LONDON – DECEMBER 9: Auschwitz survivor Mr. Leon Greenman, prison number 98288, displays his number tattoo on December 9, 2004 at the Jewish Museum in London, England. Mr. Greenman O.B.E age 93 and a British citizen, spent three years of his life in six different concentration camps during World War II and since 1946 he has tirelessly recounted his life through his personal exhibition at the museum where he conducts educational events to all age groups. January 2005 will be the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the extermination and concentration camps, when survivors and victims who suffered as a result of the Holocaust will commemorated across the world. (Photo by Ian Waldie/Getty Images)
How many people do you know who fast on the 20th of Sivan? The likely answer is zero. It is not one of the minor fast days, and obviously not Tisha B’av or Yom Kippur, so why would we fast?
Twice in our history, the 20th of Sivan was designated as a permanent fast day to commemorate massacres against our people. The first time was by Rabbeinu Tam, Rashi’s grandson in 1171, after 31 Torah scholars were executed as a result of a blood libel in France. Rabbeinu Tam declared the 20th of Sivan as a day of fasting “greater than Tzom Gedalya, like Yom Kippur,” and instituted special selichos to be recited. Shortly after, the Crusades expanded and for the next 150 years would bring great devastation of Jewish communities. It overshadowed the incident of the blood libel and the fast ceased being observed.
Almost 500 years later, from 1648-1649, Polish Anti-Semite Chmielnicki launched a series of pogroms that led do the deaths of tens of thousands of Jews and the loss of hundreds of Jewish communities. The Shach, Rav Shabbsai Ha’Kohen, instituted the 20th of Sivan as a private fast day for his family to commemorate their great loss. Soon after, the Council of the Four Lands, the rabbinic authority of Eastern Europe, adopted the fast for all Polish Jewry in commemoration of the tragedies of what became known as Tach V’Tat.
Twice the 20th of Sivan was designated as a day commemorating Jewish tragedies, and twice the observance faded until it was lost completely. In this context and with this background, I can’t help but wonder – what will become of Yom Ha’Shoah? Will it continue to be observed 20 years from now? Will gatherings, commemorations, ceremonies, and school assemblies be held, or as time passes will Holocaust Remembrance Day fade into oblivion?
Sadly, the likelihood is that Yom Ha’Shoah will go the way of the 20th of Sivan. Anecdotal evidence from my experience and that of my colleagues indicates decreased attendance at Yom Ha’Shoah events over the last few years. Moreover, while the Holocaust was a defining event and experience for the last two generations, evidence shows that young people today want to “move on,” put it “behind us,” and come “out from under its shadow.” The younger generation is rapidly seeing the Holocaust in the context of the Crusades, the Inquisition, and the Expulsion from Spain: events that are part of our past, rather than as something that happened to our parents and grandparents, a very real piece of our personal lives.
With all that said, what will happen with Yom Ha’Shoah in the future – I cannot predict. But there is one thing that I know for sure. Yom Ha’Shoah in the present, this year, this Sunday night, must be observed, commemorated, and widely attended, especially by young people. You see, there is one component to the Yom Ha’Shoah debate that exists now but will not be here much longer – our precious survivors.
Our survivors have lived through the greatest atrocities and most horrific circumstances in the history of the world. They endured unimaginable suffering, inconceivable loss, and profound pain. They rebuilt their lives with deep faith, amazing and inspiring optimism, and in most cases little to no expectation that the world owes them anything in return for what they have been through.
With the Holocaust survivors whom I have been privileged to know, I have found that there is one request they have of us, one wish and hope: they are desperate for us not to forget what they went through. They reawaken their darkest memories and become traumatized each time they share their horrendous stories. More than one survivor has told me that for days after telling their story, they cannot sleep, eat, or find a peaceful moment. Nevertheless, they open themselves up to great pain continue to tell their story with the hope and expectation that we are listening, that we will remember, and that we will continue to tell it long after they are gone.
In his article, “Holocaust Commemoration and Tish’a Be-Av: The Debate Over “Yom Ha-Sho’a” published in Tradition 41:2, Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter traces the origins of Yom Ha’Shoah and examines the great debate surrounding its observance. Whether you feel Yom Ha’Shoah should have been established or you believe Holocaust remembrance should be incorporated into our day of national mourning, Tisha B’av, is academic at this point. The reality is that the Jewish calendar marks Yom Ha’Shoah and failure to participate in remembering is essentially a slap in the face of our beloved survivors who yearn to know that we have not forgotten their loss and suffering.
This year, our program will feature Mr. Robert Bielsky. Mr. Bielsky is the youngest son of Tuvia Bielski who, with his brothers Zus and Asael, saved more than 1,200 Jews in the forests of what is now Belarus and whose heroics became the subject of the 2008 movie Defiance. If you have children of a suitable age, I implore you to bring them. Older people and adults have lived with and met Holocaust survivors. It is specifically children who are running out of time and opportunities to meet these extraordinary people whom they will look back at later in life and only wish they could have known better.
With all the pressures on our time and the endless list of things that we must get done, I simply can’t imagine a more important place to be on Sunday evening at 6:30 PM than with your children at your side honoring the Survivors of our community. What could you possibly have to do that would be more important?