Yom HaShoah 5769

20 04 2009

I can’t believe that it’s already been a year since my last Yom HaShoah rant. Somewhat calmer this time, I instead thought that I might say a few words about the means by which this particular day of commemoration came to be, and some of the inherent problems with it.

The full name of the day is actually Yom HaZikaron LaShoah VeLaGevurah (יום הזכרון לשואה ולגבורה), which means “The Day of Remembrance for the Holocaust and for the Strength”. The implication of the final word is that of resistance (in particular, Jewish resistance) to the Holocaust, but the former term (“Shoah” / Holocaust) deserves a mention too.

“Shoah” (שואה) is used a number of times in the Bible, although its usage in Zephaniah 1:15 is the most illustrative. The prophet speaks of the day of the Lord – an eschatological apocalypse of sorts – and describes it as:

יום עברה היום ההוא יום צרה ומצוקה יום שאה ומשואה יום חשך ואפלה יום ענן וערפל

A day of wrath, shall that day be: a day of trouble and distress, a day of utter desolation, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of cloud and smog.

The word “Holocaust”, on the other hand, derives from Greek ο͑λος (holos), meaning “whole”, and καυστος (kaustos), meaning “burned”. A holocaust, also known in Hebrew as an עולה, is an offering completely consumed by fire. Like the word “Shoah”, it relates to something utterly destroyed, and serves as a cognate term for describing the European Jewish experience under the Third Reich.

So, the question is: when can events like these be commemorated? The answer is not so simple.

Many religious Jews around the world, including the Chief Rabbinate of the State of Israel, objected to the desire to inaugurate a new day of observance. So far as they were concerned, there are already three such days in the year whose meaning might be adapted. The primary one is the 9th of Av, which commemorates the destruction of both the first and second temples, and which is a day on which religious Jews also meditate upon the ensuing exile and its many concomitant tribulations. This is the primary choice, given the fact that some religious authorities also considered the first world war to have commenced on the 9th of Av, and see the first world war as the prelude to the second and – hence – to the Holocaust itself. In fact, there is a long tradition of ascribing all manner of historical events to this same date, so the usage of this day in order to also commemorate the events of the Holocaust would not be unprecedented.

The second choice was one that falls some three works before the 9th of Av, and is the 17th of Tammuz. This is the day on which Nebuchadnezzar’s army finally ended their three-year siege of Jerusalem by breaking through the walls of the city. It initiated the three-week sacking of the city itself, which culminated in the burning of the Temple on the 9th of Av. For many religious Jews around the world, this three-week period is a period of intense mourning, over which certain activities are forbidden. The final nine days (from the 1st through to the 9th of Av) are a period of heightened mourning, on which some particularly ascetic individuals even forgo the washing of clothes, the taking of showers, or the wearing of perfume. Sexual intercourse is also forbidden over this period, although if one has neither had a shower, washed one’s clothes, nor applied deoderant, I imagine that is a small mercy.

Finally, there is the 10th of Tevet. This occurs somewhat later in the year, but commemorates an event that happened some three years before the events of the 17th of Tammuz. According to the Bible, Nebuchadnezzar rallied his army together on the 10th of Tevet (literally, the tenth day of the tenth month) and commenced his siege of Jerusalem. This was the primary choice of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, as a day on which to commemorate the Holocaust, and there was something of a precedent for them doing so. Many communities had already been using the day as an opportunity to recite the mourners’ Kaddish for those dead Jews, the circumstances of whose deaths and the locations of whose graves were unknown. And, in 1949, the Chief Rabbinate even made it official. Although many religious Jews also used (and continue to use) the 9th of Av in order to meditate upon the Holocaust, the 10th of Tevet became the official day. For a while.

You see, while the Rabbinate felt that the inauguration of a whole new day would simply constitute a secular alternative, what they failed to realise was that many people were searching for precisely that. Whether or not they personally celebrated the 10th of Tevet, the 17th of Tammuz and the 9th of Av was immaterial. They didn’t want to use those days to also commemorate the Holocaust, and felt that the Holocaust was too large an event to fit within a theological framework. Indeed, it is still too soon to posit religious reasons for its occurrence, and too many well-meaning Rabbis have found themselves in hot water as a result of trying to do just that.

Instrumental in establishing a new day for the remembrance of the Holocaust were the Zionists. They felt (although, incorrectly) that the events of the 10th of Tevet, the 17th of Tammuz and the 9th of Av typified Jewish non-resistance. It was a result of the passive Rabbinic culture that awoke in the wake of the final insurrection against the Romans in 150 CE (itself resulting in the decimation of Palestinian Jewry and the executions of ten prominent Rabbis) that these three days of observance have been viewed as pogroms. It is simply untrue that the Babylonians persecuted the Judeans, and it is untrue that they were persecuted by the Romans. People do a gross injustice to history in forgetting that there was a war, and they do a gross injustice to their forbears in forgetting how well that war was fought. Had the Jews not defended Jerusalem, Nebuchadnezzar would not have taken three whole years to breach its walls. Had they not risen against the Romans so effectively, then the Romans would not have incurred as many losses as they did, and their retribution would not have been so grievous for the Jews. Nonetheless, the chief role of the religious mindset is to recreate the past in one’s own image, and the Rabbinic imagining of their spiritual ancestors as pious scholars who avoided conflict is a result of the role that they came to play, themselves. From a Zionist perspective, the festivals were tainted with this passivity and they longed for an anniversary that might celebrate resistance as well as suffering.

The logical choice – indeed, the only logical choice – was the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. From the time of the final revolt against the Romans (150 CE) to the start of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising (April 19th, 1943), there are no recorded instances of organised Jewish revolts. The Warsaw Ghetto uprising, itself organised by Zionists in the Warsaw Ghetto, became a symbol of defiance against oppression, and the date of its commencement a suitable anniversary for the commemoration of the Holocaust. With a stunning disregard for the official proclamation of the Chief Rabbinate only two years earlier, the Israeli Knesset declared a new day for the commemoration of the Holocaust in 1951. It was to be the 27th of Nissan, which (this year) starts this evening: the evening of the 20th of April.

The Knesset’s decision to choose the 27th of Nissan was, itself, not such an obvious choice. They sought the date of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, but were unable to settle upon it for a very important reason. The actual date of the uprising’s beginning was the 14th of Nissan – the day before Passover. However irreligious some Zionists might have been, the majority by this stage were at least respectful of earlier traditions, and did not seek to replace them all with new ones. A commemoration of the bloody events of 1933-1945 is inappropriate on the day before the commemoration of our exodus from Egypt – however fictitious the latter event may be. While religious Jews complained that the whole month of Nissan is supposed to be a time of rejoicing, the Knesset was less concerned with that particular caveat, and opted instead for a date that falls shortly after the conclusion of Passover.

There are still two problems.

A religious person will be quick to point out that, while the 14th of Nissan was at least an anniversary (the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising), the 27th of Nissan is nothing. The uprising was still going, but it was simply another day in the gritty lives of Jews across that sector of the continent.

Further to this, anybody who holds any stock in anniversaries at all (and it seems from the laborious means by which this one was established that many do) would be somewhat dismayed by the fact that the 27th of Nissan continually skirts around the 20th April. This year it begins on the 20th of April: the day on which, were Hitler alive, he would be turning 120. It is a macabre coincidence that his birthday should happen to mark the commemoration of his deeds, but it is perhaps a sign that, whether we like it or not, the perpetrator is also present when we meditate upon the victims.

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