If it’s the 27th of the month, it must be Holocaust Remembrance Day. But what are we remembering, and why?
On the 27th of January, following the lead of Germany and several other European countries, the United Nations marks an annual “International Day of Commemoration” in memory of the victims of the Holocaust. The official resolution adopted by the UN General Assembly was co-sponsored by 104 of the then-191 members of the United Nations, a vote which calls to mind the hospitalized rabbi whose synagogue board authorized sending him a get-well-soon card, but only by a vote of 5-4.
In Israel and among Jews elsewhere, it is the 27th of Nisan that memorializes the Holocaust, a result of the law creating “Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Day” passed by the Israeli Knesset in 1959, making permanent a date originally chosen in 1951. (For more on the choice, see Roni Stauber’s book The Holocaust in Israeli Public Debate in the 1950s: Ideology and Memory.) As a date on the Jewish calendar, it begins, according to the Hebrew version of the law, at sunset and ends a day later with “the appearance of the stars.” When the appearance of the stars would also mark the end of Sabbath, as it did this year on the 27th, the observance is postponed for a day.
The logic behind this date, as explained on the Knesset’s Hebrew web site, is calendrical rather than commemorative. It falls after the end of Passover and thus does not interfere with the holiday; it occurs during the period known as the “Counting of the Omer,” traditionally a season of mourning; and it precedes by one week Israel’s Memorial Day for fallen soldiers, which is followed by Independence Day. It thus “symbolically expresses the historical transition of the Jewish people from Holocaust to rebirth.” (The date observed by the United Nations is the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz by the Red Army.)
It is commonly believed that the date of Yom ha-Shoah marks the anniversary of the Warsaw ghetto uprising, but this should not be misconstrued to imply that it commemorates the beginning of the uprising. That took place on April 19, 1943, the 14th of Nisan—the eve of Passover, a date that most certainly could not have a Holocaust commemoration superimposed on it. Last year April 19th did indeed fall on the 27th of Nisan, but that was a Metonic coincidence. The two dates coincided in 1936, before the war, and not again until 1955, after the date had already been settled upon.
The link to the Warsaw ghetto uprising matches the aim of the Israeli law establishing a memorial day both for the Shoah and for Gevurah, “Heroism,” as the Hebrew name of the day does. It fits nicely with the law’s official narrative of a transition from victimization to independence won through military victory. But, as so often in Israel, there is a religious-secular divide over this commemoration, and that leads us to the third date that memorializes the victims of the Holocaust: the 10th of Tevet.
That date will sound familiar to those who know Jewish tradition. It is a dawn-to-dusk fast day, known to us from at least early as the Babylonian Talmud (Rosh Hashana 18b), marking the day on which (according to 2 Kings 25:1=Jeremiah 52:4 and Ezekiel 24:1) King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon besieged Jerusalem—the precursor to the destruction of the First Temple some seven months later. Apparently because this fast marks the beginning of the “catastrophe” of Jerusalem’s destruction, that date was chosen by the Chief Rabbinate—as early as 1948— to be the “official” yahrtzeit, the anniversary date on which Kaddish is to be recited, for all who died in the Holocaust whose death dates are unknown. This observance offers personal comfort to those who are mourning specific individuals, but it also sets the Holocaust within a frame of traditional Jewish practice.
Aryeh Edrei of Tel Aviv University, in his essay “Holocaust Memorial: A Paradigm of Competing Memories in the Religious and Secular Societies in Israel,” writes:
The gap between the past and the future hovers between the tenth of Tevet and the twenty-seventh of Nissan — an attempt to create a memorial for the Holocaust that views it as part of the continuity of Jewish history versus an attempt to create a memorial that views it as a cataclysmic event representing the beginning of a radically new era in Jewish history. It is a gap between “holocaust and redemption” and “holocaust and heroism,” between the Davidic messiah and Herzl. It is a gap that pits tradition and continuity against rupture and change.
Edrei notes that haredi society goes far beyond the national-religious sector, ignoring both of these days and uncomfortable even with memorializing the Holocaust on the 9th of Av, the traditional date marking the worst disasters of Jewish history.
The link with the fighters of the Warsaw ghetto is part of the problem here. As Isaac Hershkowitz points out in his article in the recent collection War and Peace in Jewish Tradition, some feel that the choice of the 27th of Nisan “places a stamp of shame on all Jews who did not take up arms and defend themselves.” In this view, combining a memorial for the victims with a day honoring the heroes adds insult to the injuries suffered by those who survived but did not fight. Moreover, Hershkowitz notes a number of traditional thinkers who find the uprising itself questionable from a halakhic perspective.
As Edrei sees it, the differences in memorializing the Holocaust are a result of fundamentally different perspectives on Jewish history. The 27th of Nisan portrays the Holocaust as a moment when a new fighting Jew was born, bringing the centuries of Jewish helplessness at last to an end. The 10th of Tevet incorporates the Holocaust into the ongoing stream of Jewish history, and at a rank below that of the historical events that fundamentally changed the nature of the Jewish religion. The haredi discomfort with Holocaust commemoration is based partly on opposition to halakhic innovation and partly on a determination to restore Judaism “as it was” before Hitler destroyed it.
Anyone who attended last year’s celebration of the completion of the 12th cycle of Daf Yomi (the page-a-day program for learning Talmud) will be familiar with this standpoint. The view prominently expressed there is that one studies Talmud not merely for its own sake but also on behalf of those prevented by the Nazis from doing so. Yet this attempt “to resurrect the world that existed before the Holocaust, to preserve the image of the old world in the here and now” (as Edrei describes the haredi outlook) is no different in essence from what one who says Kaddish on the 10th of Tevet or stands silent on the 27th of Nisan is trying to achieve. No such resurrection can succeed except in our memories. There is room for all three perspectives—and for those that will surely be added to them as the centuries roll on.
Michael Carasik is the creator of The Commentators' Bible and of the Torah Talk podcast. He teaches at the University of Pennsylvania.
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