Reflections on Holocaust Remembrance Day

What does the timing of the various memorial days say about the way we perceive the Holocaust?

Tonight we mark Yom Hashoah,  Holocaust Remembrance Day. Though today most of us take its placement in the calendar for granted, the history of Yom Hashoah is instructive in thinking about its meaning.

In Israel, the full name of this day is “Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day.” It was first commemorated on the 27th of Nisan in 1953 as a result of a law passed in the Knesset. The original proposal was to hold Yom Hashoah on the 14th of Nisan, the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. But that was rejected for being too close to the start of Passover on the 15th of Nisan. Therefore, Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day was set on the 27th of Nisan. This ensured that it was far enough away from both the end of Passover and the beginning of the dual days of Yom Hazikaron (Israel's Memorial Day) and Yom Ha’atzmaut (Independence Day) just eight days later.

Daniel Bar-On

Not everyone was satisfied with its timing, however. Many have argued that the Holocaust should not have a day of commemoration of its own. Rather, it should be included among the tragedies we remember on Tisha B’Av – the 9th day of the month of Av. One of the more prominent proponents of this view has been Chancellor Ismar Schorsch, the past chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary. Schorsch worries that events marking Yom Hashoah are “ritually and spiritually impoverished,” and that this will lead to the day and its meaning not penetrating deep into Jewish consciousness.

All of this, of course, has no connection to the annual “International Day of Commemoration to honor the victims of the Holocaust” enacted by the United Nations in November of 2005. The day chosen for this commemoration was January 27th, which is the anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp.

What we see from this brief summary of ways in which we remember the Holocaust are different ideas about its lessons. The young nation of Israel naturally linked Holocaust remembrance with honoring the Jewish resistance. Holocaust victims should not only be remembered as “sheep going to the slaughter,” but also as men and women who courageously died while fighting the Nazis. This ethos fits neatly with the Israeli ethos of a self-reliant Jewish state. Link a day to commemorate the Holocaust with the Warsaw Ghetto uprising reminds us that just saying “never again” to Jewish persecution is not enough. Jews must be resolute, and even put their lives on the line, to prevent another Holocaust from occurring.

This is much different than the United Nation’s connection of Holocaust Remembrance Day with the liberation of Auschwitz. While this certainly was a momentous day, it focuses our intention on not heroism but genocide. The stated goal of this day is to “instill the memory of the tragedy in future generations to prevent genocide from occurring again.” This universalist message seeks to recall all of the Nazi victims – not only Jews. The “never again” of the United Nation’s Holocaust Memorial Day applies to the persecution of all people across the globe.

Interestingly, it seems that in the United States, our commemoration of the Holocaust has combined these two days. While we remember the Holocaust on the 27th of Nisan, the same day as Israel, we only call it Yom Hashoah – the part about Heroism gets left out. The tenor of the events here commemorating the Holocaust is more in line with the United Nation’s vision of the day than that of Israel. Often the focus is on the concentration camps – either from the perspective of a survivor or a US soldier who was a liberator. While their stories are always moving, I wonder if they are truly meaningful.

I worry about this because, in the U.S., most Yom Hashoah commemoration events are held in large community settings, where there is very little Jewish ritual or spiritual moments. Here we see Schorsch’s concern come to light. Hearing a survivor or a liberator is important, but if it does not come within the context of Jewish ritual – which places it in the context of Jewish history – then it stands on its own. Though the Holocaust was a uniquely terrible event in Jewish history, it is not the only example of persecution Jews have faced. Seeing it as a singular experience, limits its meaning.

Therefore, our challenge on Yom Hashoah is to try and process the meaning of this at once extremely unique, but also sadly all-too-common for Jews and non-Jews, moment in history. We remember those who were murdered, those who survived, and those who risked everything to try and save a little. It’s a daunting task, but necessary if we truly mean “never again.”

Rabbi Micah Peltz is a conservative rabbi at Temple Beth Sholom in Cherry Hill, New Jersey.