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Thoughts on Yom HaShoah

How can one best memorialize those who died during the Shoah during the Second World War?  As in most areas of Jewish life, so too here there have been a wide variety of responses to the Nazi genocide inflicted upon our people which led to the death of approximately one-third of all Jews at that time.  In addition, we want to remember the suffering and torture inflicted on those who were incarcerated in work camps and concentration camps and otherwise enslaved by the Nazis and their collaborators, as well as those who escaped to the woods or were sent away by their parents to safety in the children’s transport, and others who managed to emigrate to places of refuge.  All of these who somehow survived to tell the story we recall as well.  Most of those survivors have also departed this world as nearly 80 years have gone by since the end of World War II.  Some who were younger at the time, however, do remain among us   As the last of these survivors pass on, it becomes our task to continue to share their stories and to pass them on to the generations to come.  We pledge not to forget them and to remember their lives.


After the war, with the establishment of the State of Israel, there were intense discussions and debates over how the Jewish State might best commemorate this horrible period in Jewish life.  Even before 1940, the 27th day of Nisan had been observed in Israel as “Yom Zikhron Gevurah,” a day to memorialize those who had died in various attacks in the pre-State period.  The date was chosen based on the Great Arab Revolt that began on April 19, 1936, which was the 27th day of Nisan that year.  This mass revolt in Mandatory Palestine, led to the deaths of some 300 Jews from 1936 -1939.  The emphasis of this memorial day at the time was “Gevurah,” heroism.  The concept that was extolled by the halutzim, the early Jewish pioneers, was that Jews were no longer to be passive victims of oppression as so often had  happened in history, but as this Jewish homeland became a State, the ideal was the Jew who took his own fate into his hand and stood up to oppression and fought back.


Thus, following the Shoah, there was some debate over these events which seemed to contradict this Zionist narrative of the “fighting Jew.”  The many years since the days of Masada and Bar Kochba in the first and second centuries, were often passed over in modern Jewish history books of the time.  Some historians saw this period of the Diaspora Jew who failed to defend himself but was a perpetual victim through the ages as shameful.  The Zionist ideal was to end that stereotype and create a new Jew in a new society in their own land. (Anu banu artzah livnot ul’hibanot, they sang.  We have come to the land to build and be built up.)  Thus, when looking at the Shoah in those early days after the war, the emphasis tended to be on those Jews who refused to go meekly to the death camps, most notably the defenders of the Warsaw Ghetto in 1943.  The uprising in Warsaw began on the eve of Passover, the 19th of April of that year. Proclaiming a memorial day, a time of mourning, on the eve of the holiday, was not appropriate.  The rabbis of that era actually opposed any official day of mourning during the month of Nisan. Instead, they proposed holding a day of Kaddish for the victims of the Shoah on an existing fast day, the tenth of Tevet, back in January.


In spite of the opposition of these Chareidi rabbis, following the establishment of the State, a proposal was made to observe Yom HaShoah v’haGevurah, the day of disaster and heroism, on the 27th of Nisan each year, six days after Passover, the season of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising which lasted for three weeks, and one week before the national Memorial Day for the fallen soldiers of the Israel Defense Forces.  You’ll note that the commemoration included the word “Gevurah” once more, to emphasize the role of those who resisted the Nazis and their collaborators.  By choosing this date, it combined the recognition of the resistance in the Warsaw Ghetto, with the already established memorial day for those who died in the Arab Revolt and in other attacks prior to that in Mandatory Palestine.  As time has passed, increasingly people have come to realize that resistance takes many forms. Whether or not one was able to take up arms against the enemy, most of those who died were by no means passive victims; their deaths sanctified life and preserved the human image as they strove to save themselves and others.  We marvel at the strength of those who continued to study and teach, to observe traditions and offer prayers, to maintain a semblance of Jewish culture in the ghettos, and to do whatever they could to help others  The stories of heroism go far beyond those who found weapons and fought to the death against the enemy.


Over time, the date of Nisan 27, which was first “Yom HaShoah uMered HaGetaot,”  the day of the Shoah and the Ghetto revolts, was officially established by the Knesset as Yom HaShoah v’haGevurah.  Some ultra-Orthodox (Chareidi) rabbis objected to this observance on various grounds, ranging from the question of the permissibility of creating such a day, to the question of the date being during a month of redemption, geulah, when we limit acts of mourning, to those who (astonishingly) did not see a qualitative difference between the Shoah and past historical  massacres of Jews.  The Religious Zionists however embraced the observance along with the masses of Jews throughout the land.  It took until 2018, however, for Yom HaShoah to be incorporated into the basic law of the state. The 27th of Nisan never falls on Shabbat, however, to avoid desecration of the holy day, as with Israel’s Memorial Day and Independence Day, when it falls on Saturday night and Sunday, as is the case this year, it is postponed to Monday in Israel.  If it occurs on a Friday, the observance is pushed back to Thursday.


There are a variety of liturgies proposed and practiced by various groups in Israel, flags fly at half-staff, there are various public gatherings and military events, radio broadcasts are limited to appropriate programming, and entertainment venues are closed or they show programs in keeping with the day. The most notable observance takes place at 10:00 am throughout the land when sirens are heard for two minutes.  This practice began in 1959 at 8:00 am at first.  In 1988, the Minister of Education asked the Yad VaShem  Authority to postpone the sirens until 10:00 am, to allow time for teachers to organize and prepare their students for the commemoration.  Since then, it has remained at 10:00 am.  Pedestrians stop and stand at attention, motorists turn off their engines and get out of their vehicles and stand next to them at attention as well, until the sirens stop.  People in their offices and students in their classes, people in shops and markets pause at attention. Everything stops on the highways and city streets and country roads, throughout the land.  The country comes to a respectful halt of all activities in memory of this calamitous period.


Outside of Israel, there is not a unified observance followed. Each community decides on its own how to mark the day.  I have served in a number of different communities over the years and the observances have varied from place to place.  Even the date may vary, with different communities scheduling events at different times during the week prior to Israel’s Independence Day.  Some places have special services or community programs.  In various places we’ve lived, there have been marches downtown with the participants carrying candles or torches.  In Charleston one year our interfaith group even got a group of the Knights of Columbus to come out in full regalia to march with the Jewish community in solidarity.  We’ve had students stand at street corners as the marchers passed by reading the names of people who had died in the Shoah.  Emphasizing that “everyone has a name,” and that the six million are not just numbers.


Last year, we arranged for the showing of the movie “Paper Clips” here at the Santori Library.  This is a documentary about a project in Tennessee, outside of Chattanooga where students were studying the Holocaust and, in order to try to comprehend the number “six million,” they decided to collect six million paper clips.  As word got out, people all over the world sent them more paper clips.  Some Holocaust survivors in the New York area learned of this project and came down to speak to the children about their experiences. Someone arranged to acquire a box car that had been used to transport Jews to the death camps and this car was placed next to the school and filled with the six million paperclips.  As more clips arrived, they added five million more in recognition of the other non-Jewish victims of this period.  We all were particularly moved as we watched the film and saw the impact this project had upon the residents of this small town.  One of the teachers who ran the project admitted that before he got involved in this, he was a real “red-neck” and only now had he begun to appreciate the Jewish people and to teach his own children to embrace diversity.  This project began in the late ‘90s and one may still see the box car of paper clips and memorial in Whitwell, Tennessee.


This year, Yom HaShoah has a very different resonance for us all.  After October 7, 2023, we have come to a deeper understanding of what that earlier generation had experienced.  We continue to mourn the deaths of more Jews killed in any single day since the days of the Shoah.  These, as we’ve come to learn were not simply casualties of war, but brutally butchered victims of what Hamas has declared as their ultimate intention, genocide of the Jews.  In case we might want to deny the brutality, the terrorists, not unlike their Nazi forbears, have proudly documented their outrageous behavior.  It is available for anyone with the stomach to view it.  Too quickly people have forgotten the horrendous acts of October 7th and focused on the loss of Palestinian life alone as if Israel bears sole responsibility for every casualty in an unprovoked war.  We’ve been here before.  We’ve seen this scenario.  Jews have been blamed for their own deaths in the period of the Nazis and today.  Holocaust denial is a phenomenon that even General Eisenhower foresaw when the camps were liberated. This time, the world-wide propaganda machine supporting the mission of the perpetrators of the massacre was already set to spread its lies as the terrorists began their attack and continues its efforts, particularly on college campuses here as we speak.  The victims of the current massacres and the soldiers who have fallen in the effort to rescue the hostages who are still in captivity, and to end once and for all the terror in Gaza both for the people of Israel, but also for the people of Gaza as well who have been the unfortunate pawns caught in the middle, will be memorialized again next week on Israel’s Memorial Day for the fallen soldiers and victims of terror. These many new names will be added to a very long list.  That day is a serious day of mourning each year. I understand, however, that plans are already being made for an annual Memorial on or around October 7, this fall, noting the uniqueness of this tragedy for Israel and the Jewish people.


Here in Aurora, we are gathering this week to remember the events of eighty years ago and more, during our Shabbat service this Friday night, also bearing in mind the lessons of that period and their message to us today as our brothers and sisters in Israel experience the ongoing repercussions of the attack last fall and we here feel the continuing wave of antisemitic acts and hate speech in our country and elsewhere. We pray as we remember and continue to tell the story of the Shoah, that it will serve to remind us all not only of our tragic history, but of the acts of heroism, commitment,resistance, and faith that have carried us through the ages and brought us to this day.

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