for not preserving their memory.

It was the first time I had seen my grandfather cry, and it struck me deeply. He wasn’t crying for the deaths of millions of Jews and other individuals, though he doubtless had shed many tears for them as well. Nor was he crying for the horrors he had faced at the hands of his Nazi and collaborationist oppressors. He shed tears for the simple loss of a memory – a thing so ephemeral that we often fail to pause and reflect on its importance.

Today in Tehran, President Ahmadinejad baldly disputes the memories of millions of Holocaust survivors like my grandfather. This denial comes from a man leading a government that seems to be racing inexorably toward the development of nuclear weapons. At the same time, the Iranian president threatens the lives of the citizens of Israel, a country containing the world’s most dense population of Jews, many of whom survived the Holocaust.

The history of Israel and its foundation is not immune from criticism or controversy, but that is a separate issue. This is a debate about people’s lives, not about a country’s legitimacy. We should not accept lightly a threat to civilians, and we cannot accept one from a man who may soon have the means to carry out that threat.

The lesson of the Holocaust should not simply be one of retroactive guilt. The Shoah was a personal tragedy for millions of individuals, but it resulted from the political failure of the civilized world. Debate about the proper response to Iran’s belligerence should be vigorous and intellectually open. Yet already we can hear voices – in Europe and America – denying the threat posed by the Iranian government, or putting faith in deterrence to prevent Iran’s leadership from staying true to its word and perpetrating another Holocaust.

We treasure the memory of those that perished and suffered in the Shoah, and we reject those like Ahmadinejad who deny their pain. But we should also remember the promise made after the world’s failure during World War II: “Never again.”

As the threat posed by Tehran grows, we must never again allow a generation of innocent people to suffer the pain experienced by my grandfather and millions of others. My grandfather’s message to me was a personal one, but it carried universal meaning: Before ahmoud Ahmadinejad stays true to his word, we must stay true to ours.

Gene Gerzhoy is a senior in the School of Foreign Service.

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