Updated: May 9, 2019
The holidays we choose to observe, the days on which we observe them, and the manner in which we do so, are the most public and engaging ways in which a society acts out its collective memory. Remembering wars, independence, freedom from different forms of oppression, or even just the joyful cycles of nature and harvest. So many aspects of communal life have declined in modern times, but holidays have a strange way of holding on. So how do we use holidays to frame and commemorate the tragedy of the Holocaust?
The Holocaust is remembered through two different holidays: International Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 27th, and Yom Ha’Shoah on 27th of the Hebrew month of Nissan. This year, that is May 2nd. These represent two distinct models of remembrance. The International day corresponds with the liberation of Auschwitz concentration camp by the Red Army. While this was not the end of the Holocaust, it was a landmark event that led to its end.
Yom Ha’Shoah’s timing, on the other hand, is connected to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. The full name of the holiday is even Yom Hazikaron LaShoah ve-LaG’vruah, or Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day. Holocaust and Heroism. The focus shifts away from Holocaust victims being rescued by outside forces, and towards acts of open defiance. Jews were not simply passive objects of history, but active subjects who took their fate into their own hands.
Jews from the Ukrainian lands played an active role in the resistance to the Nazis. In the Warsaw Ghetto, Emmanuel Ringelbaum, the head of the Oyneg Shabbos organization, was from a town in what is now the Ternopil oblast. He did not survive the Holocaust, but his archives are invaluable in understanding what people went through during that time. Alexander Pechersky from Poltava region led an uprising and escape from Sobibor concentration camp. Even at Babi Yar, the prisoners of the Syrets concentration camp rebelled and staged a mass escape, though few survived the attempt. Two hundred starving men armed with simple hand tools were able to overpower their captors and make an attempt at freedom.
Jews all over Ukraine went to into the forest and wetlands to join partisan units. The Odessa catacombs were a maze of hideouts and arsenals. In the north, some went to join the famed Bielski Brothers of Belarus. Of course, Jews were in the ranks of all Allied militaries.
But, this focus on heroism is not merely a way to refocus the narrative onto Jewish agency. It also fits into a long-standing critique made by Zionists of the diaspora. In the new world envisioned by Zionism, the abuses suffered in the diaspora were something to be ashamed of. In his famous poem about the Chisinau Pogrom, The City of Slaughter, Ukrainian Hebrew-language poet Chaim Bialik wrote:
“Crushed in their shame, they saw it all; They did not stir nor move; They did not pluck their eyes out; they Beat not their brains against the wall! Perhaps, perhaps, each watcher had it in his heart to pray: A miracle, O Lord, — and spare my skin this day! Those who survived this foulness, who from their blood awoke, Beheld their life polluted, the light of their world gone out — How did their menfolk bear it, how did they bear this yoke? They crawled forth from their holes, they fled to the house of the Lord, They offered thanks to Him, the sweet benedictory word. The Cohanim sallied forth, to the Rabbi’s house they flitted: Tell me, O Rabbi, tell, is my own wife permitted? The matter ends; and nothing more. And all is as it was before.”
This was a condemnation of Jewish society as a whole that inspired the founding of self-defense units throughout what was then the Russian Empire and left a deep imprint on Zionist self-identity. How could Jews simply watch as their property was destroyed, friends murdered, and families raped? The only answer, in this view, was to reject that culture completely and build a new one built on standing up strong and unafraid. “Never Again,” while Hitler was still a teenager. The anti-Nazi partisans had these words on their mind and vowed not to go “like sheep to the slaughter.”
But, it wasn’t necessarily true. The Chisinau pogrom was itself at least minimized by the active resistance by the community. It also led to some abysmal behavior on the part of Israel towards Holocaust survivors. The survivors were regarded as a sign of everything that Zionism wasn’t and a symptom of the diaspora not listening to their warnings. They were often treated coldly in their new homes. This changed with the trial and execution of Adolf Eichmann, when the full stories of the Holocaust could be told and Israeli society felt more freedom to reconcile heroism and victimhood.
Yom Ha’Shoah is also much more specifically Jewish and heavily Israeli as opposed to the universalism of Holocaust Remembrance Day. It is situated directly in between Passover and the back-to-back holidays of Israeli Memorial Day and Independence Day. This is all very deliberate and loaded with meaning. While sitting at the Passover seder table, Jews recount the story of going from slavery to freedom. How Moses demanded that Pharaoh let his people go and how Nahshon had to first step neck deep into the Red Sea before the waters parted. Suffering and redemption. Then, so soon after there is yet another holiday cycle that observes suffering and redemption. Suffering through the Holocaust and redemption through the State of Israel. But it is no longer Nachson’s faith that led the way, but the valor and sacrifice of first the Jewish resistance to Hitler, then the soldiers and terror victims commemorated on Memorial Day.
The Jewish year is cyclical series of holidays and remembrances unchanged meant to teach different lessons throughout the year. Yom Ha’Shoah was inserted into the calendar following many of the same beats to echo some of the same themes.
So we are left with the final message of Yom HaShoah: the Jewish people reclaiming their dignity and strength after one of the greatest horrors in history, and remembering this in the same way as so many other horrors before.