Yad Vashem marks Holocaust Remembrance Day in the shadow of Oct. 7

The ceremonies were the same, but seven months after the worst attack on Jews since the Holocaust, this year's Yom HaShoah takes on added meaning, even though Jewish leaders stress differences between then and now

Two weeks after Jews asked why this night is different from all other nights at the Passover Seder, Israelis and Jews around the world are asking themselves why this Yom HaShoah, coming seven months after the worst attack on Jews since the Holocaust, is different — if at all — from the Holocaust Remembrance Days that came before it.

“This Yom HaShoah will be different,” Yad Vashem Chair Dani Dayan told eJewishPhilanthropy in his office last week. “Although the formal parts will be the same — we introduced no changes to the official ceremony… but Israeli society will mark this Yom HaShoah differently because it is a traumatized society.”

Indeed, Israel’s official ceremonies at Yad Vashem and at the Knesset were all the same as in years past — torches and candles were lit, prayers said, wreaths lain — and the siren that sounds every year at 10 a.m calling Israelis to a halt sounded as normal. (Although this year, perhaps more than in the past, parents had to explain to their children that when they heard the siren, they did not have to run to the nearest bomb shelter.)

The only discernible change to the Sunday night ceremony at Yad Vashem marking the start of Yom HaZikaron laShoah ve-laG’vurah, literally Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day, was a bright yellow seat left empty in the front row, labeled “Reserved for the hostages.”

And yet the events of Oct. 7 loomed over the events, particularly the nearly unavoidable, visceral feeling that the State of Israel did not fully deliver on its promise of “never again,” as heard in the formal speeches by Israeli leaders and felt in the hearts and minds of the Holocaust survivors who participated in the ceremonies and Jews around the world.

A yellow chair is left empty, reserved for Israelis held hostage in Gaza since the Oct. 7 attacks by Palestinian terrorists, during a wreath-laying ceremony marking Holocaust Remembrance Day at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem on May 6, 2024.
A yellow chair is left empty, reserved for Israelis held hostage in Gaza since the Oct. 7 attacks by Palestinian terrorists, during a wreath-laying ceremony marking Holocaust Remembrance Day at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem on May 6, 2024. (AMIR COHEN/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

As every year, six Holocaust survivors were chosen to light the torches on the night of Yom HaShoah at Yad Vashem. 

Allegra Gutta, one of the torch lighters, told eJP before the ceremony that the Oct. 7 attacks had shattered her sense of security.

“I came to Israel, married, had a son and daughter, I wanted to raise them for the glory of Israel and to be safe and strong, not like us who were afraid and fearful,” she said. “When I came here I saw this as the safest place in the world. But after what happened Oct. 7, I am afraid. Because I know what Arabs are. I come from Libya and what happened on Oct. 7 sent me back [to the days of the Holocaust].”

Along with the other 3,000 Jewish residents of Benghazi, Libya, including her parents and seven siblings, Gutta was deported by the Italians to the Giado concentration camp, over 600 miles west of Benghazi in the Libyan desert. Her two older brothers managed to escape and joined the British army. Her father and two sisters died of typhus at Giado.

She said that before the Hamas attack she rarely spoke about her own experiences during the Holocaust because she wanted her children to grow strong and secure and had not considered participating in these types of ceremonies, but the atrocities and the subsequent increasing feeling of antisemitism in demonstrations around the world propelled her to take part.

“We are in a catastrophe now. It is painful,” she said. “There is no sense of security. I saw so many things in my life. Why do I have to see another war at my age? And I remember what I saw. Why did God give me such a long life so I should hear fear and see more atrocities and be afraid to open my door? I am in the State of Israel. What have we come to?”

Arie Eitani, 97, who was deported to Auschwitz with his parents from his home in Milan, told eJP that the hostages being held by Hamas in Gaza “reminds me of what it was like in Auschwitz. We were not human beings, we were not a human person, we were a number.”

Eitani noted the sting of the fact that “now we have a country, but the people who [were supposed to be] protecting us were not there.” He called for the government to “first of all bring back the hostages.”

At 89 years old, Yitzhak Perlmutter was the youngest torch-lighter. He also recited the “El Maleh Rahamim” prayer at the ceremony with his 26-year-old grandson, Matan, who spent three months in the reserves in Gaza, by his side. Perlmutter, who was sent to Auschwitz with his mother and sister from Hungary after his father was conscripted to the Hungarian Labor Service, said he too had never considered participating in Yom HaShoah ceremonies, but as he realized that there are fewer and fewer survivors alive, he felt compelled to add his personal story to the public history.

After Oct. 7 and seeing what “the neighbors” were capable of, Perlmutter said, “I am not willing to stand by.”

The best thing the government can do now is have no mercy and destroy Hamas, Perlmutter said, pointing proudly to his grandson in an army uniform: “Do you see him?”

While Matan said Oct. 7 can’t be compared to the Holocaust, since the attacks he feels he has a slightly better understanding of his grandfather and what he went through. “We are here to remember and not forget what happened,” he said. “Maybe Oct. 7 gives this an even bigger relevance than ever before.”

Dayan said he understood the instinct to compare Oct. 7 to the Holocaust.

“Every Israeli, every Jew, when he or she heard that a mother is muffling the mouth of their toddler in the Mamad, in the security room, in order to silence him, to not to be discovered by the assailants, I think every Israeli thought the same thing: They thought about Anne Frank in the attic or a mother and a toddler in Warsaw,” he said. 

But Dayan said that when comparing two historical events, you can look at the similarities only if you also consider the differences. 

“I asked myself, are the IDF soldiers and the community emergency security response volunteers the same as Mordechai Anielewicz and Pawe? Frenkiel [the leaders of the two Jewish militias that fought the Nazis]  in the Warsaw ghetto?” Dayan said. “No. The heroism is the same heroism, but Anielewicz and Frenkiel fought in order to die with dignity. The emergency security response teams and the soldiers that arrived on Oct. 7 fought in order to kill the enemy, to repel him and to save lives.”

Israeli President Isaac Herzog speaks at the Yom HaShoah ceremony at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem on May 5, 2024.
Israeli President Isaac Herzog speaks at the Yom HaShoah ceremony at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem on May 5, 2024. (Koby Gideon/GPO)

In his speech at the Sunday night ceremony, Israeli President Isaac Herzog also acknowledged the inclination to compare Oct. 7 to the Holocaust but stressed this distinction as well.

“Throughout the decades that have passed since the Holocaust, we assured time after time: ‘Never again,’ and we swore that the Jewish people would never again stand defenseless and unprotected. And yet, despite all that, the horrors of the Holocaust shook us all during the October massacres, echoing in all our hearts,” Herzog said. “But especially on this day, I ask that we pay close attention to the words of Naftali Furst, who, after the massacre, said to his granddaughter Micah, and I quote: ‘This is similar, it’s terrifying, there are no words to describe this cruelty, but it’s not the same thing. It’s not a Holocaust. There won’t be a second Holocaust.’”

Dayan added that he believes Holocaust comparisons are also detrimental.

“Hamas’ dream is to terrorize. There is nothing that will terrorize and depress Israelis more than saying we are back in the ghetto, in the concentration camps or even in the Jewish shtetl,” he said.

Though Yad Vashem has seen a decrease in visitors with the drop in foreign tourism since Oct. 7, Dayan said the institution has continued to provide tours and educational programming to Israeli schoolchildren and Israel Defense Forces soldiers 

“We have an educational center of Yad Vashem in Ir HaBahdim [Training Base City],” Dayan said, using the colloquial name for the IDF’s largest training base, located in southern Israel. “One of the most interesting stories that I heard is that when the Paratroopers Brigade eventually left Gaza after many, many months inside, they didn’t go home. They went from Gaza to Ir HaBahdim. And after taking a shower, the commanders took them to the Yad Vashem educational center, and they told us that it was a huge experience.”

Since Oct. 7, Dayan and Yad Vashem have largely kept out of the public discourse regarding rising antisemitism, save for a handful of press releases and public speeches. (In October, Yad Vashem also criticized Israel’s delegation to the United Nations for wearing yellow stars on their chests as a protest, which the institution described as inappropriate.)

Last month, however, Dayan weighed in on the anti-Israel protests on college campuses, specifically at Columbia University, an institution that he was well familiar with from his time as Israel’s consul-general in New York; his daughter, Ofir, also studied there. In a letter, Dayan warned Columbia University President Minouche Shafik to avoid the fate of Germany’s Heidelberg University, which he wrote was a “center of liberal thinking” but where students later “burned Jewish and other ‘corrupt’ books.”

Ambassador Dani Dayan, chairman of Yad Vashem, delivers a speech at the EJA conference at the DoubleTree by Hilton in Krakow, Poland, on Jan. 22, 2023.
Ambassador Dani Dayan, chairman of Yad Vashem, delivers a speech at the EJA conference at the DoubleTree by Hilton in Krakow, Poland, on Jan. 22, 2023. (Klaudia Radecka/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Speaking to eJP, Dayan said Shafik and other university presidents are acting as “traffic cops,” not as leaders. “The most important leadership decision that I think the leaders of the Ivy League and other prestigious colleges in America should make is whether calls for the elimination of the State of Israel are in the framework of the legitimate discourse,” he said. “There is no doubt, for instance, that — justifiably — homophobia is outside the framework of allowed legitimate discourse in colleges. Racism is outside. The elimination of the State of Israel right now is inside.”

“As long as that decision is not made, that the elimination of the Jewish state is not part of the legitimate exchange of ideas, I don’t think that things will improve. On the contrary, they will deteriorate,” he said.

While this year’s Yom HaShoah was marked by differences in the content of the speeches, and not the structure of the ceremonies, Dayan said that he and Yad Vashem are starting to think about the time after the last of the Holocaust survivors have died, when that will need to be revisited.

“I ask myself, who will lead the torches when there are no more survivors?” Dayan said. “One of the answers that I get most frequently is, ‘The second generation, the third generation.’ And I ask myself, does it mean that, for instance, that an Ethiopian Jew or a Yemenite Jew will never light the torch in Yad Vashem in honor of the Holocaust victims? And that’s a question that as a society we will have to decide. But I hope it still takes many years until we have to make a clear decision in that regard.”