Yom Hashoah in Jerusalem

The weather has been crazy: On Saturday, a dust storm filled the streets with gales of fiery heat, so that all I wanted to do was stay inside. I wasn’t sure if my lunch guests stayed over for four hours because they actually like me, or because they were trying to wait out the sun, sitting defiantly in the sky and refusing to set.

Today, I’m so cold that my boots and fleece jacket aren’t enough to keep me warm. Today is Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Memorial Day, and soon sirens will go around the country, asking us to remember the six million who were lost.

Holocaust Day in Israel has always seemed strange: I’m used to celebrating national salvation through feasts, or mourning national loss through fasts. I’m not used to this strange in-between, where restaurants, cafes, and supermarkets are closed, but otherwise, life carries on as normal.

A friend of mine posted about a “funeral” he is holding for the Holocaust. But I don’t think the Holocaust can be buried – if anything, Yom Hashoah is about undigging secrets and recovering stories that lay hidden.

This is the theme of Phillipe Sands’s book,  “East West Street”, which focuses on the family history he discovered while preparing to give a lecture at a university in Levov, where his grandfather was born. In the process, he discovers the history of Hersch Lauterpach and Raphael Lemkin, who laid the foundations for international law concerning crimes against humanity and genocide – two topics that Sands is passionate about and remain the focus of his academic and legal work.

On Sunday night, Holocaust Memorial Eve, Phillipe Sands  presented his book at Mishkenot Sha’ananim, where he engaged in a fascinating conversation on Dr. Michal Guvrin on the nature of memory and what it means to be a second-generation descendant of Holocaust survivors.

Dr. Guvrin spoke about a “Seder” ceremony she designed to commemorate the Holocaust, in which everyone is obligated to see herself as if she has gone out of the Holocaust, in an echo of the rabbinic commandment for each person to envision herself as if she has escaped from Egypt and been part of the Exodus story.

As Phillipe Sands told his story, and recounted his close relationship with his grandfather, I wished that my own grandparents, who were Holocaust survivors, were alive.

As I pondered Dr. Guvrin’s Seder ceremony on my way home, I scrolled down my Facebook feed and found it full of Holocaust-related platitudes, like “We are all survivors.”

And I wondered: Are we all survivors, the same way we are all slaves who escaped Egypt? Has this tragedy become such an essential part of modern Jewish identity that is seamlessly woven into our own personal stories? Or should that appellation be reserved for those who have experienced the horrors of the Holocaust?

I certainly don’t feel like a survivor.  I cannot imagine the terrible things my grandparents went through. My grandfather escaped a ghetto, stole a bicycle, and biked into Communist territory. I don’t know how to ride a bike, and sometimes, when I feel lazy, I take the bus to work.

The siren is about to sound. Soon, I will stand with other people throughout the country, and remember the six million who did not survive, and the worlds that were destroyed.

During Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the High Priest would dip his finger into the blood of the atonement sacrifice and count, “One. One and One. One and two.” I imagine a God I cannot see, sitting somewhere in heaven, wrapping his finger in the blood of memory, and counting, “One. One and One. One and two.”

The list goes on, and I pull my fleece sweater a little tighter around me.

About the Author
Shayna Abramson, a part-Brazilian native Manhattanite, studied History and Jewish Studies at Johns Hopkins University before moving to Jerusalem. She has also spent some time studying Torah at the Drisha Institute in Manhattan, and has a passion for soccer and poetry. She is currently pursuing an M.A. in Political Science from Hebrew University, and is a rabbinic fellow at Beit Midrash Har'el.
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