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Today, Israel and much of the Jewish world mark Yom HaShoah – Holocaust Remembrance Day. It comes almost three full months after the rest of the world commemorated International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
Why the disparate memorials? The international celebration takes places on January 27, the date that the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp was liberated by Soviet troops. Germany began to mark this date in 1996 and the United Nations made it an international holiday in 2008.
Yom HaShoah has a longer history. Celebrated first in December 1949, the date – Nisan 27 in the Hebrew calendar – was concretised in 1951 and made a national holiday in Israel by the country’s Parliament in 1959.
I posit two reasons for the two separate remembrance days. One has to do with participants. The international holiday is a day for the global community to gather together to commemorate the Holocaust – and their various roles in it, as perpetrators, bystanders, victims, and liberators. Meanwhile, Yom HaShoah is a Jewish holiday, with a Hebrew name, for internal Jewish reflection on the Holocaust.
A second reason has to do with the specifics of the dates. As mentioned, International Holocaust Remembrance Day takes place on the date that Auschwitz was liberated. Yom HaShoah, however, takes place directly between the end of the Passover holiday, which celebrates Jewish liberation from Egypt in the biblical era, and Israeli Independence Day.
Moreover, it tends to fall on or around the period of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, a month-long battle in which less than a thousand Jews faced off against Nazi troops working to deport the last of Warsaw’s Jewish community to the death camps. Warsaw’s pre-war community of 500,000 Jews – the second-largest in the world at the time, trailing only New York City – had shrunk to just over 50,000. The ghetto was burned to the ground by the Nazis during the fighting, killing an estimated 13,000 Jews. The remainder were deported.
Nonetheless, the different historical events tell two tales of Jewish agency during the Holocaust. In one, the Jews were mercilessly slaughtered until the Soviets arrived as a proud liberating army. In the other, the Jews took it upon themselves to fight back.
Overstating the case for Jewish agency is dangerous – most had no choice but to follow Nazi orders and continually hoped they were being taken to labour camps and not extermination facilities. But Jews also consistently found ways to resist, whether in rebellions like the Warsaw and Treblinka uprisings, in small ways like the frequent sabotage of war materials that Jewish labourers were forced to manufacture, or in deeply personal ways, like committing suicide as an act of defiance against Nazi extermination plans.
Yom HaShoah recognizes the many ways in which Jews seized control of their fates during the Holocaust and made what decisions they could, always with an eye towards resistance to the murder of their people.
Marc Daalder is a writer and History student co-located in Amherst, Massachusetts and Wellington, New Zealand. Marc has been published in the Financial Times, the Chicago Reader and Jewish Daily Forward.
This is the time of Passover, the holiday when the Jewish people celebrate their liberation from Egypt in biblical times. As with many other Jewish holidays, the Passover ceremony follows a familiar refrain: “They tried to kill us, they failed, let’s eat!” How, then, did the survivors of the Holocaust interact with this holiday, given the painfully similar horrors they had suffered?
The recounting during Passover of bondage and escape, plagues and splitting seas, is a rather complex exercise, often requiring a Haggadah (a Jewish text setting out the order of the Passover service). A Haggadah published in the aftermath of the Second World War by three Jews – two survivors then living in a displaced persons (‘DP’) camp in Munich and an American army chaplain – grants us some insight into the complicated relationship between the Holocaust and Passover, as well as that between survivors and religiosity more generally.
Authored by Yosef Dov Sheinson, a survivor of four years in various concentration camps, and further embellished with woodcuts of Nazi Pharaohs and prison-garb-clad-slaves by survivor, Miklos Adler, and reprinted for a Passover service of some 200 hundred survivors by army chaplain, Abraham Klausner, A Survivor’s Haggadah makes a clear connection between Pharaoh and Hitler, between slavery and the camps, between Israelite labourers and Jewish prisoners.
In his English preface to the Yiddish and Hebrew text, Klausner emphasises that just as the Israelites had to wander the desert for 40 years after escaping Egypt, the saga of the Holocaust survivors – living in cramped DP camps with nowhere to go – had not yet ended. Indeed, the camps would remain open at least through 1953, when a quarter of a million refugees remained unsettled in Europe.
From Sheinson’s viewpoint, the tale of Passover and of the Holocaust connotes a central Jewish failing – the choice of Jews to remain in the Diaspora. The solution, of course, was aliyah – immigration to Palestine.
Foisting the burden for Jewish oppression on the Jews themselves is highly unusual, but an even more challenging theme makes itself known late in the service, when Sheinson’s version of the traditional “Dayenu” song is transcribed. “Dayenu”, meaning, roughly, “it would have been enough”, is a song which celebrates the many ways in which God helped the Israelites.
Sheinson inverts this, condemning God for his inaction. It would have been enough, he writes, “Had he scattered us among the nations but had not given us the first crusade.” Sheinson traces a path through the history of the Jews in Europe, concluding with the Holocaust. “Had he given us Hitler but not ghettos, dayenu. Had he given us ghettos but no gas chambers and crematories, dayenu.”
Such attitudes towards faith and God were not entirely uncommon in the aftermath of the Holocaust. Elie Wiesel, the famed survivor, recounted an instance in which several rabbis in Auschwitz put God on trial for “crimes against creation and humanity” – and found him guilty.
What are we to draw from all of this? Most importantly, we must understand that the tale of Passover is not just in the past – it could and did happen again to Jews, and is happening again to other oppressed peoples around the globe.
These tales also show us how even when faith or belief is weak or non-existent, events of cultural and historical significance like Passover can strengthen us. When we find in the past some reflection of our present, we can use that to help us persevere against incredible odds.
Marc Daalder is a writer and History student co-located in Amherst, Massachusetts and Wellington, New Zealand. Marc has been published in the Financial Times, the Chicago Reader and the Jewish Daily Forward.
“All Poland was in the Jews’ hands.”
“Are they [the Poles] glad there are no more Jews here or sad?”
“It doesn't bother them. As you know, Jews and Germans ran all Polish industry before the war.”
“Did they [the Poles] like them [the Jews] on the whole?”
The above exchange appears about halfway through Claude Lanzmann’s documentary on the Holocaust, Shoah, as Lanzmann interviews a Polish witness about the Holocaust. The attitudes displayed here, although not uncommon at the time, have recently become the centre of a historical and legal controversy in Poland.
On January 26, 2018, Poland passed a new law making it illegal to blame the “Polish nation” or “Polish state” for atrocities committed as part of the Holocaust. Since then, the Israeli government, the U.S. State Department, and prominent academics and scholars have all criticised the Polish Government for abridging academic freedoms and freedom of speech.
What is truly concerning beyond the issue of civil liberties is the a-historicity of the Polish claim. While the Polish State did not actually exist between 1939 and 1945 (when the country was occupied by Nazi Germany), significant segments of Polish society were anti-Semitic and many Poles complicit in the crimes of the Holocaust.
Those entities which comprised the Polish nation – local government, popular opinion, militant partisans – often collaborated with the Nazis. Christopher Browning’s Ordinary Men contains anecdotes of how Polish officials worked with a German police battalion tasked with murdering Jews; the wartime massacres of Jews by Poles in Jedwabne, Gniewczyna Łańcucka and elsewhere displayed the depth of anti-Semitic opinion; and the country’s largest anti-Nazi partisan group, the Polish Home Army, frequently rejected Jewish volunteers.
In the years since, Poland has failed to genuinely come to terms with these facts. Under Communist rule, Poles were largely taught that they were untainted by the Holocaust. But the opening of archives and the collapse of ideological borders that accompanied the end of the Cold War has exposed this – and us – to new facts and new ways of thinking about Poland and the Holocaust.
There are in Polish academia, for example, few texts such as Karl Jaspers’ foundational “On the Question of German Guilt”, or little public discussion of collective responsibility. Within the Polish national self-conception, a clear gap exists in relation to the treatment of Jews between 1939 and 1945.
This in no way ascribes blame to every individual Polish citizen for the crimes of the Holocaust. Indeed, more Poles have been honoured as ‘Righteous Among the Nations’ for their service to the Jews during the Holocaust than any other single nationality.
Rather, we seek to open up the conversation to nuance and balance and support the work of historians in accurately identifying institutional and systemic anti-Semitism in wartime Poland. To deny these social structures ever existed, or that they did not impel the Polish nation towards collaboration and acts of genocide, is to engage in a form of Holocaust denial.
We can simultaneously appreciate the great lengths Polish nationals went to in order to save Jewish lives and understand that, on the whole, Poland bears some responsibility for the crimes of the Holocaust.
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