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What does Yom Hashoah ask of me?

Monument in Tel Aviv’s Trumpledore cemetary in memory of those murdered in Zdunska Wola, the hometown of my father’s parents

Today, people across Israel commemorated “Yom Hashoah v’Hagevurah.”

Growing up in America, I found this day confusing, to say the least.

We were happy elementary school kids, shomer Shabbat, keeping mitzvot to the best of our knowledge. We were taught to live with positivity and appreciation, to turn away from pain and negativity and pray to see good in the world. But every so often a teacher would require us to read a book — of the so-called “Holocaust books” genre — one that seemingly portrayed all of the gory details and horrific episodes that fit the “R-rated” category not suited for young people. And yet we were purposely exposed to it?

Then came along one day a year when we would practice and train and prepare and finally — perform the special annual presentation for Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. The show was a success if the audience was moved — and it was a smashing hit if we got them to cry. Why? I wondered to myself — what are we doing here, just trying to get eveyrone all sad. For what reason!? Could someone please explain to me how this helps me be a better person, live a better life on this Earth? If anything, the depressing, scary descriptions gave me terrifying nightmares which I dare not describe on this page. I just didn’t see the point.

Fast forward to my seminary year. With a group of post-high school women like myself, I traveled to Poland. There I learned about the past. Not just the war and the camps and the pain and the gore — but an entire history of Jewish life that once existed on the very grounds upon which we stood. We visited yeshivot, sat in the very seats where they learned from the holy Rabbis of Lublin and Krakow. We visited the graves of the revealed tzadikim, as well as the hidden ones. We prayed and recited tehillim so so many times as a group. And as we tapped far back in to the holiness that was, we were then able to fully appreciate the enormity of the destruction that followed. We saw what we had and what we lost. It came crashing down before our eyes — in every barrack, gas chamber, crematorium, we tasted another morsel of the pain that echoed in the walls.

Upon our return to Israel, I think people expected us to be depressed — crestfallen, at least? But no — we were invigorated. How? How could it be that my elementary school self, who only touched a hint of the tragedy from afar, felt bitter and sad after Yom Hashoah. But my adult self — one who understood how bad it was, one who walked alongside the mass graves scattered throughout Poland, had come away with strength? With fortitude?

The answer is one word: Mission.
My seminary trip instilled within us a lifelong mission going forward. If these people died for their Judaism, if they were killed and tortured and shamed for the very thing which defined them, and all the while they held on tighter and stronger to that essence — I now have the added responsibility not only for myself, but for them. They died “Al Kiddush Hashem” — how will I now live my life bringing more Hashem into the world? Sanctifying the name of Hashem, representing Hashem in every single motion of my life — that became my absolute purpose on Earth.

I walked away knowing something had to change. If these people were willing to risk their lives for one mitzvah, one opportunity to make the blesssing on chanuka candles or eat a sliver of matzah — then I’m going to appreciate every blessing, every candle, every matza crumb. If they were not allowed to live out the rest of their lives as Jews, I am going to raise a family on the foundation of Jewish commitment, pride, and yes — sacrifice.

My father, Mr. Shmuel Zomber, is a child of survivors. His parents were married during the war; they made it out alive, their children did not. (You can read the story of my father’s siblings here: https://mishpacha.com/unearthing-the-past/ ) After losing four children to the Nazis, they had the strength  build a new life and raise two more children born on American soil. They sent my father and his sister to Jewish schools — a large financial burden at the time, for sure. I am forever grateful to my grandparents for the courage it took to start everything from scratch in a world that had betrayed them so deeply.

Yet I wonder — would I be alive today had my father’s siblings survived? Is my existence — not despite the losses, but perhaps, chillingly, because of it? And then how much more so do I owe my everything to the people who died, giving birth to the life I now have.

Today was Yom Hashoah. If you are reading this, and you want to give meaning and purpose to the lives of those who were lost — what are you going to do that will make them proud? This day — if you want to make it count — is more than just remembering and commemorating in a moment silence. It is more than just feeling sad in response to a painful account, or staring at a gruesome photo until you break down in tears.

It is being, becoming, living as a Jew — moment to moment, every second of the day. It’s doing the actions that a Jew does. It’s shouting that I am a Jew — from the depths of my heart, and at the top of my lungs. But not with my voice, with a megaphone or a banner. Rather, with my actions, my commitments, my sacrifice. My Soul.

About the Author
Mindel Kassorla is a magazine columnist, graphic designer, and Judaic Studies teacher who moved to Israel sixteen years ago. She and her husband Naftali both teach in various Anglo women’s seminaries across Jerusalem and enjoy hosting students for Shabbos from all backgrounds. They also act as a “Shadchan Team,” guiding singles towards marriage and towards a better understanding of themselves.
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