Due to the Jewish calendar and an act of the Israeli Knesset, Yom Hazikaron laSho’ah v’laGevurah, or Holocaust Commemoration Day, falls on this coming Sunday, May 1. And because we can’t start a day like “Yom HaSho’a” on Shabbat, many commemorate it on Monday.
The date was originally chosen in remembrance of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. Warsaw Ghetto was the largest ghetto, and concentrated initially approximately 300,000–400,000 people into a densely packed central area of the city. The revolt opposed Nazi Germany’s effort to transport the remaining ghetto population to Treblinka extermination camp. It was launched on January 18, 1943, with its most significant portion taking place from April 19 until May 16, 1943. Just for comparison, all of Poland was taken over by the Nazis in 28 days. This was the largest single revolt by the Jews during the Holocaust.
Growing up in Israel it seems that, aside from the obscure connection between “going out of Egypt”, and “going out of Europe”, choosing this date wanted us to focus on bravery, courage and heroism. It matched our modern story. It showed us the way “from bondage to freedom”, “from tragedy to triumph”. The rest was beyond our comprehension. Whether in our newly established, brave, courageous and heroic state, or elsewhere in the contemporary, moving-forward world, frankly, we didn’t quite know what to do with it.
In 1933, my paternal grandparents and their three children, left Berlin. My grandparents from the other side left Germany in the fall of 1938, all arriving safely in Haifa port. I am therefore one of those lucky ones who has no “real”, personal Sho’a stories. I mean, after all, simply uprooting your family from where you’ve lived for generations and going to live with swamps and riots the middle of nowhere, pre-Israel of those days, “didn’t count”. That was the “good story”. My aunt, who was a survivor of it all – an escape from Germany to Holland, life in hiding, deportation after they were discovered, concentration camps and travel through more camps in North Africa arriving in 1949 in Israel, once told me her story was “boring”; it’s like “everybody’s”. She suggested I speak to her sister who survived in hiding with help of the Dutch and Belgium underground, but her own story needed no telling. This was common: They didn’t want to talk. We didn’t want to listen.
I now realize the greatest affront on the Holocaust is not what others did to us. Obviously that was plenty bad. By now I know that no matter how many movies I will watch, how many stories I will hear, there will always be something more horrifying to still find out. Evil came in unfathomable proportions. But what we’ve done to ourselves? We’ve disconnected ourselves from our own people; we’ve made comments, criticism and judgments when we have no idea what it was like to be in their place; we wrote our own “new” story – and wrote off our own guilt and inaction – on their backs; we’ve asked, ‘what is this to u’. Considering recent holiday readings, that phrase should sound familiar. Guess who we’ve become.
On this Yom haSho’a let’s do something different. Maybe take a movie from Netflix; light a candle; go to one of the numerous events that are taking place in our greater community in the next few days; or just stop for a moment, think and remember.
- by Michal Kohane, Israel Center Director