“We are still here. And no matter what, we shall continue to be here to tell people so they can learn from our history.” Elie Wiesel
At exactly 10 a.m. today the Jewish state paused for two minutes as a siren wailed across the country to mark Yom Hashoah-Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day.
2015 marks the 70th anniversary of liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camps and thus all Holocaust ceremonies are dedicated to liberty, life and the legacy of Shoah survivors.
Some more than one million people, mostly Jews, were killed in Auschwitz-Birkenau between 1940 and 1945. Many of the survivors still alive today were children in 1945, one of whom is author Elie Wiesel, the 1986 Nobel Peace Prize laureate for acting out against violence, repression, and racism.
Today Israel and the Jewish world mourn six million Jews and five million others who perished in the Holocaust as a result of the actions carried out by Nazi Germany and its accomplices, and for the Jewish resistance during that period. Approximately 190,000 Holocaust survivors live in Israel today. Their average age is 85, and sadly about 1,000 die each month.
Growing up in Israel provided daily opportunities to deal with the Holocaust, or in my case, be obsessed with it. Although members of my extended family perished in the Shoah, the Hebrew word for the Holocaust, I’m not a direct descendant of survivors. Both my parents as well as my grandparents grew up in Israel, and yet, the Holocaust was always part of my upbringing. We never vacationed in Germany, nor did we purchase German products. As a child I read and often wrote about the Holocaust and found ways to connect it with my daily life. That sense of blending the old with the new, the future with the past and hope with grief permeates Israel; it’s part of the air we breathe, and it informs how we view things as a people. With a few kibbutzim named in memory of Holocaust heroes and survivors, with so many street names commemorating victims and perished communities, with memorial sites throughout the country, and with hundreds of thousands survivors, their tattooed arms marking them, still walking among us, physically and emotionally scarred for life, it is impossible to escape the Holocaust, nor did I want to.
“Never shall I forget that first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night, … Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the little faces of the children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky.” Elie Wiesel
Will generations to come be surrounded by a similar atmosphere when fewer and fewer survivors live among us, reminding us daily of the horrors they have been through?
Yom Hashoah in Israel is by law a national memorial day and a formal holiday. It was inaugurated in 1953, anchored by a law signed by the Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion and President Yitzhak Ben-Zvi. This date marks the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising and reflects the attitude in Israel of the 1950s – highlighting Jewish heroism as the answer to Jewish passivity. Mordechai Anielewicz the charismatic 24-year-old leader of the Jewish Combat Organization that led the Warsaw Ghetto uprising is the kind of Jewish figure a young Israel of the ‘50s chose to identify with, using him as a symbol with which to commemorate the Holocaust. (The Southern Yad Mordechai kibbutz named after Mordechai Anielewicz was formed in 1943). Anielewicz, by all means, was a true leader, a proud Jew and one of our finest Jewish heroes. But his battle and tragedy reflects only one chapter of WWII, a chapter so willingly seized upon by our newborn state looking to illuminate Jewish pride, ignoring all other chapters of the Holocaust — the misery, hapless humiliation and suffering of the six million who perished, and the ones who survived, deeply damaged by the physical and mental privations of the Shoah.
Sharing hope and a smile when smiles are rare are acts of emotional strength. Sharing a single slice of bread is an act of heroism and risking one’s shaky health in an attempt to share a blanket is an act of bravery. Fasting on Yom Kippur and keeping Pesach in order to preserve Jewish identity — a human identity — when such are denied and one becomes nothing more than a number, are acts of mightiness, of Jewish pride.
These are the stories that along with the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, heroic partisans’ escapes and other feats of overt bravey that make up the many millions of human moments of Holocuast heroism. They meet side by side in the book of the Shoah and make it a sacred one.
It wasn’t until the Eichmann trial in 1961, when survivors’ testimonies became public, as evidence came out in court and the raw horrors and tales of utter inhumanity were shared. It was then that Holocaust survivors stood courageously on the stand crying out loud: “We didn’t march like sheep to the slaughter; we kept our humanity, one that the Nazis forgot they ever had.” It was then, followed by the 1972 Munich massacre during the Olympic games, when 11 Israeli athletes — symbols of Jewish power — were brutally murdered. Only then did Israelis finally understand what strength really means, and why Holocaust survivors should be treated differently. At that time, public discourse in Israel about the Holocaust changed course, accepting other narratives and acknowledging multi facets of heroism. Israeli society, previously driven by the image of the new Zionist sabra, began viewing survivors with a growing respect for their suffering, and with greater understanding as to what they had been through. There was a new appreciation of what it took for them to survive. Years later this shift in attitude led to changing the concept of the Yad Vashem museum and ultimately a complete renovation.
The 24 hours of Yom Hashoah began at 8 p.m. last night with the official ceremony at Yad Vashem, where six survivors, accompanied by their grandchildren lit six torches in memory of six million men, women and children who perished during WWII in Hitler’s Final Solution. It continues throughout the day today, where by law all entertainment places will remain closed. The day is marked across the country with ceremonies at all schools and public organizations, dedicated broadcasting on radio and TV and the annual reading of names at the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, where Israeli delegates read names of their family members killed by the Nazis. It is a day where our collective mourning becomes so personal, yet so public.
Viktor E. Frankl, another well know Auschwitz-Birkenau survivor wrote: “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
May the six million — our brothers and sisters, our parents, grandparents and children — memories be a blessing and may we know how to cherish them forever. Yehi Zichram Baruch.
Leah Garber, Vice President. Director, JCC Israel Center