Is Yom HaShoah on the Wrong Day?
Is Yom HaShoah observed on an inappropriate day?
In the previous post, I explained the mistake in the charedi position that saying Tehillim, rather than standing in silence, is a more traditionally Jewish way of commemorating the dead. In a future post, I will explain the fundamental reason why charedim do not participate in Yom HaShoah. In this post, I want to address a particular objection, voiced by charedi leadership, to the day picked to commemorate the Shoah. It is an objection with a certain degree of merit.
There are a number of possible days to commemorate the Holocaust, which fall into several categories. One could choose a day which denotes the beginning of the Holocaust. This itself is open to a range of possibilities. In a course on Holocaust Studies that I took at Bar-Ilan, by Dr. Judy Baumel-Schwartz, she noted that historians dispute the date that should be said to begin the Holocaust - the rise of the Nazi Party in 1920, the German elections in July 1932, the election of Hitler as chancellor in January 1933, the passing of the Nuremberg laws in 1935, Kristallnacht and the accompanying race laws in November 1938, the outbreak of World War II in 1939, the launch of the Final Solution in 1941, or the Wannsee Conference of 1942.
Another option is to choose a date of religious significance. The first Holocaust Remembrance Day in Israel was on Asarah B'Tevet 1949, following a decision by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel that it should be observed on a traditional day of mourning in the Jewish calendar. Others commemorate it on Tisha B'Av, when they add extra Kinnot.
When the Knesset decided in 1951 to establish a day to commemorate the Holocaust, however, they decided to choose a very different type of day: One relating to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. This began on the 14th of Nissan, but this date was rejected since it would be impractical to observe Yom HaShoah on erev Pesach. So instead, they picked the date of the end of the uprising, the 27th of Nissan.
Why did the Knesset choose a day relating to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising? This relates to the full name of Yom HaShoah: Yom Hazikaron laShoah ve-laG'vurah, "Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day." It is a day of commemorating not only the tragedy of those who died, but also the heroism of those who fought back. The incredible events of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, when the few drove out the many, were a psychological victory, demonstrating that Jews could be fighters and heroes.
Herein lies the problem, as articulated well by several authors in A Path Through the Ashes: Penetrating Analyses and Inspiring Stories of the Holocaust from a Torah Perspective, Collected from the Pages of the Jewish Observer (ArtScroll 1986). Defining the day in terms of the heroes, and designating the heroes as those who physically fought back, fits well with the Zionist ethos. However, it can also be seen as deeply offensive. Those who went to their deaths "like sheep to the slaughter" should not be criticized in any way. As Auschwitz survivor Joseph Friedenson wrote,
My late father, Reb Eliezer Gershon Friedenson, who gave away his last morsel of bread to the weeping children of the ghetto, was no less a hero for not having ever shot a gun... And what of the thousands of young men and women who did not part with their elderly fathers or mothers, although they could have saved themselves, and accompanied them right into the gas-chambers? And those who sacrificed themselves in order that others should live? They were all heroes. Yes, we find this new segregation of heroism at the commemoration reprehensible to our whole hashkafah, philosophy, on the Holocaust.
In my humble opinion, this objection to the date chosen for Yom HaShoah has much merit.
So why do I believe in observing Yom HaShoah on the 27th of Nissan?
Because if you define yourself as part of a group, then you should be open to compromise for the sake of achdus. Consider the response of one of the leading halachic authorities of the 18th century, R. Yaakov Reischer, when he was asked about a move to reject the kosher status of meat that was slaughtered in outlying villages by Jews that were insufficiently learned or pious. R. Reischer strongly condemned this approach (Shevut Yaakov II:58). He argued that the Jewish community must be united and not splinter into groups with different standards. And this was for a halachic matter!
The fact is that Friedenson himself notes that in 1975, he requested of the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah to define a way of commemorating the Holocaust, and that while they agreed that this must be done, it never happened. Meanwhile, the Government of Israel, and the majority of the population of Israel, selected the 27th of Nissan. And so whatever inappropriate subtle messages are contained in the selection of that date (and to be honest, the "VeHaGevurah" part of Yom HaShoah is rarely even mentioned, let alone dwelt upon), the fact is that this is the date which the nation has picked.
The choice of which day to designate for Yom HaShoah was perhaps inappropriate. But the day on which it is appropriate to commemorate the Holocaust is the day that now exists for this purpose.
אֵל מָלֵא רַחֲמִים שׁוֹכֵן בַּמְּרוֹמִים, הַמְצֵא מְנוּחָה נְכוֹנָה עַל כַּנְפֵי הַשְּׁכִינָה, בְּמַעֲלוֹת קְדוֹשִׁים וטְהוֹרִים כְּזוֹהַר הָרָקִיע מַזְהִירִים אֶת כָּל הַנְּשָׁמוֹת שֶׁל שֵׁשֶׁת מִילְיוֹנֵי הַיְּהוּדִים, חַלְלֵי הַשּׁוֹאָה בְּאֵירוֹפָּה, שֶׁנֶּהֶרְגוּ, שֶׁנִּשְׁחֲטוּ, שֶׁנִּשְׂרְפוּ וְשֶׁנִּסְפּוּ עַל קִדּוּשׁ הַשֵׁם, בִּידֵי הַמְרַצְּחִים הַגֶּרְמָנִים הָנַאצִים וְעוֹזְרֵיהֶם מִשְּׁאָר הֶעַמִּים. לָכֵן בַּעַל הָרַחֲמִים יַסְתִּירֵם בְּסֵתֶר כְּנָפָיו לְעוֹלָמִים, וְיִצְרוֹר בִּצְרוֹר הַחַיִּים אֶת נִשְׁמוֹתֵיהֶם, ה' הוּא נַחֲלָתָם, בְּגַן עֵדֶן תְּהֵא מְנוּחָתָם, וְיַעֶמְדוּ לְגוֹרָלָם לְקֵץ הַיָּמִין, וְנֹאמַר אָמֵן.
Stay tuned for an important announcement coming soon. Remember that you can subscribe to this blog via email using the form on the right of this page. (Don't forget to look for the confirmation email in your inbox - it might go to the spam folder.)