It’s Holocaust Remembrance Day again. It’s getting harder and harder to feel a true sense of mourning, though.
Maybe it’s because so much time has now passed – more than 70 years – since the Holocaust ended. Maybe it’s because as someone who chose to leave America and actually live in Israel, and who served in a combat unit in the Israeli army including in the reserves for 20 years, I feel no need to bear any sense of guilt over the Holocaust.
I remember all of those special assemblies in Day School when I was a kid when they took the opportunity to educate us about the Holocaust. The teachers wanted to make us all feel guilty about it. We needed to feel ashamed to live in nice suburban homes and to be a part of a wealthy American community and to not know what it is like to suffer through anti-Semitism or something like the Holocaust.
It was our fault that it happened. It was also the fault of our grandparents’ generation of American Jews who apparently failed to do enough to get the American government to stop it from happening, not that our teachers ever told us what it was that they were supposed to have done differently.
My teachers were all baby boomers themselves who grew up in the aftermath of the Holocaust. Theirs was the first such generation, as well as the first not to know a world without an Israel. To be fair, they probably did not really know how to properly educate us about it.
But they also tied the memory of the Holocaust to our religious identities. Never mind that most of us were not from orthodox homes, for a Jew to be anything but orthodox would amount to a betrayal of the sacrifices made by the six million.
Shame on them for that. And shame on me for not feeling more mournful today.
One year when I was in college Earth Day, which this year was observed yesterday, fell out on the same day as Yom Hashoah. I was a student at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York and was shocked that evening when I saw many of my fellow students coming back from Earth Day events which were held in Central Park. They did not even know what other day it also was.
Shame on them too.
The day officially starts at 8 PM tonight and lasts for 24 hours. All places of entertainment in Israel are closed at night and all television channels – including those on cable – devote their broadcasts to movies about the Holocaust and documentaries about both it and persecutions of Jews throughout history.
Yet for some reason this year movies like “The Great Escape” are on the schedule. Yes this James Garner and Steve McQueen film based on the true story about a group of Allied prisoners of war who escape from a German POW camp during World War II is a great classic. But what does it have to do with the Holocaust?
Also showing is “The Dirty Dozen” with Lee Marvin, Donald Sutherland, Telly Savalas and James Brown. What? This movies is also great, but it’s a fantasy about a group of American soldiers who were condemned to death for various crimes who are granted a pardon on condition that they complete a dangerous mission behind enemy lines. No such mission ever took place and it is about as realistic as the Sylvester Stallone films “Rambo” or “Victory.”
They could at least show Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds.” That movie, from 2009, is also an absurd fantasy, but at least it knows that. The story is about a group of American Jewish soldiers who go behind enemy lines during World War II to execute nazi officers. “Inglourious Basterds” is based on absurdist films like “The Dirty Dozen” and in it Tarantino deliberately goes overboard. Unlike the other two movies, however, it acknowledges the Holocaust and portrays how Jews were hunted in occupied France and compared to rats – a vermin which needs to be destroyed.
Many will of course disparage my position here, but see it or re-watch its first fifteen minutes before you judge. In the movie’s opening, Quentin Tarantino brilliantly depicts the pointlessness of it all as well as why it was so hard for the few people who tried to help Jews in German occupied Europe, while at the same time expressing nothing but sympathy for the Jewish victims.
Perhaps the movies being broadcast tonight and tomorrow are another example of how far removed we now are from the Holocaust.
Tomorrow morning at 10 AM a siren will sound all over Israel and people everywhere will stop and stand still for a minute of silence in memory of the six million. This may not be enough, but it’s the least that we can do.
One group of Israelis who will not honor the moment of silence are the ultra-orthodox known as Haredim. They feel that this is a non-Jewish custom.
Haredim also don’t like the observance of Yom Hashoah because it falls during the Hebrew month of Nissan, when Pesach is celebrated. This is a celebratory month where public mourning and fasts are prohibited. So the Haredim believe that to set Holocaust Remembrance Day during Nissan is a violation of Jewish law.
But there is another reason not to use this date as the memorial. It falls on the Hebrew date the 28th of Nissan. This marks the end of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising of 1943. Israel, as a society, chose this date because it commemorates the only real effort by Jews to fight back against the Germans during the Holocaust. Israelis identify with the ones who fought back.
But the vast majority of the Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto did not take part in the fighting and hid in their homes. The Uprising made no real difference and not long afterward the Ghetto was fully liquidated.
In Hebrew the full name for this day is “Yom Hazikaron la Shoah ve-laG’vurah. In English this translates as “Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day.” Israelis put an emphasis on the heroism and the documentaries shown on television tend to be about the people who took part in the few resistance groups.
Unfortunately, the uprising is not representative of what actually happened. Millions of Jews failed to do anything in their own defense as they were led to the slaughter.
So perhaps a better day to be used for Yom Hashoah might be the anniversary of Kristallnacht — the Night of Broken Glass. Beginning on the night of November 9th 1938, Kristallnacht can be cited as the moment when the Holocaust officially began. An official pogrom was unleashed on the Jews of Germany in which Jewish owned businesses and synagogues were burned down. Jewish schools and homes were also vandalized and countless Jews were beaten. Tens of thousands of Jews were arrested and eventually beaten or tortured to death in jails or sent to die in concentration camps.
The Hebrew date which corresponds to November 9th 1938 is the 14th of Cheshvan, 5699. The Hebrew month of Cheshvan comes after Tishrei, the month of holidays which begins with Rosh Hashanah. There are no holidays in this month and there is no religious reason to object to its being observed then.
But Israelis like the Nissan date in part because it comes just one week before we celebrate our Independence Day. This ties the birth of Israel to the Holocaust and reaffirms the Israeli and modern Jewish belief that had Israel already existed before 1938 then the Holocaust would not have happened.
The real question that we all ask ourselves today is how will future generations feel about the Holocaust? The last of the survivors as well as those who were adults when it ended are dying off. The first generation of Jews who grew up in its aftermath is now elderly. My generation is quickly passing through middle age.
So what will happen when there is no one left who was yet alive 30 or 40 years after the Holocaust ended?