Thursday, April 19, 2012

Thoughts on Yom HaShoah - Holocaust Remembrance Day 2012

Today is Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Below are some thoughts, adapted from my remarks from the 8th day of Passover, focusing on how the date for Yom HaShoah was chosen.  Also below are some remembrances of Holocaust survivors who have died during the past year who were connected to our synagogue community.

יהא זכרם ברוך - may their memory be for a blessing.


It is 1949.  
The new State of Israel is trying to figure out what is the most appropriate day to memorialize the Shoah.  They could have chosen any date of the year -- as Nazi brutality took place 365 days of every year during that terrible period.  

Imagine yourself in Jerusalem, in the year 1949, at a public hearing on this question.  A young man, a survivor, approaches the podium.  He says:  “We are devastated by what we have experienced, by what has been endured by our families, our communities, our people.  But let us remember that our tradition warns us against tampering with the Jewish calendar, and against adding holidays for capricious reasons.  We have suffered - but so did our ancestors.


“The best way to understand what we have experienced what we have experienced is through the lens of already existing Jewish holy days.  For centuries, our people has used the day of Tisha B’Av - the ninth day of the month of Av, every summer - to mark tragedies through the ages.  And now, sadly, we have a new dimension of this fast day.  We have new losses to mourn on this day.”

A woman is the next speaker.  Like the first speaker, she is a survivor; unlike her predecessor, though, she is a complete secularist, a representative of one of the groups of ghetto fighters, heroes of the Jewish resistance against the Nazis.   She is clearly troubled by the words she has heard.  


“What we have endured is so different from what our ancestors endured!” she says.  “Did they suffer the extermination of one-third of their people, and the uprooting of all the largest Jewish communities in the world?  How can you imagine that we can simply fold this commemoration into an already existing holiday!  It is is disrespectful to the memories of those who have been lost.


“So when should the new holiday be? --  The greatest moment of glory for the Jewish people during those dark years came in Warsaw, the largest of all the ghettos, when our comrades in the ghetto managed to rise up against their Nazi foes and managed to hold them at bay for weeks on end, for so much longer than anyone thought possible.  Let us have our Holocaust Remembrance Day on that day in 1943, April 19, when they proudly took up their smuggled and homemade weapons and fought proudly against their oppressors.”


The first speaker stands up from his seat and says, “You know as well as I, what day that was in 1943!  April 19, 1943 was the 1st day of Passover!  Do you mean to tell me that you want the commemoration of the Holocaust to be on the 1st day of Passover each year?!”

The second speaker responds:  “Well, I was thinking ‘April 19’ rather than ‘the first day of Passover’ -- but from my perspective, to have the commemoration take place on Passover would be fully appropriate.  Don’t you realize that what we have just been through is the NEW story of the Jewish people?!  We don’t need to recall Pharaoh of ancient times, because we have known an enemy even worse than Pharaoh in our own lifetimes!  The Holocaust has so completely overshadowed the glory of the Jewish people.  We SHOULD have a day of remembrance that overshadows Passover.  However, if you don’t think so, then wait until after Passover.   Just choose a day in the springtime, during the time when the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising was still taking place.”


The first speaker, now visibly upset, says, “But we have a centuries-old tradition not to engage in mourning and sadness during the month of Nisan when Passover falls!”

To which the second speaker mutters, ““You and your traditions....”

This is an invented dialogue, but the arguments were not so different from the arguments that were presented in those early years of the State of Israel, immediately after the Holocaust.

If you wonder what actually happened on the twenty-seventh day of the Hebrew month of Nisan, which is the date for Yom HaShoah, Holocuast Remembrance Day, the answer is, nothing in particular.  It was no worse in terms of the horrors of the Holocaust than any other day.  It was a compromise between the ghetto fighters, who would have prefered to simply replace Passover with a Holocaust remembrance day, and the religious Jews, who preferred to fold Holocaust remembrance into an already existing day of mourning on the Jewish calendar, such as Tisha B’Av in the summer, or the Tenth of Tevet in the winter..

And the compromise that they reached is, I think, beautiful in its own way.  The Holocaust is a unique event in Jewish history.  It demands a different response from other Jewish tragedies through the ages.  And yet, those who made the decision realized even a few years after the Holocaust that a Holocaust Remembrance Day could not loom so large as to cover over such moments on the calendar as Passover.  But it is placed close enough to Passover, less than a week after Passover ends, that it casts a shadow over the liberation that that holiday commemorates.  And it’s close enough to Passover to make the religious tradition just a little uncomfortable.  The placement of a Holocaust Remembrance Day in the midst of a month that is otherwise dedicated to celebration and liberation indicates that the Holocaust demands that we question some of our traditional assumptions.  Jewish history and Jewish life proceed, but we remember that as a people we are incomplete, permanently bereaved. 

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Of the millions of Jews who endured Nazi persecution and survived, only a few hundred thousand are alive today.  Those who survived as adults are now in their 90’s or older, and the youngest of the survivors -- those too young to remember anything -- are nearly 70.  

Each year, we note the losses of survivors in our community, who were our links to a world destroyed.

Motek Welner
, father of USH member Alan Welner, died in January 2012.  He was 22 years old when the Nazis invaded Poland, and he spent the war years on the run and in a series of concentration and labor camps, before his escape (one day before the camp was liberated) and his immigration to the United States.  Alan notes that after such horrifying experiences in his early life, somehow Motek was able to cultivate a cheerful, vibrant, warm presence.  He managed to live a life without bitterness and without spite, maintaining a powerful pride in his Jewish identity, that coexisted with a powerful respect for all people.


Rabbi Helga Newmark, who visited our community twice as a Holocaust educator, died in March 2012.  She grew up in Amsterdam and knew the famous Frank family in her childhood.  After surviving in concentration camps and coming to the United States, she became a Jewish educator and eventually became the oldest woman, and the only woman Holocaust survivor, to be ordained as a rabbi in the United States.  On her visits to our community, she spoke to children and adults, sharing her experiences and reminding us of the importance of honesty and hope at times of challenge.  

Joseph Sender, grandfather of USH member Alicia Weinstein, died in the fall of 2011.  Joe survived in the Birkenau death camp, together with his father, Chaim, for whom Evan Charles Weinstein (Avraham Chaim) is named.  Joe's mother and brother were murdered at Auschwitz. Joe married his wife Miriam in a DP camp, where Alicia's mother was born.  The family emigrated to Israel and later to the United States.  Joe and Chaim both became the patriarchs of large families, with many children, grandchildren, and now great-grandchildren to carry forth their heritage and values. 


May their memories, together with the memories of all those who died in the Holocaust, and all those who endured it and survived until more recent years, be for a blessing.  And may we fulfill our responsibilities to transmit their stories.  

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