James J. Marlow
James J. Marlow

The debate over the Holocaust Memorial Day

Credit: James Marlow

Holocaust Remembrance Day, known as Yom Hashoah, begins Wednesday evening and into Thursday, when sirens across Israel were sounded.

The official Hebrew date for Yom Hashoah is the 27th of Nissan, although this year was pushed forward to the 26th, because of a possible clash with Shabbat on Friday evening.

But many ask, why was the 27th of Nissan chosen to recall the deaths of more than six million Jews at the hands of the Nazis when Nissan is a month of joy and redemption?

When the modern State of Israel received it independence in May 1948, there was a huge debate between the Chief Rabbinate and Education Ministry over how and when to commemorate six million.

The Rabbinate said the best day to honour their memories would be Asarah B’Tevet (10th of Hebrew month of Tevet), which had already been established by the Sages to be a fast day.

It recalls the soldiers of Nebuchadnezzar surrounding Jerusalem during the time of the First Temple period in 586 BCE. No person could enter or leave the city and there was no food or water, so the people starved.

The Rabbinate declared 10th of Tevet, (normally falling in December) would be a Yom HaKaddish Ha-K’lali, a general day of Kaddish for the victims, whose Yahrzeits (date of death) are unknown.

The Ministry of Education however insisted the remembrance date should be on the 27 of Nissan, (April – May) because this was a significant time of actual Jewish resistance to the Nazis, known as the Warsaw Ghetto uprising.

In the early statehood days, the idea that Jews went passively or were led to the slaughter, was an embarrassment and shame upon the newly established proud Jewish state of strength, defiance and fighting ability.

In 1951, the Knesset deliberations agreed that the first day of revolt and attack against the Nazis was a proud moment in pre-state Jewish history and should be commemorated.

However, the actual date of the Warsaw uprising occurred on April 19, 1942, which was the first night of Passover.

Debate then centered on whether Seder night would be an appropriate time to recall the victims of the Holocaust, until an agreement to postpone the Warsaw uprising Remembrance Day by two weeks was agreed. The 27th of Nissan would now fall one week before Memorial Day for Jewish and Israeli soldiers killed in battle.

Several years later, another suggestion was put forward by Menachem Begin who said, Holocaust Memorial Day should fall on the 9th of Av (Tisha B’Av) and when he became PM in 1977, he sought Knesset support to change the date. But he failed to obtain enough backing.

The Education Ministry was opposed to the proposal because Tisha B’Av would always fall in the summer, when the entire school system is closed.

Other suggestions came from outside of Israel – Kristallnacht or Reichskristallnacht (Night of the Broken Glass) which occurred on November 9-10, 1938. Some synagogues in Europe did observe this date as a memorial. But most European communities rejected a date that the Nazis were proud of and referred to that fateful night as the Reichspgromnacht.

Jews in Israel could not understand how some Jewish communities in Europe would honour the memory of 6 million Jews on a date that the Nazis were proud of.

In the 90s, many Jews from the former Soviet Union made aliyah and on arrival in Israel, they brought with them, “Victory Day”, which was commemorated on May 8, 1945. (Joseph Stalin declared May 9th was really the day to march annually and proudly with war medals, showing the world, the Soviets won the war).

However, many of the former Soviet Union Jews did not accept this date because for them, remembering the Holocaust as a “Victory Day” was inappropriate.

In recent years, the international Holocaust Day was founded on January 27th, recalling how the Red Army liberated the largest Nazi death camp, Auschwitz-Birkenau on this day.

Tony Blair introduced January 27th as a remembrance to the victims of the Holocaust in 2001 and the UK has observed this date every year since.

On January 24, 2005, the UN General Assembly marked the 60th Anniversary of the genocide that killed six million Jews. Later that year, on 1st November, the General Assembly designated that 27th January would be the International Day to remember the Holocaust and all other genocides that have occurred since.

At a time when more people are being radicalised to believe that such a murderous crime never happened, it is imperative that we never cease teaching about the worst evil that occurred less than 80 years ago.

May the memories of the six million be remembered and blessed forever.

About the Author
James J. Marlow is a broadcast journalist and public relations media consultant. He has previously worked for ITN, EuroNews, Reuters, Daily Mail, Daily Express, LBC Radio and Sky News. In addition he has trained and prepared hundreds of business and entertainment people, politicians and Rabbis, for the media, including television, radio and audiences.
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