There are few days on which the bonds of shared identity are felt as strongly in Israel as on Yom Hashoah, officially – and quite properly called here – “Yom HaZikaron laShoah v’laGevurah,” the Day of Remembrance for the Holocaust and the Heroism. It is interesting that in America, the day’s name is shortened to “Yom HaShoah,” the almost-macabre sounding “Holocaust Day.” Here, it is a day of remembrance, framed a week later by “Yom Hazikaron l’challelei Tzahal,” Remembrance Day for the Fallen of the Israel Defense Forces.
The nation is captivated by the day. Places of entertainment closed this past Sunday night, television shows for 24 hours dealt only with the Holocaust. Movie channels, except those showing Holocaust films, were on hiatus. Each show, each interview, each documentary, was more fascinating than the next. There is no story of survival that is not fascinating; there are no other stories outside the Holocaust genre that are more fascinating. Each tale is filled with sadness, courage, inspiration, grit and some sort of faith.
The enormity of the Holocaust was such that its dimensions are limitless, and therefore a consistent mode of commemoration has yet to be formulated. The official ceremony at Yad Vashem involved, as always, torch lighting by survivors preceded by an account of their survival. But the Yad Vashem service always focuses more on the “heroism” than on the “Holocaust.” All of the torch-lighters were fighters – in the ghettos or with the partisans – or escapees. The narrative of modern Israel demands a de-emphasis on the Holocaust itself and the immensity of the slaughter, and an over-emphasis on the stories of resistance. It is not that those stories are untrue or uninteresting, indeed, the opposite. It is that the attempt to turn the Holocaust into a tale of resistance rather than extermination is misleading.
In keeping with the basic theme, the Prime Minister spoke about the looming Iranian threat and the lesson of the Holocaust: a refusal to rely on other nations for Israel’s national defense. Again, it is true, but is that really the main focus of the Holocaust? Resistance was part of the Holocaust but a relatively small part – and official Israel in its ceremonies emphasizes the physical resistance and completely downplays other forms of resistance, especially spiritual. Those stories, thankfully, abound in the media and other sources, and are testaments to the inner strength of the Jew.
In recent years, there has been a growing interest in such accounts of spiritual tenacity – of the seder in Auschwitz, of Torah study in the ghettos, of striving to keep kashrut, of Jews maintaining their inner dignity in their treatment of others and not succumbing to the attempts at dehumanization. I learned this week of a museum called “Shem Olam,” located in Kfar Haroeh for over a decade and awaiting the construction of their new facility, which painstakingly documents Jewish religious life before and during the Holocaust. (The name is taken from the continuation of the verse – Isaiah 56:5 – in which “Yad Vashem” is mentioned: “In My house and within My walls I will give them Yad vashem, a place of honor and renown, better than sons and daughters, shem olam, an eternal renown, I will give them which will never be terminated.”) There are numerous artifacts and manifold accounts of the spiritual heroism that was also part of the story of the Holocaust. One recent find came during a dig at Belzec – a shard from a seder plate brought there by Jews who assumed that, wherever they were being sent, Pesach was coming and they would be celebrating it somewhere. They never got to celebrate that Pesach, and all that remains from their plate was a small piece inscribed with the last three letters of “Maror,” the bitter herbs. It is an eerie sight.
It is as if there are two worlds – or more – commemorating the Holocaust. One discordant note was sounded by IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz who saw fit to say in Auschwitz on Monday that “in our generation, we have the IDF. There is no other magen (shield) for David, no other chomah (protective wall) for Zion,” essentially transposing two praises of God found in our literature (Pesachim 117b and evocative of Zecharia 2:9, respectively) for the IDF. It is no disrespect to the IDF and their competence and valor to suggest that a price is eventually paid for such hubris, and perhaps has been paid already.
The official ceremony is a reminder of the old Israel where religious involvement was limited to “functions” – Tehillim, Kaddish, etc. – that are tacked on to the end of the ceremony. No other religious participation or perspective was included. The secular-religious divide is unfortunately part of the Holocaust story as well, especially in light of the inability of the religious world to also find appropriate and enduring means of commemoration. This is likely temporary, and it stands to reason that as the years pass, the secular world will be increasingly detached from the Holocaust era even as the religious world embraces it more and more, and derives great inspiration from it. Our local Holocaust commemoration contained an excellent and emotive power point presentation of the spiritual struggle during the Holocaust.
Nothing illustrates the secular struggle with the Holocaust more than a new movie that features, in part, one of the more revolting Holocaust commemorations imaginable. The movie, “Numbered,” tells the moving tale of how various survivors dealt with the tattoos on their arms. (One woman, in a clip that I saw, says she was asked years ago: “Why don’t you remove it? Aren’t you ashamed to have that on your arm?” She responded: “Why should I be ashamed? The people who did this to me, they’re the ones who should be ashamed!” Bravo for her.)
The movie, at a certain point, introduces a recent development in Israel that was featured in the NY Times last fall, found at http://www.nytimes.com/2012/10/01/world/middleeast/with-tattoos-young-israelis-bear-holocaust-scars-of-relatives.html?pagewanted=all&_r=1&. Young Israelis are tattooing their grandparent’s numbers on their arms in order to feel a greater connection to them. Certainly, they are oblivious to the Torah prohibition against tattooing, but is that any way of showing honor and identification? Such a hideous act meant to dehumanize is not made any better when done voluntarily; it just shows a complete lack of propriety. When I saw the Times article that discussed the movie, I couldn’t help thinking that in some concentration camps, the Nazis fiendishly offered the Jews more food on Yom Kippur – an extra ration of pork. Would these young Israelis then decide to identify more closely with their grandparent survivors by eating pork on Yom Kippur? I shudder to think that I have put such a thought in their heads.
I have not seen the movie, but I would like to think that this account of the young Israelis is a small part of it and not its focus.
Nonetheless, the great strength of this Yom Hazikaron is that it does bring together all Jews, with all the commonalities and all the differences we have. And perhaps the Holocaust remains so enormous, and so evil, that it can be no other way. Everyone sees it from a different angle. It remains personal and raw. Words still fail to convey the horror of both the Holocaust and the Second World War unleashed by the Germans that cost more than fifty million lives.
Apropos of that, it is worth quoting a line in the conclusion to “The Storm War,” by Andrew Roberts, a history of World War II. In an Italian cemetery where British soldiers were laid to rest, one tombstone, of a British private, 30 years old, reads: “Beautiful memories, a darling husband and daddy worthy of Everlasting Love, His wife and Baby Rita.”
Roberts, the dispassionate historian, continues: “Even two-thirds of a century later, it is still impossible not to feel fury against Hitler and the Nazis for forcing baby Rita to grow up without her father…”
Jews, certainly, tertiated by the Nazis, have a special reason to feel fury, to remain vigilant against our enemies, to grow in faith and connection to God, to find the way to strengthen Torah across the Jewish world, and do what we can to hasten the redemption.
Purchase or Learn More about My Books
- The Presidents and the Jews, Part 26: Barack H. Obama (44) [audio]
- The Presidents and the Jews, Part 25: George W. Bush [audio]
- The Presidents and the Jews, Part 24: Bill Clinton (42) [audio]
- Tolerance: Is it a Jewish Value? [audio]
- Interview with Rabbi Pruzansky [audio]
- Inaugural Issues [audio]
- The Torah State, Part VI: "Law and Minority Rights" [audio]
- Selichot 5776 - Divrei Hitorrerut [audio]
- The Torah State, Part V: Culture [audio]
- The Torah State, Part IV: "Social Justice" [audio]