It may seem ironic that International Holocaust Remembrance Day, which takes place on the anniversary of Auschwitz’s liberation, is not marked in Israel. And yet, considering the timing and character of the commemoration, Israel’s choice to pay tribute to the Shoah on a different anniversary is somehow appropriate.
For most cultures, a memorial day is a day for transcending sadness. Pomp and ceremony keep the events in people’s minds, while allowing them to rise above the pertinent emotions. And yet, there are no such memorial days in the Jewish calendar. Instead, we have days of mourning and fasting. The difference is important. There’s an old joke that explains Jewish holidays: “They tried to kill us; we won; let’s eat!” It’s funny precisely because it expresses a deeper truth. But the corollary is also true when it comes to our days of grief: “They tried to kill us; they won; let’s not eat.”
We don’t commemorate, we relive. We sit barefoot on the ground in old clothing and mourn. We fast as if we might still alter the outcome, as if we were still in the midst of the whirlwind. We experience our own vulnerability as a nation and as individuals.
In the early days of the State of Israel, such a day of mourning for the Holocaust would have been superfluous. There was no need to set aside a day for individuals to relive what many were reliving every night. For some, the horrors had never ended. Nor could you say it was over when the same threat of genocide still hung over the nation, surrounded as it was by larger states continually promising to annihilate it. It was too early for ritualized mourning.
And so Israel’s founders were left with a conundrum: How to commemorate horrors that for many weren’t yet safely in the past?
Ultimately, in 1951, Israel’s Yom HaShoah (literally, Holocaust Day) was scheduled close to the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. The choice of date was an attempt to focus on those who fought against the Nazis, rather than on those who never had that chance. Those who “went like sheep to the slaughter,” as it was phrased in those days, were an embarrassment to the so-called “new Jews” of Israel. The official name of the new memorial day—Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Day—reflected this mindset: It was, in large part, a commemoration of the lucky few who had been able to fight, rather than the unfortunate majority. In effect, Israel’s version of Holocaust memorial day was not a commemoration, but a denial of memory.
Unlike its international counterpart, Israel’s Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Day could never have been set to coincide with the anniversary of the Auschwitz liberation—a day when it became clear just how little scope for heroism there had been. “Martyrdom” is far too optimistic a term for the destruction of entire populations and cultures.
Choosing that anniversary to symbolize the Holocaust, while fitting, would have been too painful for Israel. In those days, the Shoah was too personal—not a historical event to be commemorated, but a fresh memory to be endured, our own personal, immediate catastrophe. It stared out at us from the faces of the survivors among us. It was the screams in the night that haunted our childhoods. It was the horror that was left unspoken. “We grew up with the past hovering over us as a dark, shameful secret,” one child of survivors said. “We grew up with the silence.” What need was there to talk about it? Either you were there, in which case no words were necessary; or you weren’t, in which case no words could ever be enough.
The response of Israel’s founding generation was a typically Jewish one—to rebel against God, or at least against Jewish tradition. The name, Israel, after all, means “to struggle with God.” Yom HaShoah was established in the month of Nissan, a month set aside for celebration, during which formal mourning is forbidden. Choosing to commemorate the Holocaust in Nissan was an attempt to slam the door on the traditions of a community in exile, as well as to avoid fully confronting our national tragedy.
Interestingly, Yom HaShoah comes eight days before Israel’s Independence Day. We mourn those who died stateless, powerless and abandoned in the last hours of our exile; a week later comes our memorial day for fallen soldiers and terror victims, when we mourn those lost in Israel’s struggle for existence; and the next day, we suddenly transition into the celebration of our renewed national life.
And perhaps this is the best answer to the devastation of the Holocaust: to make it part of our history and to build on it. The early Zionists did not succeed in creating the “blank slate” they had envisioned, of a new state populated by “new Jews.” Instead, they inherited a canvas covered with the ashes, fragments, and blood of the past. This canvas cannot and should not be wiped clean; indeed, we may find that the most beautiful painting of all will result from our ability, somehow, to incorporate those marks into the work we continue to create.