By Richard Mather
To survivors, the Shoah or Holocaust remains a persistent and horrifying memory. For others, the Holocaust has passed into history. This is why Yom Ha’Shoah 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 recent report, 46 per cent of Israelis believe a second Holocaust could happen.
Yom Ha’Shoah 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 Ha’Shoah 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 Ha’Shoah is commemorated throughout the Diaspora.
Yom Ha’Shoah 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 approximately 189,000 Holocaust survivors still live in Israel, an average of 14,200 are dying every year. Shockingly, just under a third of the 189,000 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.
This year’s Yom Ha’Shoah coincides with the anniversary of the liberation of Mauthausen. Mauthausen’s gas chamber remained operative until the very last days of the war. The camp authorities carried out the last mass murder in the gas chamber on April 28, 1945. On May 3, 1945, the SS abandoned the camp to the custody of a guard unit of Viennese firefighters, who remained on the perimeter of the camp. A committee formed by the prisoners in the last days of April administered the camp as units of the US Army arrived at the camp and secured the surrounding area on May 5.
Some history about the origins of Yom Ha’Shoah: In 1949, the Chief Rabbinate of Israel requested that the 10th of Tevet should be the national remembrance day for victims of the Holocaust. This fast commemorates the start of the siege of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar II. The Chief Rabbinate has referred to Tisha B’Av as being another date of remembrance for victims of the Shoah and elegies are recited on that day.
In the early 1950s, it was proposed that Yom Ha’Shoah 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 Ha’Shoah 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 Ha’Shoah 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 Ha’Shoah 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 Ha’Shoah, 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 Ha’Shoah. In 1988 the Reform movement published a book called Six Days of Destruction, co-authored by Elie Wiesel and Reform 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 Ha’Shoah (the Holocaust Scroll), which contains personal recollections of Holocaust survivors and is written in a biblical style.
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 to personally 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 years and the ever-present threat of a nuclear Iran, we cannot afford to be complacent. If nothing else, Yom Ha’Shoah reminds us we have six million reasons to live.