Honouring the victims

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 evil.

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.

The 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.