“For my days vanish like smoke; my bones burn like glowing embers. My heart is blighted and withered like grass; I forget to eat my food. In my distress I groan aloud and am reduced to skin and bones.” (Psalm 102:3–5)
Tonight at sundown, the somber national memorial day of Yom HaZikaron laShoah ve-laG’vurah (Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day) or Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Day) begins. Here in Israel, we set aside this day to remember the six million Jewish people—one third of the world’s Jewish population—murdered in the Holocaust.
In Jerusalem’s Warsaw Ghetto Square at Yad Vashem (Holocaust Memorial Museum), a state ceremony will be held tonight, during which the national flag will be lowered to half-staff.
Both President Rivlin and Prime Minister Netanyahu will deliver speeches, and Holocaust survivors will light six torches symbolizing the approximately six million Jews who perished in the Holocaust. The Chief Rabbis will also recite prayers.
Tomorrow at 10 a.m., all over Israel traffic will come to a stop and Israelis will step out of their cars and stand silent in the streets to honor the 11 million people killed in the Holocaust, as well as the heroes who defied the Nazis at risk to their own lives.
In Poland, as well, 11,000 students from Poland and abroad will participate in the March of the Living, walking in remembrance from Auschwitz to Birkenau. (JPost)
This year, the March will be focused on post-Holocaust and contemporary anti-Semitism, “with participants becoming the witnesses for the next generation,” explained Shmuel Rosenman, March of the Living chairman.
“With the rising tide of anti-Semitism in Europe, this year the march takes on extra significance as we ask whether, 70 years after the end of the Second World War, the lessons of that tragic period of history have really been learned,” Rosenman said. (JPost)
Passing the Torch of Holocaust Remembrance
The passing of the torch to younger people directs them to “see the struggle for Jews to live in safety as an ongoing necessity, rather than a part of history,” writes Israel National News.
It is an obligation for the Jewish remnant, as well as the world, to preserve the memory of this horror story—of humankind’s capacity to murderously destroy an entire race of people and almost succeed in doing it—of humankind turning a blind eye, passively standing by and just letting it happen.
This capacity and this passivity still infect humankind.
It is urgent that the torch of remembrance be passed. A report released last Wednesday by the Center of Organizations of Holocaust Survivors reveals that more than 80% of Israelis believe that the Holocaust is in danger of being forgotten. (Arutz Sheva)
Will we allow that happen? Are we seeing the last trace of “Never Forget”? Will the Holocaust be forgotten in a handful of years?
It is possible—if we let it happen.
While many Holocaust survivors have been diligent to share their memories of the Holocaust, which have been met with kind curiosity, their numbers are rapidly dwindling.
The 62nd annual observance of this important commemoration in Israel on this 27th of Nisan might be the final Yom HaShoah for many survivors who saw and experienced the evil of the Nazis firsthand.
“He saw that there was no one, He was appalled that there was no one to intervene; so His own arm achieved salvation for him, and His own righteousness sustained him.” (Isaiah 59:16)
Who will tell the stories of those who have suffered after they pass? Who will remember? Who among us will be determined to never forget?
Remembering Miracles that Happened During the Holocaust
While we bring to mind the horrors of the Holocaust and the multitudes who were murdered—about six million Jews, as well as five million others, including three million Polish Christians—we might wrestle with the thought: “Where was God?”
Many victims of Nazi Europe imagined that God had forgotten them, or they lost their faith altogether.
Where was God’s intervention for His people during the 1930s and ’40s?
At Passover, we see God actively working on behalf of His People by personally speaking to Moses and by smiting the Egyptians with the plague of death.
At Purim, however, we see that God Himself is never mentioned in the Book of Esther. While Mordecai serves as an example of a Jew devoted to God, and Queen Esther brings the Jewish People’s plea to the king, God’s involvement can only be “seen” behind the scenes.
God has continued to work in front of and behind the scenes throughout history.
In remembering the Holocaust this week, may all of the behind-the-scenes miracles that occurred in those dark days carry their true weight. May we see God’s hand at work in the recorded testimonies shared below.
Gena Turgel: Auschwitz Survivor, Author: I Light a Candle
Krakow-born Gena Turgel was 21 years old when she and her mother were told to strip naked and wait in an Auschwitz gas chamber.
“We walked into that room—stone floors, openings in the ceiling which I can still see in front of me—and we were trembling,” Turgel said in a video interview posted by The Israel Project. “It was bitter cold—waiting, waiting.”
Turgel said she did not know to expect a shower of Zyklon B—the hydrogen cyanide that would suffocate multitudes of prisoners, pushing them to claw at the walls and one another, to try reach for clean air near the ceiling.
As they waited, Turgel saw “walking skeletons in every sense of the word—heaps of bodies lying everywhere; you could not distinguish whether they were men or women.” After waiting, no poison fell. (TIP)
“As we came outside, the women there said how wonderful it was to see us. They screamed with happiness,” Turgel told the Associated Press in 2005, suggesting the gassing system must have been broken. “They said, ‘Don’t you know? You were in the gas chamber.’ I lost my voice. I couldn’t produce any saliva.”
“I have two daughters and a son, eight grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. It’s a wonderful feeling to have family and to see it all—I was so thankful to God for that,” Turgel added.
“Comfort, comfort My people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.” (Isaiah 40:1–2)
Yehuda Bacon: Auschwitz Survivor, Artist
Czechoslovakia-born Yehuda Bacon was 14 when he was taken to Auschwitz-Birkenau. After six months, his father was killed in an Auschwitz gas chamber and cremated—while his mother and sister were moved to an Austrian camp where they died. (Learning about the Holocaust through Art)
Bacon became one of the few thousand prisoners remaining at Auschwitz at the time of the Russian advance against Germany. That advance pushed back the Nazis and motivated them to destroy evidence of their genocidal crimes.
With Russia ready to soon liberate Auschwitz and its sub-camps, on January 18, 1945, the Nazis forced Bacon and 66,000 others on a 30-day-and-night death march to concentration camps deeper in the Reich. About 15,000 Auschwitz prisoners died and were buried in mass graves along the brutal walk. (The Holocaust Explained)
“My friends and I helped each other to drag ourselves along day and night on foot,” Bacon told the BBC. His second death march happened two-and-a-half months later. They arrived in the Austrian camp Gunskirchen where there were no toilets, food, water, or clothes.
Just before the United States 71st Infantry Division liberated the Gunskirchen camp, a Mauthausen-Gusen sub-camp, the Nazi guards poisoned the food in the storeroom and fled.
“I tried to take a huge piece of margarine. Another prisoner, who was still strong, wanted to steal it from me. I held it tight in my pocket, so he just took a razor, opened the pocket and took it away,” Bacon said. “But he actually saved my life because not only had it been poisoned, but my body wasn’t used to so much food and I would have died if I had eaten it.”
Bacon added that in escaping the camp, he and his friend Wolfie followed a “crazy idea to go to Switzerland.” The rest of the prisoners went to the nearest village, ate food the villagers shared, and died because their bodies were not used to the amount of food being eaten.
“In Israel they have one day of commemoration of the Holocaust every year where they have films and lectures and so on—a little too much, in my opinion,” Bacon told the BBC. “But that is mainly for the other people who didn’t experience it. For us, the ones who survived, we live with it every day.”
Angela Polger: Auschwitz-born
Angela Polger was not yet born when she survived the first two attempts on her life.
Dr. Carl Clauberg was a professor and researcher who received permission from experimental scientist Heinrich Himmler in 1942 to access multitudes of people for sterilization—among them, Angela’s mother, Vera Bein (nee Otvos).
Based at Auschwitz, Clauberg injected acid liquids into the uteruses of thousands of Jewish and Gypsy women, who were “sterilized by the injections, producing horrible pain, inflamed ovaries, bursting spasms in the stomach, and bleeding,” writes Jewish Virtual Library. “The injections seriously damaged the ovaries of the victims, which were then removed and sent to Berlin. Clauberg’s experiments killed some of his subjects, and others were put to death so that autopsies could be performed.”
Of the 700 women Clauberg sterilized, his attempt on Vera Bein failed.
“That was me in there [the womb],” Angela marveled. “The needles went in, I went to the right side, then the left side. Who knows what he gave her?” (Aish)
While Angela says she was so small, her mother was able to hide the pregnancy. Still, an unnamed “Jewish woman doctor” warned Vera that new mothers and their infants usually “disappeared” after birth.
Jewish-Hungarian gynecologist Gisella Perl writes in her 1948 I Was a Doctor in Auschwitz that women who gave birth in the camp “were beaten with clubs and whips, torn by dogs, dragged around by their hair and kicked in the stomach with heavy German boots. Then, when they collapsed, they were thrown into the crematory—alive.” (p. 80)
The doctor who spoke to Vera wanted to give her an abortion. “She said I was too young to be gassed, and she wanted to save me,” Vera says on an audio recording taken by her granddaughter for a school project.
But Vera dreamed that night of her own mother, who told her, “Veruska, you are eight-months pregnant, and you don’t do this, because [the baby is] alive already and ready to leave. Believe in God and HaShem will be with you. Maybe a miracle will happen. But don’t do it.”
She told the doctor no and on December 21 gave birth on a top bunk to two-pound (1kg) Angela, with the help of an inmate supervisor. (Aish)
“But now, for a brief moment, the Lord our God has been gracious in leaving us a remnant … and so our God gives light to our eyes and a little relief in our bondage.” (Ezra 9:8)
The Jerusalem Talmud Sanhedrin 4:1 quotes Hillel (doctor of Jewish Law during the reign of King Herod) saying, “Whosoever destroys a soul, it is considered as if he destroyed an entire world. And whosoever that saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world.”
As we mourn the millions (those who were and those who would have been) that were snuffed out in the Holocaust, we too treasure the miracle of every single one that survived.
Tonight, the Day of Remembrance for the Holocaust and the heroism will be marked with a siren sounding across the Land of Israel for two minutes at sundown and tomorrow morning for another two minutes.
Almost the entire nation will come to a standstill, with cars stopping on the highways and people freezing in silence, respect and memory of “the Holocaust and its heroes.”
But two minutes of silent contemplation is not enough. We must mark this day with action.
Here in Israeli schools and public centers, this day will be honored with speeches, memoir readings, dance performances, and other showings of respect.
Around the world, there will be special events and exhibits that highlight the stories and faces of the Holocaust.
For the sake of this generation and the generations to come, may each of us, whether Jew or Gentile, take it upon ourselves to actively keep the memory of the Holocaust alive.
On Yom HaShoah and every other day, we must not be silent, but vigilant, understanding that there are a growing number on the international scene who do not share the sentiment “Never Again.”
While there are no easy answers for why the world allowed the Holocaust to happen, let us diligently ensure that it does not happen again.