INTERNATIONAL HOLOCAUST MEMORIAL DAY

Practically 75 years ago to the day, a glimmer of light came into this world that would have ramifications decades later. On January 27, 1945, the Red Army liberated Auschwitz – Birkenau, arguably the most infamous of all Concentration/Extermination Camps of the Third Reich. On the 60th anniversary of the liberation, a special session was held at the United Nations which culminated in designating January 27th as International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Gevald! I was raised on Yom HaShoah. Each year on the 27th of Nissan, Yom HaShoah commemorations were held in Jewish communities throughout the world. When I learned of International Holocaust Memorial Day, I was indignant, to say the least. How dare the United Nations and then the 42nd president of the United States proclaims another date to memorialize Man’s Inhumanity Towards Man! By what right and under whose authority could they do such a thing? Yom HaShoah is a collective yahrzeit for the Jewish people. I don’t recall any Jewish leader suggesting that another date be chosen so that the yahrzeit of the six million be shared.

When a cooler head prevailed, I realized that while intending to pay homage to the same dark chapter in the history of mankind, International Holocaust Remembrance Day and Yom HaShoah couldn’t have been more different.

International Holocaust Memorial Day commemorates a twentieth-century version of the Exodus from Egypt. It was the Soviet Union ironically, that led the pack of allied armies, playing the role of the biblical Moses, while those miraculously still alive in a hellhole in southern Poland, the very descendants of the Israelite slaves freed from the diabolical Pharaoh were the first of their people to be redeemed from unspeakable enslavement and unfathomable treatment. Military prowess aside, International Holocaust Memorial Day commemorates the first step of allied armies being able to reassure the victims, “Don’t worry. We’re here to save you. We’re here to free you. We’re here for you to reaffirm your faith (whatever faith you may have left) that the forces of good have ultimately triumphed over the forces of evil.”

Not so, Yom HaShoah. Although chosen to coincide with the date of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, where a handful of Jews armed chiefly with chutzpah, managed to stave off the Third Reich for weeks, Yom HaShoah commemorates a twentieth-century version of the biblical Lot and a handful of others managing to survive the destruction of his society. Even though the Sodomites were in no way blameless or faultless like the Jews of Eastern Europe, there are still parallels to be made. The pillars of fire and the stench of death of Sodom and Gomorrah served as prototypes for the pillars of fire and the stench of death of Auschwitz and Birkenau. Both Lot, as well as the survivors of Nazism, set about building a new future for themselves. Both were cautioned of the dangers of looking back. Looking back was only helpful in that it ensured that those who succumbed not be forgotten, as well as it served as a reminder that we do not forget.

International Holocaust Memorial Day is a day for the outside world to justifiably remind itself of its success is thwarting evil and rescuing the few that remained; Yom HaShoah is a day for the Jewish world to remind itself, that the remnant that survived will serve as living proof that it refuses to wallow in self-pity and victimhood and that Jews must never inflict upon others what others inflicted upon them.

We commemorate an event that took place seventy-five years ago that gave the free world reason to be optimistic and those still alive at Auschwitz – Birkenau reason to dare to hope, that humanity did not go up in the chimneys of the Nazi crematoria after all. For me personally, International Holocaust Memorial Day is beyond my expectations. As for Yom HaShoah, I would have expected nothing less.
  
 


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.