It is widely known that Holocaust survivors did not like to speak about their experiences in the war. Some of them starting speaking about them after the famous Eichmann trial in Israel (1960) brought holocaust stories out into the open. Others started talking about them after several more decades. For some, it just took a long time before they were able to look back at that part of their past. For others, it became important to speak lest the holocaust be forgotten.
But there was another reason why the survivors in Israel didn’t speak about the holocaust. The Zionist movement was busy creating “the new Jew,” a Jew that fights back, a Jew that uses weapons, a Jew that is the embodiment of the Maccabees who beat the Greeks and threw them out of Israel in ancient times. And these new Jews looked down upon the galut Jews, the diaspora Jews, who had “gone like lambs to the slaughter” without putting up a fight. Feeling this contempt, the survivors shut up.
In 1951 the Knesset created a memorial day for the Holocaust which was known as Yom Hashoah (Day of the Shoah). But the official name for this day, and its date, were problematic. There were those who wanted to celebrate the glory, the heroism — the uprising of the Warsaw Ghettto, the Jewish partisans who fought in the forests – and to de-emphasize the holocaust, the deaths, the massacres.
The name which the Knesset gave to this day – Yom Hazikaron Lashoa Velagvura (Day of Remembrance for the Holocaust and for the Heroism) was a compromise. “Holocaust” refers to the massacre of millions of jews, and “Heroism” refers to the fights, the rebellions, the resistance. And the date chosen for this day is related to the beginning of the heroic rebellion in the Warsaw Ghetto.
Actually, there is another date that is used to mark the Holocaust: 10th of Tevet. This is one of the fast days that mark the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem (Beit Hamikdash) and it was designated by the Rabbinate as Yom Hakadish Haclali (Day for the general Kadish), a day for saying kadish after people whose date of death is not known. This was two years before the Knesset created the Yom Hashoa. This day, Yom Hakadish Haclali, has everything to do with the Hurban (the destruction), with death and with mourning, and nothing to do with heroism.
And I ask: Who is a hero? What is heroism?
Janusch Korczak was a non-Jew who chose to accompany his orphan Jewish pupils to the gas chamber rather than abandon them and save himself.
A mother chose to go on a “transport” with her children, rather than allowing her terrified children to go alone with the Germans.
Parents chose to give their children to non-Jews for safekeeping, knowing full well that they may never see them again.
An eighteen-year-old son decides to stay with his family in the ghetto rather than run away and join the partisans. He doesn’t want to abandon his ailing father, he wants to help his mother care for the younger children and for the grandparents. He knows that his life is in danger here just like everybody else’s lives, but he wants to stay and help and he won’t leave them to their fate.
So who is the bigger hero? The one who goes and joins the partisans or the one who stays behind, trying to make life more bearable for himself and others?
I can only thank G-d that I never had to make such choices.
Israel, April 2018