It’s Holocaust Remembrance Day: Who Cares?

Art by Michel; eJP archives.
Art by Michel©; eJP archives.

By Avram Mlotek

Today marks Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. How is this day different from all the other Holocaust marked days? Well, there are quite a few of those dates to choose from so let’s review. It only took the United Nations sixty years to declare January 27 International Holocaust Remembrance Day, the day Auschwitz was liberated by the Russian Army. The Yiddish speaking community continued to mark April 19 as a day of mourning since it was that day in 1943 when the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising started. There’s Kristallnakht or The Night of Broken Glass on November 9, 1938, when hundreds of Jewish synagogues and businesses were burned to the ground. But there isn’t the same type of broad Jewish communal recognition for Kristallnakht or any of these other dates for that matter as there is for Yom HaShoah. Why?

In 1953, The State of Israel inaugurated Yom HaZikaron laShoah velaGvurah or Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day. Signed by the Prime Minister of Israel David Ben Gurion, it is held on the 27th of Nisan and emphasizes the Jew as a fighter as much as victim. There was significant debate as to how this date was chosen. Most Orthodox Jews then believed that the remembering of the Holocaust did not require its own ritualized day but rather should be remembered on days like the 9th of Av, where Jews mourn the destruction of the ancient Temple and other catastrophes. The 14th of Nisan, the Hebrew date of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, was considered as an option but ultimately rejected since it coincided with Passover. The date of Yom HaShoah, the 27th of Nisan, was chosen as it is eight days before Yom Ha’Atzmaut, Israeli Independence Day, subtly linking the Jewish people’s past suffering with Israel as their redemptive opportunity. It is also worth noting and somewhat ironic that it is diaspora Jewry, which has a growing disconnect with the modern State of Israel, that observes the Holocaust Remembrance Day established by the very same Jewish State.

While most Jewish communities mark this day in the diaspora, there is no institutionalized ritual accepted by all Jews. Is there anything accepted by all Jews? Some of us light memorial candles, others recite the memorial Kaddish or El Maleh Rachamim. Some read a list of names. A few synagogues have a Hagadah for Yom HaShoah, a special guidebook like we have for Passover, with marked moments, songs and rituals. For the majority of communities, Yom HaShoah is honored by inviting a speaker; making it seem that all that it takes to recall the immense tragedy of the Holocaust or Khurbn, Yiddish for Destruction, is attending a symposium.

Besides a lack of ritual binding the day together, I believe part of why the Jewish community is as dispersed in its Holocaust recalling observances is because it is conflicted about what it is choosing to remember. Are we remembering “never again” with a footnote that exempts the genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, Darfur, and Syria? Are we remembering the “anti-Semitism of the past” with a footnote that exempts the violence against Jews in Paris and Israel today? Are we remembering the perpetual victimhood of the Jewish people holding the current Israeli army and Jewish might in parenthesis for 24 hours? What will we be remembering and who will be our annual speaker when the last Holocaust survivor passes away and we are left with video testimony and admission tickets to Auschwitz, where you can visit the site of humanity’s worst barbarism while also buying a book and lunch?

And so allow the wicked child of the Passover Haggadah to ask his question for a moment: why does all of this matter? When according to the recent Pew study, the majority of young Jews see recalling the Holocaust as tied into their Judaism, it is time for us to revolutionize Yom HaShoah for the 21st Century. Let’s learn from the secularists and traditionalists. Certainly, Yom HaShoah deserves its own day of mourning but in order for moments to last in Jewish history, they need become ritualized, like lighting a menorah or saying a special prayer.  Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Ritual. For thousands of years Jews marked days of terror or survival with a fast. There aren’t many millenials rushing to fast for 24 hours, but fasting is an ancient spiritual practice that still has relevance. Also, fasting implies breaking a fast. It allows us to gather more locally and intimately and break our fasts together over food, with our families, friends and communities.
  2. Community Service. In addition to our community wide acknowledgements, let’s gather locally with our friends, with our families, and commit to a day of service. How is it on Yom HaShoah in 2016 an astounding 25% of survivors living in the United States live in poverty? What if we held food and service drives on Yom HaShoah reaching out to the survivors in and out of our communities, ensuring that no survivor was without shelter, health care or food? What if on Yom HaShoah, while fasting, we attended the Museum of Tolerance with a local church or mosque? What if on Yom HaShoah our communities held an annual protest to Holocaust deniers in our midst?
  3. Focus on how Jews lived and not only how they died. What if at our gatherings, we shared more of the music, poetry, theatre and songs that took place before and even during the war years? Wouldn’t this be a most defiant tone to strike on a day of Holocaust memory? Jews created till their very last breath; why not recall, share and give life to some of these spiritual activists?

Sure, history is important, but memory has more of an impact. For Jews, remembering is fundamental to our identity. Rosh HaShanah, the Jewish New Year, is called “The Day of Remembering,” in the Bible. Every year, as we begin anew, we intrinsically look back and within: where have we come from and where are we headed? A survivor experiences history but all of us share memory, an idea, or vision. As a grandchild of Holocaust refugees and survivors, I can’t attend any more stale Yom HaShoah ceremonies. This year for the first time, I’ll be fasting with a few friends and hosting my first Yom HaShoah commemoration event with a haggadah.  How will you remember?

Rabbi Avram Mlotek is co-founder of Base Hillel, an organization that empowers pluralistic rabbis to turn their homes into meeting points for Jewish engagement. A native Yiddish speaker and grandchild of Holocaust refugees, he is married to Yael Kornfeld, a geriatric social worker, and proud father to Ravi and Hillel.