”Unto Every Person There Is a Name”: Commemorating the Holocaust in Israel

4 min read
Abigail Zamir, Citizen Café Hebrew teacher
Abigail Zamir, Citizen Café Hebrew teacher

Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance Day יום השואה (yohm hah-shoh-ah) occurs on the 27th of Nisan (the 7th month of the Jewish calendar) and is observed across the country as a national memorial day for the six million Jews who were murdered during the Holocaust (1939-1945). It is also a day of commemoration for the Jewish resistance התנגדות (heet-nahg-doot), who took place within the ghettos and concentration camps across German-occupied Poland.

Within the Public School System

As a kid who grew up in the Israeli education system, I have a strong memory of the commemoration ceremony טקס יום הזיכרון (teh-kehs yohm hah-zee-kah-rohn) that was held at school. That day, everyone would come to school in white t-shirts, and we’d gather in the auditorium for the ceremony and wait for the siren צפירה (tsfee-rah). A siren is sounded three times a year in Israel: once on the morning of “Yom HaShoah”, and twice on “The Memorial Day for the Fallen Soldiers of Israel and Victims of Terrorism,” which is held a week after. In Elementary school, we didn’t quite grasp the weight of that day; We’d try hard not to laugh or fidget during the siren, and then the teachers would shush us as the 6th graders read poems and sad texts.

Jewish Resistance Under Nazi Rule

As we grew older, we became exposed to the Holocaust survivors’ testimonies עדויות (eh-doo-yoht) and the courageous acts of resistance, such as the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. On April 19, 1943, Nazi troops and police entered the ghetto in order to deport all the remaining Jews (approximately 70,000) to concentration camps. Little did they know that hundreds of Jewish fighters were already waiting for them inside, armed sparsely with handguns, gasoline bottles and grenades. The Nazi forces, suffering 59 casualties, were forced to retreat and return with more men and artillery. Although the Jewish rebels מורדים (mohr-deem) were outnumbered, had almost no weapons at their disposal and no combat training, they managed to hold on until May 16, 1943. When the battle was over, the remaining Jews were deported to extermination camps. 

One of the only surviving commanders of the uprising, Marek Edelman, was asked years later why they fought if they knew they didn’t stand a chance to win. His reply was: “We didn’t want to allow the Germans alone to determine the time and place of our death.”

A Memorial and a Name

One of the most meaningful and difficult experiences as a high school student was visiting “Yad Vashem” יד ושם, the official Holocaust memorial center in Jerusalem. The name of the center refers to a passage from the book of Isaiah:

 ″And to them will I give in my house and within my walls a memorial and a name (a ΄yad vashem΄)… that shall not be cut off.″ (Isaiah, chapter 56, verse 5)

This refers to the millions of Jewish victims who had no one to carry their names after their death. In addition to the documentation of millions of photos, videos, audio and written testimonies, and other materials, Yad Vashem calls for the recognition of 27,000 non-Jews who risked their lives (and their families’ lives) in order to save Jews during the Holocaust. These people, who had nothing to gain but could lose everything, were named the “Righteous Among the Nations” חסידי אומות העולם (chah-see-dehy oo-moht hah-oh-lahm), and 27,000 trees were planted in their honor across the 45 acres of Yad Vashem.

Alternative Paths

An intimate and personal way to commemorate “Yom Hashoah”, which has become more popular in recent years, is called “זיכרון בסלון” (zee-kah-rohn bah-sah-lohn) “Memory in the Living Room.” These small gatherings were first initiated by a group of young Israelis in 2011, who found it somewhat hard to relate to the large national ceremonies, and to the same black-and-white films on television. They decided to contact Holocaust survivors ניצולים (nee-tsoh-leem) and ask them if they’d agree to share their stories in a private setting, in front of a younger audience. Soon, many living rooms started hosting testimonies of survivors, followed by a short discussion, and this tradition grew wider and wider with each passing year. Nowadays, gatherings of “זיכרון בסלון” are held in many countries around the world – not just in Israel.       

There are many ways to commemorate the Holocaust, none are better or worse than the others. The only thing that matters is to remember the darkest time in human history and to do everything in our power to prevent it from happening again. The “Yizkor” prayer that is recited during Yom Hashoah asks us to speak, to act towards the wellbeing of others until our lives become worthy of their memory: 

“עֲדֵי יִהְיוּ חַיֵּינוּ רְאוּיִים לְזִכְרָם”. 

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