Thoughts on Holocaust remembrance

It is ironic, and somehow appropriate, that Holocaust Remembrance Day is not commemorated in Israel. At least not on the same day as the rest of the world commemorates it. Truly, we are “a people that dwells alone.”

How to commemorate Yom HaShoah is a dilemma that we still grapple with. Here, it’s personal–not a historical event to be commemorated, but a memory to be endured. There are a large number of Israelis who know first-hand “how bad it got”. And even the children and grandchildren know to some extent, just because of the the things that their parents and grandparents can’t speak of.

And yet, even here, the survivors were at first afraid to speak of it for fear of not being understood. Either you were there, in which case no words are necessary, or you weren’t, in which case no words are enough.

And so we’re left with an enigma–how to commemorate what we could not at first allow ourselves to remember. A decision was made early on by the government and people of the State of Israel to commemorate the Shoah, not on the secular date corresponding to the liberation of Auschwitz, but on the Hebrew date of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. It was an attempt to focus on those who fought, rather than on those who never had that chance. Those who “went like sheep to the slaughter” as it was believed in those days, were an embarrassment to the so-called “new Jews” of Israel. Yom HaShoah in Israel was, at least in the beginning, a commemoration of the lucky few, rather than the majority.

But that has been changing. In the weeks and months following the capture of Adolf Eichmann, the survivors began speaking out, and many told their grandchildren what they could not tell their children. Slowly, the stories have come out, and they are stories of anything but “sheep to the slaughter”. There are stories of loss and courage, and loss of courage. But there are also stories of how people persevered and continued to live as Jews. Those who shared the little that they had with those who had even less. Those who used their strength to support a comrade. So many acts of kindness that literally bought life for someone, if only for a little time. And how can we measure life in terms of minutes lived? Who knows but that those days or hours of life so dearly bought may have been the most important of all in the life of the one saved.

One lesson we have learned is the true value of things, when we are reduced to bare existence, bereft of all that we once believed to be what defines us. Naked, we have no pockets in which to store the things that we once used in the natural trade of human interactions. Instead, we have come to value a different currency–that of our humanity. It is this currency that truly defines us, and even death cannot devalue it. The more is taken away, the more we see the value in what’s left.

And yet, one thing that we must avoid is the tendency to try to implant a meaning where no meaning exists, to try to soften the memory, to minimize the losses. To focus only on the miracles that saved the few, at the expense of all those for whom there were no miracles. Yes, the the stories of miracles help to makes it more bearable, but truthfully, it is not bearable. Nor should it be. To try to make it so is to delude ourselves. It is not bearable.

We should not “come to terms” with these memories. We should not accept what has been done to us, whether as individuals or as a people. To do so would be to excuse these things, and so pave the way for it to happen again. Yes, we are more than our losses. We have lived on, and we will continue to do so. But that does not diminish the losses, nor does it make them any easier to bear. If we are to come to terms at all, let us come to terms with the fact that there are things we will never recover, things we will never understand.

Let us come to terms with the fact that we can live despite our losses, but never in negation of them.

About the Author
Yael Shahar has spent most of her career working in counter-terrorism and intelligence, with brief forays into teaching physics and astronomy. She now divides her time between writing, off-road trekking, and learning Talmud with anyone who will sit still long enough. She is the author of Returning, a haunting exploration of Jewish memory, betrayal, and redemption.
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