This article was initially published in Russian and translated for our English-speaking audience. Click here to view the article in Russian.
Minsk, April 2019
In tradition, we are not only looking for comfort and spirituality, but also for answers to complex questions.
April 1943. The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. The surviving Jews of this city demonstrated the ability to repel the enemy. This resistance against fascists took place not only in Warsaw – but in dozens of other cities and towns, including Belarus. In fact, the first ghetto uprising in Eastern Europe took place in July 1942 in Nieśwież. The period of April – May 1943 became a memorial to those tragic events, through the addition of the Day of the Holocaust and Heroism in the Jewish calendar.
The decision of the Israeli parliament to dedicate this day to the memory of the Holocaust was adopted in April 1951. The initiator of the establishment of the Day of Remembrance of the Holocaust and Heroism was the Prime Minister of Israel, David Ben-Gurion. Choosing a date was not easy.
The uprising, a fight for the right to live and not to be incinerated in the death camps, began on the first day of the Jewish holiday of Pesach. However, after a series of discussions, the government decided to set a date after Pesach – 27 Nisan on the Jewish calendar. While the date for perpetuating the memory of six million Jews was chosen somewhat arbitrarily, the majority did not doubt that the Jewish calendar, with its many holidays and days of remembrance, should have a day of remembrance and mourning that reminds us of the millions lost to the Holocaust.
However, it took another two years to find the Hebrew name for this day of memory, grief, and heroism. In 1953, the name was approved as the Day of Holocaust and Heroism, in Hebrew Yom HaShoah ve HaGvura. The use of the word “Shoah”, however, does not exactly mean a calamity, but rather, is a recognition of a disaster, as seen in the 35th and 63rd psalms. I wonder how the 9th and 10th lines from the 63rd psalm sound: “My soul is with you all the time … And they, in order to plunge into calamity (Shoah), seek my soul.”
The word “Shoah” as a calamity appears in the prophet Isaiah (47:11): “And disaster will fall on you and you cannot buy it off and you will be beset by the calamity (Shoah) and you will not know when.” In the Torah (Bible) there is a phrase “the day of the calamity”, or “yom ha Shoah,” which we find in the Prophet Zephaniah (1:15).
The ceremony of this day was composed by the end of the 50s, containing lines from Deuteronomy, the Book of Yehezkel, and even the song of the Jewish partisans.
The date and the ceremony came from the 20th century, but why was it necessary to take the basis for the name of the day from the books of psalms and prophets? Probably, because we are looking in the tradition not only for consolation and spirituality, but also for answers to difficult questions, how could this happen, where was the Almighty, where were His creations?
Having called it a day of grief and calamity, we are talking about the greatest and most inexplicable losses, and having found this expression in the prophets, we realize that what happened half a century ago has echoes in traditional texts written thousands of years ago. So, today’s memory of our pain, grief, unthinkable losses, as well as heroism, is as important to us as it was thousands of years ago.
Today, in the 21st century, questions still remain both on the history of the Holocaust and on the method of teaching this significant part of history in which there are tears and pain and terrible losses and lessons of heroism, mercy, and courage. But besides questions about teaching methods, there are also questions about the culture of memory. And in this aspect it is important not only to find the right textbook, film, museum, methodologist, and teacher, but it is also important to involve the students themselves in this process.
This can occur with equal success both in the framework of formal and informal education, on a school level, in synagogues or in cultural and educational centers, with the financial participation of both foundations and individuals. By 2019, we have hundreds of examples of ceremonies and projects, not only with the participation of students, but also with their initiatives. Indeed, every year we are further away from the events and with fewer witnesses to the Shoah. And we, the teachers, the rabbis, the madrichim, need to be prepared for this. The experience of the Jewish tradition, where for centuries we remember and pass from generation to generation, should be our help, and the use of new methods and student involvement should build the hope that the lessons will not pass without memory and disappear.