The annual observance of Yom Ha-Sho’ah raises for me the perennial
question of how we might best commemorate the victims of the Nazi atrocities and
how humankind can learn the lessons of the Holocaust.
Yom ha-Sho’ah was introduced by
the Israeli government in 1951 as an annual day of memorial for the suffering of
the Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe. This was a time when Israel's leaders wanted
the message of "never again" to be heard loud and clear from the fledgling
state. For this reason the anniversary of the 1943 uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto
(Nisan 27) was chosen.
The resistance theme may underpin Israel's and
our Holocaust remembrance but it overlooks the fact that such resistance was not
an option for most of the victims.
More recently introduced into our
annual calendar is National Holocaust Memorial Day. The liberation of Auschwitz on January 27,
1945, with its images of helpless victims abandoned to be discovered by
advancing Russian troops, seems perhaps a more solid basis for a Holocaust
memorial. It was in the bleak misery of Auschwitz that the true horror of the
Final Solution unfolded rather than in the bleak but tragically heroic misery of
the Warsaw Ghetto.
But in many ways this day detracts from the task of
recalling the victims. For it represents the discovery by the outside world of
something of which it had, in part, been aware but had chosen to ignore — and
could now ignore no longer. From the moment of the liberation of Auschwitz, the
whole of humanity was forced to recognise the reality of its own potential for
So Holocaust Memorial Day (the anniversary of the liberation of
Auschwitz) is a chance for humanity to remind itself of its capacity for evil —
and hopefully to guard against it — while Yom Ha-Sho’ah (the anniversary of the
uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto) is a chance to mark the brave resistance to their
oppression of some Jews.
But neither day seems to offer an opportunity
to recall the tragic plight of individual Jews whose lives were initially
disrupted, then dismantled and finally destroyed, without their being able to
rebel, protest or even understand what was happening.
Of course, there
are other days in the Jewish calendar which also provide space for reflection
upon the tragedies which have befallen the Jewish people, including the
Holocaust (Tish’a b'Av, for example, often observed at summer youth events with
services which include Holocaust readings, or the martyrology section of the Yom
Kippur Musaf service).
But can so great a tragedy be recalled in a
single day's observance, no matter which day is chosen? Jewish tradition offers
another period of sadness whose origins are shrouded in history but which
perhaps suggests a way to recall the years of suffering endured by victims of
the Holocaust with a dignity which a single day cannot permit.
period of the Omer, the seven weeks between Pesach and Shavu’ot, recalls a time
of uncertainty when our agricultural ancestors lived in fear of a cruel east
wind blighting their crops. It tells also of a plague in the time of Rabbi
Akiva, when thousands of students perished as well as being a time to recall
Jewish victims of the Crusades. And it remains in modern tradition a period in
which joyous celebrations are not permitted, though the extent to which this is
observed is variable. Perhaps this is an
answer to the question of how it is possible to honour the memory of those
ordinary Jews who perished.
In my synagogue, at every service which
takes place during this seven-week period, the day of the Omer is announced and
followed by a memorial prayer and a period of silence, in which members of the
congregation try to call to mind the horrific suffering experienced seventy
years ago by ordinary Jews like themselves and then devote a Kaddish to those
for whom, perhaps, no Kaddish has ever been said.
In the end, of course,
it is impossible even to imagine the terror and the pain experienced by the
victims of the Holocaust. But by spreading the attempt to remember across a
seven-week period rather than trying to condense it into a single day, perhaps a
greater level of dignity and memorial might be achieved.