There is no doubt that Yom HaShoah holds significant meaning to individuals whose families were directly affected by the Holocaust and for anyone who has a close bond to the Jewish people. I don’t know about other Jews by Choice, but for a long time I had difficulty making a connection to this “holiday”.
Growing up in the American public school system in the 60s & 70s, I can’t recall ever learning about the atrocities of that time period. I admit that history wasn’t one of my favorite subjects, but I did dutifully memorize the facts I was tasked with for final exams. However, since when presented with history regarding injustice (e.g., slavery, civil rights, etc.) the activist within me stirred and I not only remembered the stories but also wrote reports and articles expressing my disgust and commitment to creating a better world, why did I have such little knowledge of the Holocaust? This certainly leads me to wonder about the history curriculum in my NY public school, and with the watering down and rewriting of history in the interest of political correctness I can only imagine what else isn’t taught today.
It wasn’t until I was studying Jewish history in preparation for my conversion that I learned the details through many books I checked out from the JCC library (a wise rabbi advised me to learn everything I could about the Holocaust so I would be better prepared to make an educated decision regarding aligning myself with a nation that continues to be persecuted). Eventually I decided that despite the past – or maybe because of it – I would join the Jewish nation.
For the next 3 or 4 years I was obsessed with the subject, watching the new book releases for more first-hand stories like these:
- Holy Woman: The Road to Greatness of Rebbetzin Chaya Sara Kramer by Sara Yocheved Rigler
- Live! Remember! Tell the World!: The Story of a Hidden Child Survivor of Transnistria Told by Leah Kaufman to Sheina Medwed
- Twice Buried, Still Alive by Rivky Weinstock
- Miriam Cohen’s A Daughter of Two Mothers and Behind the Walls (which had significant meaning to me because one of my Grandmother’s was raised with her two sisters in a Catholic convent after her parents were killed in a fire – the girls were all under the age of 5 when it happened, and despite having dozens of relatives in Italy they were taken to a convent).
Another really good book on this subject is Chief Rabbi Lau’s unique and incredible story in Out of the Depths: The Story of a Child of Buchenwald Who Returned Home at Last, which I read last year.
But despite all this reading, and having neighbors whose families were horrifically impacted by the Holocaust, while living in the US I still found myself having difficulty figuring out what I was supposed to be doing and feeling on Holocaust Remembrance Day.
The Cleveland community I lived in did hold memorial events, and even built a museum that I once visited, but still the feeling I was searching for evaded me. No matter how hard a community tries to isolate themselves from the goyim in their host country, that country is still not a Jewish one – and for me, being a convert among a sea of a few thousand mostly warm and friendly Jews was not enough to make me feel that I was a part of the Jewish nation.
Many years have passed and as many of you know I moved to Israel because this is where I believe Jews belong – this is our homeland (according to Torah). And it is here that I discovered the feeling – the connection I had been seeking. I’m sure that’s because Israel is the land that comes alive and expands in relation to the number of Jews living here, a land steeped in rich Jewish history – past and present (where the future stage is being created) – where I travel streets named after the people of the Bible, famous rabbis and prophets**.
Here I meet people who have literally escaped the lands of their birth (many in recent decades) to commune with Am Israel on the soil where their ancestors lived, learned and worked. And it is here where 6 Holocaust survivors who defiantly refused to die, and triumphantly claimed their place in the Holy Land, will light the 6 torches at Yad Vashem tonight in memory of the 6 million whose murders were carefully planned and executed by the nazis in their countries of exile where they, as Jews, did not have the right to life or self-defense as a nation.
In contrast to memorials of the galut, here’s what’s on our agenda for Yom HaShoah in Israel:
- Beginning this evening places of entertainment are closed.
- Memorial ceremonies are held throughout the country.
- The central ceremonies held at Yad Vashem will be broadcast on TV, with Israel’s President, Prime Minister, various dignitaries, survivors, children of survivors and their families gathered together and taking part in the ceremonies – and where the torches will be lit.
- Tomorrow morning, a siren will blare for two minutes throughout the entire country, during which time work is halted, people stop wherever they are (on the streets, in the classroom, at the doctor, shopping, working, in cars pulling off to the side of the road, etc.) and everyone stands at silent attention in reverence to the victims of the Holocaust.
- Public schools (and probably most private schools) hold assemblies – which students, parents and people living in the neighborhood attend – where torches are lit and speeches are given in memory of the six million. The children growing up in Israel also learn and do age-appropriate activities and projects about the Holocaust.
- In addition to Yad Vashem and schools, ceremonies of remembrance are held on military bases, municipalities, places of work, and the Ghetto Fighters’ Kibbutz, among others.
How does this compare with your community’s Holocaust Remembrance Day? Please share your thoughts, experiences and memories in the comment section below.
If you’re looking for a mitzvah type of project to help add meaning to Yom HaShoah, I highly recommend participating in the Caras family’s mitzvah project: Holocaust Survivor Cookbook; Collected From Around the World – it is something I believe to be very special. And if you’re in Israel, the Adopt-a-Savta project is a beautiful way to connect with a Holocaust Survivor and show you care (although I suspect that the volunteer is going to end up receiving much more than giving).
On another note, I would be remiss if I didn’t tell you that what I did take away from the many books I read about the Holocaust and the century prior to it, was that there were signs – very clear signs that something very evil was brewing. As I watched entertaining movies like Fiddler on the Roof and the more intense Schlindler’s List I found myself screaming at these people, “follow your hearts and your Torah and move to the “Promised Land” while you still can!” If they had, then six million would not have died. I do realize how difficult that would have been for them to do back in the early 1900s and I am certainly not blaming the victims of evil for what happened!
With my new-found truth (Torah) fresh in my mind, I became angry with the rabbis of Europe for leading them to believe that they were safe in their enlightened countries of exile and could almost hear their “this too shall pass” attitude as people worried over pogroms. This caused me to suspect that the galut lowers the self-esteem (subconsciously) and perhaps numbs the senses (causing one to accept things s/he intuitively feels are wrong), because no matter where you are, eventually someone is going to blame the Jew for the problems that inevitably occur in the economy or society. And historically, the reaction of Jews to these attacks is either paralyzing fear or apologetics – either the Jew accepts guilt and apologizes for his/her people (even when not guilty) or the Jew tries to blend in and assimilate and becoming more acceptable to the people of his/her host country (accomplished by throwing off the yoke of Torah life or living a lie always fearful of being discovered) .
I understand that some of the rabbis might have honestly believed that things couldn’t get worse. But when rumors began to surface about what was really happening, apparently it was either too late to escape or the truth was too horrible for anyone to believe it could be true! I’ve heard that psychologists say that when faced with such horror, unable to process it the human mind shuts down (in many people). For years I’ve seen the slogan “Never Again” and although I wish with all my heart that it be true, my intuition and reading Tanach tells me otherwise. I hope and pray that Jews will return home to Israel before history repeats itself because the signs of evil exist all around you, if you will just open your eyes and mind to the reality of what is happening and the possible outcomes in the near future. We are not living in malaria infested swamps in a barren land – Israel is thriving – and making Aliyah is easier today than it has been in more than 2000 years. I urge you to contact Nefesh b’Nefesh and come home while you still can.
* Photo credit: Photograph: Isaac Harari / Yad Vashem – Chief Rabbi Israel Meir Lau lights the Memorial Torch during the 2012 ceremony
** One Example: I travel to a company in Jerusalem on Rehov Rashbag once or twice a month and sometimes take a taxi from the central bus station if I’m running late (the bus takes an extra 20 to 30 minutes). Having my mind focused on business, it never occurred to me until recently when my poor Hebrew pronunciation had the taxi driver confused regarding my destination. When we got beyond that, he said to me “oh, you mean Rrrrash – bahg” 🙂 and then proceeded to give me a full history lesson about this great Tanna sage and leader before the destruction of the second Beit HaMikdash during our 20 minute drive (and just for the record, this driver was bare-headed – even “secular” education in this country teaches JEWISH history in great detail).