Today is noted in Israel as Yom Ha-Zikkaron Lashoah vela-gevurah “Holocaust and Heroism Memorial Day.”
In Israel, the “theme” of year’s memorials is marking the observance of the 70th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.
While the International Holocaust Remembrance Day, introduced in 2005 by the United Nations, marks the liberation of Auschwitz by Soviet troops, the Israel observance remembers the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising; indeed, the original name of the observance when first legislated by the Knesset was Yom Hashoah umered ha-Gittaot “Holocaust and Ghetto Uprising Day.” Today it is often just called Yom HaShoah.
Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, which began on April 19th 1943, just before Passover. The liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto was to be a birthday present for Hitler. When Nazi troops marched in, they were attacked with grenades and pistol fire; the Germans were surprised that the Jews had any weapons at all. The participants did not expect that they could prevent the Nazis from liquidating the Ghetto, but they wanted to show mir zeinen do—“we are here” (to paraphrase the hymn Zog nit Keinmol) and that they could sing the hymn of resistance “with pistols in hand.”
Some readers know that our family had a relative, Israel Kanal (known by his Polish nickname “Mietek”), who was the commander of the central district of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Kanal had been a leader in the Akiva youth movement. I remember that our Israeli cousins played a role in locating photos for Kibbutz Lohamei HaGittaot, and identifying him in them. Kanal was one of the fighters who escaped the Ghetto as the revolt was being put down, although he was captured and executed in Auschwitz.
(My father was born in Kutno, and none of his close family survived the Holocaust except for an uncle and two cousins. Most of the surviving Jews in Kutno were taken to the extermination camp Chelmno in March 1942).
The Hebrew date of the beginning of the Uprising–the morning before the First Seder—was not a conducive time for a national memorial. The date agreed for remembering the Uprising was Nisan 27, less than a full week after the end of Passover and a week before Israel’s Memorial day for soldiers and its Independence Day celebration.
(Holocaust and Heroism Memorial Day is observed a day earlier if Nisan 27 is a Friday to avoid conflicts with the Sabbath, and, for the same reason, since 1997, it’s postponed to Sunday night and Monday if Nisan 27 is a Sunday, as is the case this year. Nisan 27 cannot fall on the Sabbath, due to the way the Jewish calendar is constructed).
In the US, it’s most typical to have events spread out over a few more days, and many places devote a full week to Holocaust Remembrance. Many schools and universities have Holocaust Remembrance Weeks at different times of the year for scheduling reasons.
Lohamei HaGittaot is the location of an annual commemoration of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, as well as exhibits and an archive. The commemoration is in a large amphitheater, next to the ruins of the Acre Aqueduct rebuilt by Suleiman Pasha in the early 19th century.
In reviewing some of the announcement that have come my way for Yom HaShoah and for International Holocaust Remembrance Day I note an important distinction, one worth thinking about.
Many university memorials include within their scope recognition of other genocides; some even call their program something like “Holocaust and Genocide Remembrance Week.” The UN declaration includes references to the murder of “countless members of other minorities” A/res/60/7, 1 Nov 2005 http://www.un.org/en/holocaustremembrance/docs/res607.shtml (Interestingly, the resolution avoids the term “six million” for Jewish victims, instead mentioning “one third of the Jewish people,” and gives no numerical estimate of the other victims, although many scholars and activists might refer to “the five million” non-Jewish victims of the Holocaust). The UN resolution also recognizes the liberators. (Interestingly, I checked the UN Resolution in part because a number or the announcements and webpages I reviewed about January 27 included references to “victims of other genocides,” while the language of Res. 60/7 clearly references other victims of Nazi Genocide, not “victims of other genocides”).
But the conceptualization of Yom HaShoah also includes a special recognition of resistance and heroism by victims. The discourse honors not only Liberators and Survivors and Victims—but those who took steps in order not to be seen as simply victims or subhumans. In today’s discourse, we typically add to the military resistors also those whose resistance was spiritual, cultural and ideological, or who adopted any strategies to emphasize their humanity.
Moreover, placing the Memorial between Passover and Israel Independence Day also provides an important contextualization. Passover is the festival remembering ancient redemption—and professing that the story is not merely an ancient one but one that is our own story today. The placement of Yom HaShoah in between Passover and Israel Independence Day suggests a process “from Holocaust to Revival” as worthy of interpretation as the annual retelling of the Exodus. The response to genocide is not merely to “stop the killing” but to completely transform individuals considered less than human, to people with a positive identity, means of self-preservation (military and psychological), international respect, and the will and means to flourish. Thus, Yom Hashoah emphasizes that the response to Genocide is not merely having foreign forces put an end to it, but that even if the victims are unable themselves to put a stop to it, their acts of heroism are intrinsic to the story. And it suggests that finding the right way to frame this narrative is transformatively significant for those who went from international victims to a free people in their own land.
Israelis observe Yom HaShoah by ceasing activity for the duration of sirens at 10:00 am, by the prohibition of certain entertainments, by public ceremonies and assemblies. Jews around the world have memorial programs and ceremonies; memorial prayers ore offered and memorial lights are lit in many synagogues. Some prayerbooks have liturgical additions for the day, although no single liturgy has emerged to mark the day.
May the memory of those who perished in the Holocaust be a blessing. May we also be blessed by the memory of the many acts of resistance by victims, both military resistance and the day to day acts of heroism needed simply to survive, and by the commitment of those who survived the Holocaust to continue their resistance not so much by remembering their victimization, but by building fruitful and productive lives, raising families, and insisting on flourishing – rather than living as “less than slaves” or as the “vermin” their oppressors considered them to be.
Associate Lecturer in Islam and Judaism
Religious Studies Department, University of Wyoming