There are numerous dates that have been dedicated to Holocaust remembrance. The United Nations has set it as January 27, the date that Soviet troops liberated Auschwitz. Others chose to commemorate on or about November 9-10, the anniversary of Kristallnacht.
The Chief Rabbinate of Israel had declared the fast of the Tenth of Teves an inclusive day of mourning for the victims of the Holocaust. In fact, Asarah B’Teves remained the memorial day observed by the entire national religious school network in Israel until the late 1950s. Some preferred 20 Sivan, a fast day dedicated to the thousands killed in massacres in Poland in 1648-49. Many Gedolei Yisrael, including the Chazon Ish, felt that Tisha B’Av is the most appropriate day to mourn the six million Kedoshim.
But the secular Zionists had different plans.
On April 21, 1951, the Israeli Knesset announced that the 27th day of the Jewish month of Nisan would be Yom haShoah veMered haGetaot — Holocaust and Ghetto Uprising Memorial Day.
In 1959, the Knesset passed a law transforming Yom haShoah into a legally-enforced memorial day across the state of Israel. As part of the law, after intensive debate in the Knesset, the memorial day’s name was changed to Yom haZikaron la-Shoah uGevurah (Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Day), with the word “heroism” (gevurah) meant to signify that all forms of valor are commemorated on that day — including spiritual heroism. This was both an attempt to mollify the religious Knesset members and to temper the anti-religious and anti-Diaspora attitude that had alienated Israeli youth from their Jewish identity.
Despite the name change, in the public imagination and most especially in the Israeli educational system the day remained a time to glorify physical resistance.
By choosing this date, the Israeli government openly rejected thousands of years of Jewish tradition and the Torah values so treasured by many of the victims.
According to halachah, Nisan is a month of celebration in which Tachanun is not recited, and eulogies are not given. The choice of this date — chosen to mark the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising — isn’t only misguided, it is deeply disrespectful.
The 27th of Nisan was chosen to further a grievously wrongheaded agenda favored by secular Zionism of promoting physical might instead of moral and spiritual strength.
Irrespective of the name change, the date wholly ignores the mighty spiritual resistance exhibited by the victims and survivors of the Holocaust; the Jews who risked their lives to daven, to don tefillin; to light Chanukah lecht and even bake matzos.
Sifrei halachah as well as numerous minhagim faithfully passed down through the generations detail a variety of ways for us to honor the memories of niftarim by undertaking acts that would be a benefit to their neshamos. These include the saying of Kaddish, the study of Mishnayos; the donating of tzedakah and the lighting of candles.
We also have a clear precedent for how to commemorate national tragedies: through fast days and the recital of kinos. But the sounding of sirens and moments of silence — the latter a concept thought to originate from Quaker religious practices — have no place in Jewish tradition.
In an interview several years ago, former Israeli Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, himself a child survivor of Buchenwald, spoke about the importance of educating Israelis about the Holocaust.
“It is very important that they know not only how Jews died al kiddush Hashem. It is even more important that they know how those Jews lived al kiddush Hashem… How the lives of Jews looked before the Holocaust, the emunah, the emunas chahamim, the goodness and honesty, the Torah learning and good deeds. There is so much to learn from them,” he said.
Harav Yisrael Shapira, the Bluzhever Rebbe, zy”a, would carry with him a letter he had received as an inmate in a death camp during the Holocaust from a chassid of his named Aryeh Kornblit, Hy”d. Aryeh wrote that his wife had been killed the day before, and they were about to take him, along with 800 other Jews, to their deaths.
“Please, dear Rabbi, if you should be found worthy of being saved, and if you should be able to settle in Eretz Yisrael, then have a little marker put upon our holy soil as a remembrance for my wife and me. No matter where you will make your new home, perhaps you can have a sefer Torah written in our memory. I am enclosing 50 American dollars which I hope the messenger with whom I am sending this note will give to you,” the letter read.
But in contemporary Israeli society, Yom Hashoah has turned into a litmus tests of sorts. It is “the day of commemoration,” and if one doesn’t recognize this date, it must be that he doesn’t commemorate the Holocaust at all.
We strongly disagree.
Instead of spending one day holding ceremonies and then forgetting about the victims and survivors for another year, every day should be day a Yom Hashoah. The sacred obligation of Zachor asher asah Amalek requires all of us to do our part to educate ourselves and the coming generations about Churban Europa. But Holocaust education and memorializing the victims must be done in a way that conforms to Torah values in order for these to truly honor the zecher of the Kedoshim. Memorializing must be not only about mourning the destruction, but about inspiration and rebuilding.
Through living a Torah life true to the ideals practiced by so many of the Kedoshim, we keep their memory alive every day of the year.
That is the greatest way we can honor them.
This article appeared in print on page D40 of the April 10, 2013 edition of Hamodia.