By Richard Mather…
It is seventy years since the camps were liberated. To survivors, the Holocaust remains a persistent and horrifying memory. For others, the Holocaust has passed into history. This is why Yom HaShoah or Holocaust Day is so important. It is an opportunity to ask why and how did it happen? Could it happen again? According to a new report, 46 per cent of Israelis believe a second Holocaust could happen, up from 41 per cent in 2014.
Yom HaShoah is Israel’s day of commemoration for the six million Jews who died in the Holocaust and for the Jewish resistance against the Nazis. In Israel, Yom HaShoah is a national memorial day and a public holiday. It was inaugurated in 1953, and enshrined in law by the then prime minister David Ben-Gurion and the president of Israel, Yitzhak Ben-Zvi. Although established by the Israeli government, Yom HaShoah is commemorated throughout the Diaspora.
Yom HaShoah is the day we remember in our minds and hearts the many millions who died, suffered and resisted. It also an opportunity to pay our respects to the survivors of the Holocaust and to reassure them that their suffering will never be forgotten.
Indeed, new figures reveal that nearly half of Israel’s Holocaust survivors believe that future generations will not remember the Shoah after they are gone. Half of Israelis under thirty have never knowingly met a Holocaust survivor. While 189,000 Holocaust survivors still live in Israel, an average of 14,200 are dying every year. Shockingly, just under a third of the 1,89,000 Holocaust survivors in Israel live below the poverty line, with more than a quarter of survivors saying they cannot afford to heat their homes during winter. And almost half of Israel’s Holocaust survivors say they feel lonely most of the time. This is a sad state of affairs.
Some history about the origins of Yom HaShoah: In the early 1950s, it was proposed that Yom HaShoah should be held on the 14th of Nisan, the anniversary of the Warsaw ghetto uprising (19th April 1943). However, because the 14th of Nisan is the day before Passover the plans were changed. The date was moved to the 27th of Nisan, which is a week after the end of the Passover holiday. Yom HaShoah continues to be held on the 27th of Nisan unless the 27th is adjacent to Shabbat, in which case the date is shifted slightly.
Yom HaShoah starts in Israel at sunset in a state ceremony held in Warsaw Ghetto Square at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. During the ceremony the Israeli flag is lowered to half-mast. There are prayers and speeches by rabbis and politicians. Holocaust survivors light six torches signifying the six million Jews who died in the Nazi genocide.
There is no public entertainment on Yom HaShoah in Israel. Cinemas, theatres, bars and other public venues are closed throughout the country. Even television and radio close down their normal programming to make way for Holocaust-related broadcasts. At 10 a.m. on the day of Yom HaShoah, air-raid sirens are sounded and people stop what they are doing to pay their respects to the victims of the Nazi atrocity.
There is no fixed liturgy for Yom HaShoah. Perhaps this can be explained by the fact that in 1949, the Chief Rabbinate of Israel decided that the 10th of Tevet should be the national remembrance days for victims of the Holocaust. This fast commemorates the siege of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar II. On other occasions, the Chief Rabbinate has referred to Tisha b’Av as being a date of remembrance for victims of the Shoah.
Yom HaShoah rituals and liturgy vary among synagogues. In 1988 the Reform movement published a book called Six Days of Destruction, co-authored by Elie Wiesel and Rabbi Albert Friedlander. Movingly, six narratives from Holocaust survivors are juxtaposed to the six days of creation found in the opening pages of the Torah.
Masorti or Conservative Jews have created the Megillat HaShoah (the Holocaust Scroll), which is the result of a joint effort by rabbis and Jewish leaders in Israel and North America. This scroll contains personal recollections of Holocaust survivors and is written in a biblical style. It was published by the International Rabbinical Assembly and the Schecter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem.
The non-participation of Haredim in Yom HaShoah is a point of friction between Haredim and non-Haredim in Israel, as the latter consider the Haredi position of ignoring Yom HaShoah to be disrespectful. However, the Haredim say that rather than denying the significance of Yom HaShoah, they choose to remember the Nazi genocide in a different way.
Differences aside, all Jews – secular and religious – live with the harrowing knowledge that something terrible and catastrophic was visited upon them and their families in the 1930s and 1940s. It still beggars belief that six million men, women and children were slaughtered because of one simple fact – they were Jewish. How can we live such knowledge? How do we bear the weight of history. There are no easy answers.
And sadly we must face the fact that one day there will be no Holocaust survivors left alive topersonally remind us of the horrors of the past. So it is vital that their memories and stories are recorded and shared as widely as possible. In the meantime, we must do all we can to assist Holocaust survivors who have been through so much. They deserve our love, our attention, our time, our money and our respect. After all, no other generation in history has witnessed or experienced such extreme barbarism.
Let us hope and pray that the Jewish people will never again live through such darkness. Given the resurgence of anti-Semitism in recent months and the ever-present threat of a nuclear Iran, we cannot afford to be complacent. If nothing else, Yom HaShoah reminds us we have six million reasons to live.