Today is Yom HaShoah. We remember the Six Million who perished in the Holocaust. We remember the survivors and their struggle through unimaginable horrors to make it out of Nazi Europe alive. It is a day of mourning for Jews across the world.
And that is why I was somewhat torn writing this year’s script for the community Yom HaShoah commemoration in Hamilton, Ontario. I’ve had the honour of writing the script for the last four years. It’s always a challenge trying to choose the right words and quotes to capture the experience of the Holocaust and honouring its victims – those who survived and those who did not.
This year, for the first time since I’ve been involved in the committee, we opted to focus on the efforts of those who resisted the Nazis. I take a look at some of the actions performed by various members of the Jewish Partisans, some of the leaders, like the Bielski Brothers and Abba Kovner. I also mention Hanna Szenes and her bravery.
I’m accustomed to Yom HaShoah being about the Nazi atrocities, about the 1.5 million Jewish children who were slaughtered, about the virtually countless tales of individual and collective horror. Last year, a child survivor from Paris, Helene Goldflus, spoke about how trusted Christian friends, neighbours, and religious leaders saved her and other Jews. So I’m also accustomed to hearing about heroic tales of kindness on the part of Righteous Gentiles.
But this year’s script doesn’t highlight Jewish victimhood – and I’m not used to that. I’m not uncomfortable with it; I’m just not used to it.
Zog Nit Keyn Mol
One of the most powerful and enduring songs to have emerged from the Holocaust is “Zog Nit Keyn Mol” (The Hymn of the Partisans / Shir Hapartizanim). Hirsh Glick, of the Vilna Ghetto, wrote the words in 1943 after being inspired by the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. It’s a stirring, inspiring, and proud anthem.
The first stanza tells the listener:
Never say you are going on your final road
Although leadened skies block out blue days,
Our longed-for hour will yet come
Our step will beat out – we are here!
‘Don’t lose hope!’, the listener is told. ‘We will survive!’ It’s a message of great optimism. The song recognizes the difficulty, pain, and suffering that its listener has experienced but still holds out against total despair.
The hopeful message is not an ephemeral notion. It is rooted in the idea that there are Jews across Europe who are part of an organized and armed resistance. It is rooted in an ethos of defiance. It is rooted in the deeply Jewish idea that God helps those who help themselves. The great Rabbi Hillel said:
If I am not for myself who is for me?
And being for my own self, what am ‘I’?
And if not now, when?
The Bielski Brothers
The Bielski Brothers, leaders of the Jewish Partisans, were based in Belarus. Tuvia, Alexander (“Zus”), Asael and Aron organized attacks on German soldiers and collaborators. But their main goal wasn’t an offensive one. It was defensive. Tuvia Bielski once said:
It is more important to save Jews than to kill Germans.
The Bielskis succeeded in creating a community of over 1200 Jews! Their actions saved the lives of over 1200 Jews!
Indeed, the brothers understood Rabbi Hillel’s dictum. They understood that they could not count on others to rescue them. They understood that they couldn’t be only for themselves; they had to consider the welfare of their fellow Jews. And they had to act “now”.
Sacrifice, Defiance, and Resistance
The Hymn of the Partisans, Zog Nit Keyn Mol, says:
This song is written with our blood.
Those who were part of the resistance showed great selflessness and great sacrifice. They showed that Yom HaShoah isn’t only about Jewish victimhood. They showed that the Holocaust is about the Six Million – but it isn’t ONLY about the Six Million. They showed that the Shoah is about Nazi persecution – but it isn’t ONLY about Nazi persecution.
It’s also about acts of courage. It’s also about acts of selflessness and kindness. And it’s also about defiance and resistance. It’s about the will to survive and to cry out “Never Again!”