A new ritual for Yom HaShoah as the fragile window closes

The table is set for our new Yom HaShoah commemoration ritual.
The table is set for our new Yom HaShoah commemoration ritual.

We have reached a tipping point where the Holocaust is changing from an immediate, traumatic memory to community history. At this transition, we have an obligation to frame how we as a Jewish community will commemorate this event for future generations. If we do not create some sort of ritual observance, then I fear that the Holocaust will fade into history, its lessons lost.

I brought this idea to a meeting of Jewish educators last week at the NewCAJE9 conference at the University of Hartford in Connecticut. I met many wonderful people – educators, storytellers, songwriters, singers, poets, and rabbis. I learned about new archaeological discoveries surrounding the Ponar killing pits in Lithuania[1] and how the memories of the Holocaust are passed on to the children of the survivors.[2]

“The fragile window is closing,” said my new friend, poet and storyteller Jennifer Zunikoff.[3] I know what she means. The fragile window through which we can sit with survivors and listen to their stories in their own voices is closing. The survivors are old. It has, after all, been more than 70 years. Even the children of the survivors are grandparents.

As this fragile window of witness closes, we must learn to hear the survivors in a new way. It is no longer enough to empathize with their stories, to try to feel some of their pain, to weep with them. Instead, we must act as if they are crying out to us: Learn! Learn from my experiences! Learn and remember and be sure that this never happens again.

Survivor Donia Rosen said it well: “I beg of you not to forget the dead. Erect a monument that will reach the heavens, so the entire world will see it, not a statue of marble or stone, but a tower of good deeds, for I strongly believe that only such a memorial can guarantee a better future for you and your children.”[4]

How do we memorialize the Holocaust?

We have set aside a day to commemorate the terrible events of the Holocaust, Yom HaShoah, the 27th of Nisan. For years this has been a time to listen to survivors, to hear their stories, and to remember. As the fragile window closes, and fewer survivors are left, we find ourselves needing a new way to commemorate the Holocaust.

“We are still writing the haggadah of the Holocaust,” said Yad Vashem educator Lea Roshkovsky. She meant we are still learning about what happened and how to tell the whole story. The word she used, “haggadah”, literally means “the story” in Hebrew.

As Jews, we are familiar with this word. This is the word we use, “Haggadah”, for how we tell the story of the Exodus from Egypt on Passover. My coauthor, Violet Neff-Helms, and I wondered whether we could use that model to tell the story of the Holocaust on Yom HaShoah. The Passover Haggadah does all the things the survivors are asking of us: it tells the story, it helps us remember, and it teaches the lessons we need to learn.

The lesson of the Exodus is a beautiful one: be kind to the stranger for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. Remember what happened to you and make sure it never happens to anyone else. These are some of the same lessons we need to learn from the Holocaust.

A new ritual

I was at the NewCAJE conference to demonstrate a new ritual for commemorating Yom HaShoah.[5] It is a ceremony designed to commemorate the events of the Holocaust in a way that is similar to how the Passover Seder commemorates the Exodus. This new ritual aims to recognize that once again evil people tried to destroy us, but they failed. We are still here and we celebrate our survival, even as we honor our lost and remember the terrible things that happened to us.

At the conference, we performed the complete ceremony. We began with the lighting of candles on mismatched candlesticks, one fancy and beautiful, one using an overturned jam jar, to remember how, in the hard times, our ancestors made do with what they had. We told the story of the Holocaust with quotes from survivors’ memoirs and victims’ diaries, readings from our sacred texts, and rituals to bring all our senses to bear. We smelled rosemary to remember the sweet, flavorful life we had before the war. We dipped potato skins in salt water to remember the starvation and tears of the ghetto. We spilled drops of wine as representatives of the communities that were lost in the great destruction.

Covering the barbed wire Mogen David with pictures from before the war.

Having come to the darkest times, we found our way back into the light. We ate dates with pits to remember our ancestors’ unbreakable core of faith and love. We sang Hatikvah to remember the hope they never gave up. We spoke their names as we covered a photograph of a barbed-wire Mogen David with pictures from before the war, to remember them as they lived not as they died. And finally, we celebrated our survival with wine, challah, and a shehekiyanu. We ended with the singing of Lo Yisa Goy, nation shall not lift up sword against nation, to remind us to always work for peace.

Afterwards, storyteller Jennifer Zunikoff said, “This is exactly the ritual we need. You are doing essential, innovative, meaningful work. Thank you for honoring the victims and the survivors of the Holocaust.”

We have an obligation to remember the Holocaust at this transition. Let us ensure that memory includes individuals and lessons, not only loss and fear but also hope and strength, and is taught without tears.

[1] www.hartford.edu/a_and_s/greenberg/escape-tunnel

[2] www.hartford.edu/a_and_s/greenberg/museum/hartford-remembers-holocaust

[3] Zunikoff, Jennifer, 2015, “Fragile Window”, poetrysuperhighway.com/psh/2015/04/annual-yom-ha-shoah-issue-2015/#fp15. For more information about Jennifer, see JenniferStories.com.

[4] Rosen, Donia, Forest, My Friend, Yad Vashem: Jerusalem, 1985. p. 94.

[5] More information about this ritual can be found at www.HaShoahHaggadah.org.

About the Author
Dr. Deborah Fripp is President of the Teach the Shoah Foundation and Holocaust Programs Coordinator at Congregation Kol Ami in Flower Mound, Texas.
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