“For the dead and the living, we must bear witness.” (Elie Wiesel)
Tonight, as the sun sets, Yom HaShoah (יום השואה), Holocaust Remembrance Day, begins.
Here in Israel and around the world, the Jewish People
face the memory and pain of the Holocaust and say, “Never again.”
And for many of us here at the ministry, it is very personal as we lost grandparents, aunts and uncles, who were gassed and then put in the ovens in Auschwitz
. And the family members who were not put to death right away were in slave labor camps becoming living skeletons.
A somber mood covers the Land of Israel, and tomorrow morning a 10 AM, the nation will come to a complete standstill as citizens stand at attention when sirens blast for two minutes. Even those driving will pull to the side and exit their vehicles to stand in honor of those who perished.
This annual remembrance of their sacrifice called the Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Day, or Yom HaShoah, dedicated to those who suffered and resisted, is held under the auspices of Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority.
On Yom HaShoah, Israel pauses for two minutes from the hustle and bustle of daily life to remember those who perished in the Holocaust. Even traffic comes to a standstill as people leave their cars. (Photo by Adam Jones)
Yom HaShoah is a day set aside to remember the dark deeds done during the Holocaust
and the heroic response of many to those deeds.
It is a day to share the burden of traumatic memory
and encourage those who suffered to tell their stories and not spare us from their painful recollections. It is a day to bear witness.
Documentaries covering the Holocaust and movies with a Holocaust theme are shown on television throughout the day.
At Yad Vashem
, a special ceremony is held for the entire nation and it is televised throughout the country.
Communities throughout Israel come together in remembrance of those who survived or were destroyed in the Holocaust. Young people perform skits. There are musical presentations, and local Holocaust survivors
provide firsthand accounts of this shameful period.
Today, only an estimated 193,000 Holocaust survivors remain in Israel. As the years pass, their numbers dwindle; therefore, their firsthand accounts must continue to be passed from generation to generation.
The Struggle to Maintain the Human Spirit During the Holocaust
The theme for this year’s Remembrance Day is “Everything is Forbidden to Us, and Yet We Do Everything.”
These words appear in the diary of the late Warsaw Ghetto
educator Chaim Aharon Kaplan, who wrote, “In these days of our misfortune, we live the life of Marranos
. Everything is forbidden to us, and yet we do everything.”
Marranos, which is Spanish for “pigs,” was the name given to Jews living in 15th century Spain, who under penalty of death had converted to Catholicism, living outwardly as Catholics but secretly continuing to live the life of Jews.
Kaplan described the attempts by Jews to continue to live as human beings in spite of the conditions that were being forced on them by their Nazi overlords.
Written in March of 1940 while living in the Warsaw Ghetto, Kaplan’s words are a testimony to the undying spirit of the Jewish inhabitants:
“The Jews of Poland oppressed and broken, shamed and debased, still love life, and do not wish to leave this world before their time. Say what you like, the will to live amidst terrible suffering is the manifestation of some hidden power whose nature we do not yet know. It is a marvelous, life-preserving power that only the most firmly established and strongest of the communities of our people have received as a blessing.” (Chaim A. Kaplan, 1940)
A Holocaust survivor shows the number that the Nazis tattooed on her with.
From the very beginnings of the establishment of Germany’s Nazi government, the Nazis had been working to dehumanize the Jewish population in any way possible.
As early as 1933, they began to implement a policy of oppression and legalized terror against their Jewish citizens, isolating them and cutting them off from any means of survival.
As bad as it was in Germany
, it was even worse in such occupied countries as Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, etc. These policies of deprivation eventually led to one of outright extermination resulting in the destruction of over two thirds of European Jewry. (Yad Vashem)
Wherever the Nazis invaded they rounded up Jews, placing them in ghettos where they attempted to destroy the very fabric of Jewish family and communal life.
Immediate attempts were made to destroy Jews spiritually, demolishing synagogues and outlawing prayer of any kind. The Jews struggled to maintain a communal framework to allow for a continued physical and spiritual existence.
During Kristallnacht in 1938, SS men set fire to the Great Synagogue on Michelsberg Street in Wiesbaden. It was one of many synagogues burned during the Holocaust. The Great Synagogue of Białystok, Poland, was burned down in 1941. Inside were an estimated 2,000 Jews.
Although, for many, this meant simply struggling to maintain the survival of themselves and their family members, for some it was an opportunity to rise above the death crouching around them. As such, regardless of their circumstances, they struggled to maintain moral values and a modicum of culture.
In the midst of hunger and deprivation, attempts were made to establish organizations for mutual aid and support, medical care, and cultural events.
When education was prohibited, study groups were formed where children met covertly with their teachers and studied.
Jews continued to exercise their creativity, to pray, and to secretly observe the holidays. An example of this is given in The Diary of Anne Frank
. Members of the Frank family and their neighbors in the Secret Annex celebrate the Hanukkah
festival while in hiding during December of 1944, as well as the Dutch Festival of Saint Nicholas Day.
Despite their circumstances, the Jewish People performed plays, gave lectures, and held literary evenings and poetry readings. (Yad Vashem)
Netherlands postage stamp showing an image of Anne Frank, who as a young girl was a victim of the Holocaust. After WWII, she became famous for her diary published as “The Diary of a Young Girl.”
Homelessness: The Aftermath of the Holocaust
“Hear my prayer, O Lord, and let my cry come unto Thee. Hide not Thy face from me in the day when I am in trouble; incline Thine ear unto me: in the day when I call answer me speedily. For my days are consumed like smoke, and my bones are burned as an hearth.” (Psalm 102:1–3)
In Psalm 102:1–3, David’s lament seems to foresee this horrible time in the history of the Jewish People.
Starting with the rise to power of the German dictator in 1933 up until the end of World War II in 1945, the Jews of Europe were persecuted and almost entirely destroyed by the insane efforts of a nation gone mad with power and hatred — that was the German people during the government of Nazism
It has been estimated that at least six million Jewish men, women, and children lost their lives during this period of maniacal, systematic hatred and human destruction.
Rising from the ashes of European Jewry was the independent State of Israel
. But that didn’t happen immediately, even though a Jewish state had been promised early in the 20th century before WWII.
Mass grave in Bergen-Belson concentration camp
In the spring of 1945, after almost six years of war, Allied and Soviet troops began to enter the death camps
of eastern and central Europe where they were met with piles of corpses and the human remains of the many innocents that had been murdered there. Also discovered were the huddled starving Jewish and non-Jewish survivors.
Having been set free from the camps, some Jews became afraid to return to their homes — with good reason. Pogroms and violent attacks against Jews did not end with the war.
Some had survived the Holocaust only to be murdered by former neighbors who had appropriated their property. For instance, in 1946, rioters in the Polish town of Kielce killed at least 42 Jews and severely beat many others.
Though the Nazi Holocaust was over officially, many were unrepentant and refused to give up what they had achieved or gained at the expense of the Jewish People. Of course, this only compounded the devastation.
With few choices open to them, tens of thousands of homeless Holocaust survivors migrated to western European territories where they were housed in displaced persons (DP) camps.
The camps were administered by the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) and the occupying armies of the United States, Great Britain, and France.
Many Jewish agencies worked to assist the refugees, chief among them being the American Joint Distribution Committee, providing survivors with food and clothing while the Organization for Rehabilitation through Training (ORT) offered vocational training.
The Nazis deport Jews from Poland’s Siedlce Ghetto to the Treblinka Extermination Camp.
During this time, immigration to the US was still limited, and in deference to the Arabs, the British continued to bar immigration to the Holy Land.
Members of the Jewish Brigade of the British Army, who had fought in Europe along with former partisan fighters, formed Brihah (Hebrew for flight or escape) to aid in the exodus of refugees from Europe to Palestine.
Those Jews living in Palestine organized clandestine or “illegal” transportation by ships known as the second aliyah (immigration) or Aliyah Bet.
Many of these illegal vessels were intercepted by the British shore patrol and their occupants were interned in a camp on Cyprus, which was then held by the British.
The famous Exodus refugee ship of 1947 was forced to return to Germany with its 4,500 survivors.
All this came to an end with the establishment of the state, making the way for some 170,000 displaced refugees to immigrate to Israel by 1953.
An act of Congress in 1948 increased the quota for immigration to the US, allowing approximately 68,000 Jewish refugees entrance by the end of 1951. (ushmm)
Israeli President Reuven Rivlin speaks at the Knesset during Yom HaShoah. Beside him is a six light stand that commemorates the six million Jews who died in the Holocaust.
Why We Remember
Though the Holocaust happened many years ago, it is not a distant memory. And it should never become that.
The Holocaust destroyed six million Jewish lives and millions of others. It was perpetrated by a European country that was advanced in science and culture. It was a modern democracy.
Nevertheless, it descended into social and economic collapse and mass murder
A strong man, Adolph Hitler, managed to come to power with his doctrine of a superior Aryan race.
Through the use of subterfuge and propaganda, he convinced most of the German people to follow him and to betray the Jews who also considered themselves German. After all, Jews had lived in Germany since about the fifth century.
That propaganda eventually led to the creation of a death industry in which extermination camps processed millions, gassing
and burning them, all under the authority of the Nazi government.
Under that authority, men committed atrocities while bystanders watched and did nothing.
ewish children in the Lodz Ghetto in German-Occupied Poland are rounded up for extermination in the Chelmno death camp.
Because the events and statistics of the Holocaust are so staggering, we are tempted to put it out of our minds.
It’s a shameful reality that the Holocaust is an ugly scar on the face of humanity.
For that reason alone, we need to be reminded of those who suffered as well as what common people are capable of — both evil and good.
While remembering those who suffered, we need also remember the rescuers
who often put their lives and that of their family members at risk to save a fellow human being.
We also remember the soldiers who liberated the camps and worked to aid the survivors.
Today, we must examine ourselves to make sure that we are not standing by, contributing to the suffering of others. Millions throughout the world are being persecuted, and the anti-Semitism that cleared the way for the Holocaust is once again on the rise.
May each of us say, “Never again,” and stand against anti-Semitism, persecution, and oppression which seem to be so ever present.
“For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light.” (John 12:36)