On the 27th of Nisan (usually between April or May) Israel observes Yom Hazikaron laSoah ve-laG’vura (Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day), colloquially known as Yom Hashoah – its national Holocaust Remembrance Day. Initially it was supposed to mark the anniversary of the beginning of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, but since it started the night before Pessach (14th of Nisan) a later day during the uprising was chosen to set Israel’s National Day of Commemoration. The term Shoah (“Catastrophe”) is a Hebrew term used to describe the genocide on European Jews during National Socialism, comparable with the Romanes term “Porajmos”. The word Holocaust is often rejected in Jewish religious settings, as its origins are from Christian theology, however many communities do use it referring to the entirety of Nazi-crimes against humanity, as opposed to the crimes against the own collective. Pages could be written about these terminologies, but this general contextualization should serve the chosen format, adding only that there are major differences between the Anglo-American use of the terminology and other national contexts.
Yom Hashoah, alongside Yom Hazikaron, Yom Ha’azmaut and Yom Yerushalaim, is part of a series of national holidays that were not part of the traditional Jewish calendar before the foundation of the state of Israel. The day is usually observed with a public ceremony at Yad Vashem, a siren brings the entire country to a halt and starts two minutes of silence. Cars on highways park on the emergency lane, business pause, and music stops playing across the entire country to commemorate the six million Jews who were murdered during the Holocaust. The idea to commemorate a national catastrophe with the act of heroism of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising is deeply rooted in the way the young Israeli nation treated the genocide, when it was instated. Back in the 1950s there was little room for a public narrative of collective victimhood. The nation understood and still understands Jewish self-determination as the antithesis to victimhood, as the only guarantee for Jews to never again be defenselessly led to gas chambers. The pioneering spirit of the newborn Jewish state even left many survivors in shame of their own victimhood. After all, there had already been numerous calls to weapons to defend the young Jewish state in its early wars. Hence, the futile yet heroic attempt to rise against the Nazis in Warsaw was chosen to be remembered as opposed to for example the liberation of a camp. The Jewish state ensured to remember Jewish resistance, as much as Jewish victimhood. An appropriation of memory that seems more than understandable, even though the cases of Jewish resistance were few – from a historical perspective. Of course, today we know that these numbers were few, because of the shocking sophistication and the industrial dimension of the German killing machine. Only with the Eichmann-trial, that was publicly broadcasted in the early 1960s, many survivors started opening about their stories, because the sheer devastation, the magnitude of the genocide became apparent for the entire nation. Ever since, the day and the way it is being held in Israel have drastically changed.
Jewish communities around the world tend to observe the day as a more intimate, internal form of commemoration next to the respective national equivalent – often held on January 27th. In that sense an Israeli national day has become part of the modern Jewish calendar. Rarely, politicians or officials are invited to ceremonies on Yom HaShoah, and often religious ceremonies are held that day as well. Special prayers are recited, like a special version of El Male Rachamim (God full of Mercy). Communities give a voice to the remaining survivors; transgenerational family conversations and personalized forms of commemoration take place.
The Berlin Jewish community for example starts reading out the names of the 55.696 murdered Jews of Berlin in front of its community center at Fasanenstraße. The event is usually coordinated by the local youth center and the ceremony alone takes several days of uninterrupted reading. A delegation of annually about 17.000 youth marches the “March of the Living” – contrasting the death marches, often singing and dancing, hand in hand with their surviving relatives. After spending a week in Poland, visiting many of the camps and learning about Jewish life in Poland pre-WWII many continue their journey to Israel, where they celebrate The Israeli day of independence on the 5th of Iyar.
When I was a youth counselor in Berlin, we often used to fill the empty parts on the schedule during the name readings – which left us reading through entire nights. I remember that someone told me back then, that if we were to hold a minute of silence for only the six million Jews who were murdered during the Holocaust, one would have to remain silent for approximately 11,5 years.