YOM HASHOAH

The name and the date are arbitrary. Shoah is a word from “modern” Hebrew which means destruction or catastrophe. Because of our past, there is no unfortunately no shortage of words in Hebrew for destruction or catastrophe. Two thousand years earlier, when the holy Temple was reduced to rubble, the word Churban was ultimately chosen to describe a destruction or catastrophe that would eventually lead to two thousand years of homelessness for our people. The date of the 27th day of the Hebrew month of Nissan was chosen only after much acrimony between opposing factions in the Israeli Knesset. Even though it flew in the face of the Orthodox, the Knesset declared that the 27th of Nissan would be the day when the Holocaust would be commemorated. In reality, any and every day of the Jewish year would have been equally appropriate.

With no disrespect to the term Yom HaShoah, perhaps there are also other names that would have aptly described man’s inhumanity against man, while at the same time adding the much needed dimension of solace:

Yom HaBechi (Hebrew for the Day of Crying). Yom HaBechi would have been a most appropriate term. It would have atoned for a world that was criticized as being totally indifferent to the suffering and annihilation of those whose biggest crime was being a Jew. Yom HaBechi would have shown that the rest of the world was not as heartless as it appeared to be. Yom HaBechi would have served yet one other purpose; it would have provided an answer (admittedly not “the” answer) to those who asked “Where was G-d”? G-d was also crying, seeing the unfathomable depth to which His human creations had sunk.

Yom Shearit Yisrael. There are more than a few synagogues in this country that have the name Shearit (or Shearith) Yisrael. It’s a term that means Remnant of Israel. The term Shearit Yisrael appears in Jeremiah 31:6; Shearit Yisrael also appears in the Tachanun prayer, which is included the vast majority of days of daily prayer. Shearit Yisrael reassures us that we will never disappear as a people, and that there will at the very least always be a remnant. The liberation of the concentration and death camps with the handful of survivors served as a painful validation of Shearit Yisrael.

Yom HaNess (Miracle Day). There are refugees and there are refugees. And then there are those who not only managed to defy Hitler and his death machine, but also managed  to defy the expectations – if there were any – on the part of a world that didn’t seem to care all that much. The living skeletons that somehow succeeded to walk out of Auschwitz also succeeded to outwit the British who were under orders to prevent refugee Jews from reaching the shores of Haifa. Once in Israel, those who survived the past began to rebuild their lives and shape their future. In no time whatsoever, they became valuable assets to the communities where they set down roots. Those who survived Hitler came out of the camps financially impoverished. They were, however, rich in their aspirations, and they possessed boundless determination. In short, they were human miracles.

Yom HaShoah deserves to be more than a date on a calendar. The 27th of Nissan deserves more than to be accorded Yom HaShoah status. Let this date on the Jewish calendar also be recognized as Yom HaBechi, the Day of Crying; Yom Shearit Yisrael, the Day of the Remnant of Israel; and Yom HaNess, the day of Miracle.

DEFYING MORE THAN NAZIS

Since its inception, Vad Vashem, the world Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, has designated an Avenue of the Righteous, where recognition and praise is given to thousands of non-Jews who put their own lives at risk, protecting and saving Jewish lives, as they defied Hitler. Only five Americans are among the thousands of righteous non-Jews. Waitstill Sharp, a Unitarian minister and his wife Martha are two of the five. PBS will air a documentary focusing on the heroic deeds of Waitstill and Martha Sharp next Tuesday evening, September 20th at 8:00 P.M. local time.
Yet, Defying the Nazis, the title of the documentary, belies the 20 months that Waitstill and Martha put themselves in harm’s way and risked their lives for total strangers. Waitstill and Martha Sharp did much more than defy the Nazis.
They defied complacency. Seventeen other leaders had been approached by Reverend Evrett Baker, vice president of the American Unitarian Association to help, but declined. Who could blame them? To leave a safe and secure haven to risk their lives for total strangers was asking too much. They saw their mission in life as helping Unitarians here in the United States. Waitstill and Martha Sharp saw things differently however. They saw the rhetorical question: “Am I my brother’s keeper” that Cain so smugly placed before his creator as a challenge. And they stepped up to that challenge. No one would have faulted them, had they turned their backs on that challenge as others had. But Waitstill and Martha Sharp were too busy focusing on the peril of strangers than the complacency of colleagues. Like others who dare to be different, Waitstill and Martha Sharp did not regard themselves as special.
They defied anonymity. The idea of isolationism was very real at the time. Given the fact that Americans were protected by the Atlantic, more than a few in this country questioned the wisdom of getting involved in a war that was not theirs. Waitstill and Martha Sharp saw things differently. They saw that inhumanity anywhere was a threat to inhumanity everywhere. Much like Moses seeing an Egyptian beating an Israelite slave, Waitstill and Martha Sharp looked around and saw that no one prepared to do anything. Moses stepped in; so too did Waitstill and Martha Sharp.
They defied Franklin D. Roosevelt! President Roosevelt did everything in his power not to make WWII into a Jewish war. “Defeat the enemy first” was his motto. Once the enemy is defeated, we can turn our efforts towards the suffering and annihilation of the Jews. Waitstill and Martha Sharp saw things differently. Let the President focus on defeating Nazism. Our focus will be saving Jews. And save Jews they did – even though Waitstill and Martha experienced heart stopping encounters with Nazi police where they came dangerously close to being arrested. Add to this the strain on their marriage as well as the toll it took on their children who were entrusted to the care of Church members in Massachusetts and one is perhaps better equipped to understand why there are so precious few in this world who risked their lives the way Waitstill and Martha did.
Depending on the quality of the documentary as well as the way it is received by the public, P.B.S. may wish to air it again next April, as Jews throughout the world commemorate Yom HaShoah.