I don’t deal well with the Holocaust.
I can’t teach about it, I don’t like reading about it, and it’s not getting any easier now that I have kids. I tried to watch The Pianist about two years ago and couldn’t make it more than twenty minutes into the movie before I couldn’t handle it and had to turn it off.
But I’ve been to the Czech Republic and Poland. I’ve visited Terezin, Auschwitz-Birkenau, Majdanek, and the Umschlagplatz in Warsaw. I think it’s imperative to understand, remember, and commemorate the Holocaust, and therefore I take Yom Hashoah seriously.
Recent experiences this year, though, have caused me to appreciate the differences between the commemoration of the Holocaust in America and in Israel. In America, Yom Hashoah is a solemn occasion, focused on commemoration, stories of survivors, low lights and candles. Temples hold special services, there’s the annual JCRC ceremony in downtown Boston, and survivors make speeches to gatherings of schoolchildren.
In Israel, it is different. On Erev Yom HaShoah the law is that everything closes. No restaurants are open. No stores are open. Israeli television stations do not broadcast. It is more restrictive than the laws for Shabbat. At least on Shabbat you can find something open… on Erev Yom Hashoah nothing is open. I learned this lesson the hard way this year when I tried to get dinner on Erev Yom Hashoah and nothing was open except for one burekas place in the port area of Haifa. The entire country pauses to remember. And on the morning of Yom Hashoah, a two-minute memorial siren brings the country to a standstill.
Then there’s the name. In the United States we call Holocaust Remembrance Day Yom Hashoah, literally “Day of the Holocaust.” In Israel, however, the official name is Yom HaZikaron La’shoah ve-la’Gevurah, or, “Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day.” In Israel, it’s not all about the victimhood, it’s also about the heroic resistance and Jewish strength. Think Warsaw Ghetto. Think partisans. For an Israeli, the European Jew as the sheep led to the slaughter cannot be the only image- it has to exist alongside an image of fighting back against all odds.
Although I have a big problem with linking the creation of the State of Israel with the Holocaust, there is regretfully a connection. Not a few people perceive Israel’s creation as a direct consequence of the Shoah, or as a token gesture by a guilt-ridden United Nations, trying to atone for the sin of standing idly by as the Nazis destroyed European Jewry. Some believe that the existence of a strong and confident Israel, able to defend itself and serve as the protector of the Jewish people, is the ultimate symbol of Jewish strength and survival. This is a powerful image, and one that resonates with many Jews the world over.
This idea is perhaps represented best by the 2003 delegation of IDF officers to Auschwitz-Birkenau, when three Israeli fighter pilots did a flyover of the death camp and the ceremony of their officer counterparts in their F-15s. Hundreds of feet over the blood-soaked earth of Birkenau, the screaming engines of the F-15s proclaimed the survival of the Jewish people despite the Nazis’ best attempts to destroy them. This is a difficult image for some to come to grips with, but for many Israelis it is a symbol that defines their very existence. It’s a fascinating point to discuss, and one that came up following the visit of the Hatikvah Mission officers to Prozdor last night.
We cannot rewrite history, but we can decide how to commemorate it. In Israel, it is clear that the Holocaust plays a central role in the collective national identity. Here in Boston, it is just as clear that our feelings about the Holocaust do not precisely mirror those of our Israeli friends. It is within these differences that meaningful discussions between Americans and Israelis take place.