Observing Yom HaShoah

April 28, 2014

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A bit less than 35 years ago, I made my first aliyah (immigration) when I became Jewish. I made a promise to myself that joining the Jewish nation would deepen my appreciation of humanity at large.It is a promise to myself that I have strived to remember and to keep.

Today is Holocaust Remembrance Day. It is not only a historical event in the time line of the Jewish people, but in the time line of my own family is well. Every time that I speak English, I am aware that linguistic shift from German and Hungarian came as a result of attempts to exterminate every Jewish man, woman and child on earth. Even on my non-Jewish mother’s side of the family, one relative went to Jasenovac in Croatia, which is known as the “Auschwitz of the Balkans”.

This day, is chosen for Yom HaShoah chosen because it marks the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, which is a an event that epitomises defiance and resistance in the face of insurmountable odds. Ultimately, when resistance is futile, struggle becomes a form of prayer.

The Holocaust is for me, a reminder of man’s ability to compartmentalise humanity, to rock his own child in the cradle and to use someone else’s child for bayonet practice. It is a reminder that the human intellect can be a tool for moral evolution as well as a powerful anaesthetic for the conscience. For me, the historical tragedies of the Jewish people are a master-key that enables me to empathise more deeply with other nations that have been targeted and demeaned to greater and lesser extents with a mindset in which they are children of a lesser god.

In our tormented generation, genocides have names. The Rwandan, Armenian Assyrian, Cambodian and Ukrainian genocides are all examples of human willingness to sacrifice entire nations to a political objective. The Ukrainian genocide shares with the Irish historical narrative the chilling use of starvation as a tool of war and political policy.

There is an argument in Jewish law about whether Holocaust Remembrance day should be celebrated as it is in the Hebrew month of Nissan, since Nissan is a month of joy, with Passover as its centerpiece.As someone who has grown up among deeply secular Jews, this Jewish legal approach troubled me. I resolved the contradiction between joy and mourning by focusing on survival, on the fact that the attempt to exterminate the Jewish people failed, and that people continue to raise Jewish families and build Jewish communities.

As an individual and on this web site, I almost never mention the Holocaust. Indeed, I find that any people, such as the Armenians or the Cambodians or Rwandans would far rather prefer to be remembered for their history, their music and their literature rather than for mass graves and horrific suffering. Indeed, when the only thing that is mentioned about a people is that they were once hunted and exterminated, they become objectified a second time. It is only in celebrating the life, song and language of a nation that its loss can be fully understood and appreciated.

The placement of Holocaust Memorial Day on the 28th of Nissan was a fortuitous “mistake”. Had Yom HaShoah been placed in a month of mourning, there would be less of a push to find within it the hidden consolation of survival and of rebirth. It is a challenge to focus on what we as a nation have lived for as much as why we died. Yom HaShoah in the month of Nissan deepens the resonance of the part of the Hagaddah  in which it is stated Not one alone has arisen against us to destroy the Jews. Rather in each generation, there are those that rise up against us to destroy us.”

There are times on the Jewish calendar when we are commanded to be joyful. For years, I felt torn by the mandate to seemingly paint a smile on inner turmoil, to deny the aching heart within. It is, however this command that points to the seeds of rebirth within every death, and to the sparks of the eternal in all that is transitory. This fortuitous argument among Jews about the placement of Yom HaShoah on the Jewish calendar is a blessing, and a mandate to seek its deeper meaning

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