Sunday, April 15, 2018

Why Are There Two Holocaust Memorial Days?

Last Thursday, April 12, 2018, was Yom Ha-Shoah, Holocaust Memorial Day. But wait: Didn't we already have a Holocaust Memorial Day back in January?

In 2005, the United Nations in Resolution 60/7 designated January 27  to be International Holocaust Remembrance Day, a day to remember the genocide that caused deaths of 6 million Jews, 5 million Slavs, 3 million ethnic Poles, 200,000 Romani ("Gypsy") people, 250,000 mentally and physically disabled people, and 9,000 homosexual men. This day was chosen because it was the anniversary of the Allies liberating the infamous Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest Nazi concentration and death camp. Before that time, many nations had their own Holocaust Memorial Day, many of them on January 27 but many on other days. This is, as a friend of mine jokingly called it, Holocaust Memorial Day for the Goyim (gentiles).

The Holocaust Memorial Day observed in Israel and by Jews around the world, is called Yom Ha-Shoah (The Day of the Destruction). It was established by Israel in 1951 as 27 Nissan on the Jewish calendar, which puts it in April or May on the secular calendar. In 2018, Yom Ha-Shoah was April 12, or more accurately, the observance began at sunset on April 11 and continued through nightfall on April 12 because a Jewish day starts at sunset


Israel debated a few possible days for this observance. They considered 10 Tevet, which is a long-standing memorial fast day, but they didn't want the Holocaust to get buried under a number of other but much smaller terrible things that have happened to the Jews. They also considered 14 Nissan, the day that the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising began, but that was inconveniently the day before Passover and would interfere with final preparations for that important holiday. The Knesset (Israel's Congress) chose 27 Nissan for the observance, seven days after Passover ends and eight days before Israel Independence Day, and in the middle of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising to keep that also in mind.

So what was the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising that we would schedule Yom Ha-Shoah around it? It was the largest act of resistance by Jews during the Holocaust. One of the most famous pictures from the Holocaust comes from that uprising: a terrified boy holding his hands up in surrender. You may wonder: how could somebody take a picture like that and not help that poor little boy? The picture was taken by one of the Nazis, and was proudly included in a report that the commander sent to Heinrich Himmler. The boy has not been identified 75 years after the picture was taken and was probably killed at Treblinka shortly after the picture.

During the Holocaust, Jews were removed from their homes and sent to neighborhoods called ghettos as a sort of way station on the way to concentration camps and death camps. The Nazis sent half a million Jews to one of these ghettos in Warsaw to live in very crowded conditions, then shipped out 5,000 to 7,000 Jews a day to death camps, mostly Treblinka.

The Nazis entered the ghetto to liquidate the remaining Jews on 19 April 1943, the day that would normally end in a Passover seder. The Jews, knowing that they were going to be taken to their death, fought back. Some of the ghetto residents had military training because they fought for the Austro-Hungarian Empire in World War I. They had limited weapons, some handguns, grenades and Molotov cocktails, and they were fighting against German tanks, but they had no alternative so they fought to the death. The Nazis burned the ghetto block by block, and 13,000 people were either burned alive or suffocated, but they continued to resist because they had nothing to lose, they were already on their way to extermination. The Nazis continued until the entire ghetto was burned down, on 16 May 1943. A few days later, the commander sent a report to Himmler as a souvenir that included that picture. It was captioned, "Forcibly pulled out of bunkers." That souvenir was later used at trial when the commander was convicted of crimes against humanity and executed.

A depressing story, yes, but one of the few points of pride that we have from that time, a group of people who did not meekly walk into showers to be gassed to death.