IT IS NOW 38 years since the defeat of Hitler's empire and the Allied armies' relief of the death camps. Anyone who survived those camps is now well into middle age; most are elderly. That is the reason for the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors here this week. It is preparation for a time when there will no longer be living witnesses to those events.

Some of those who died in the camps were gypsies, and some were intellectuals. Some were Christians whose consciences made them disruptive influences in Hitler's New Order. But a very great majority of them were, of course, Jews sent there in the empire's attempt to destroy a faith together with all who followed it and their entire families. In Europe, that attempt nearly succeeded. The Holocaust will necessarily have a special meaning for Jews, but it would be deeply wrong to let the memory of the death camps be consigned to an exclusively Jewish heritage. The message of the Holocaust deserves the most careful consideration of everyone of any religion or none at all.

Even in 1945, in the heat of war, the significance of the Holocaust transcended national politics. It was correctly taken as evidence of the presence of a militant and purposeful evil, in the sense in which the moralists and theologians have always used the word. There had been optimistic times in the 18th and 19th centuries when enlightened people often thought of evil as a condition that rising standards of living and improved education would eventually cure. That brave thought collapsed in the first half of the present century. The death camps were the creation of people who were highly endowed, by the world's standards, with both material wealth and an elevated culture. The 1930s and the 1940s brought the demonstration that the heart of darkness does not lie in the upper reaches of some exotic or primitive place, but much closer to home, in the most "advanced" of societies. The death camps stand in our history as profound warning against certain dangerously easy assumptions about human nature. The camps constitute a commentary not simply on Nazi Germany, but on habits of mind and spirit that can be found elsewhere as well.

It is more pleasant not to think about these things, and to keep the conversation to those moments in history that show the human race at its best. But at the other extreme are those stark camps, still within the memory of people here in this city, conveying their own terrible instruction. That is the point of the gathering here. There is a moral obligation to remember--always.