Early Proposals for Holocaust Commemoration

Would Yom haShoah be associated with other tragedies, connected to heroism--or stand on its own?

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Isolated from other holy days, far removed on the calendar from the climactic destruction whose inception it commemorates, the day had dwindled to a marginal existence except in the most traditional circles. This day could benefit most from an injection of ceremony and from connection to a new constituency. In short, the choice of the tenth of Tevet for a Holocaust commemoration day was designed to shore up the dwindling fortunes of the day.

Could the Holocaust "Save" a Minor Fast Day?

In other words, far from coming to grips with the awesome emotional, historical, and theological weight of the Holocaust, the rabbinate still was operating under the sign of the destruction of the Temple. For it, that was the catastrophe of record. Far from considering that the Holocaust was a novum or at least was too massive to be subsumed within existing rubrics, far from confronting the Holocaust as a category-shattering event, the rabbinate sought to incorporate this hurban [destruction] within an existing (minor) halakhic pattern in order to strengthen that pattern.

The rabbinate's ruling fell totally flat. There was no intrinsic connection between the Holocaust and the chosen day. The lack of fundamental thinking implicit in the decision reflected itself in the absence of any other proposed rituals. The ruling left the Labor left wing, the nonobservant Zionist, and the ghetto fighter groups totally dissatisfied. The proposal never caught on with religious Jews either. The Holocaust could not be used to save the tenth of Tevet. The choice of a memorial day that sought maximum continuity with the past was a nonstarter. That fact is a powerful statement of the theological common sense of the Jewish people.

Survivors Propose a Commemoration Date

The final and critical source of a push for commemoration came from a group of ex-ghetto fighters, partisans, members of the underground resistance to the Nazis. During the Holocaust, Zionist youth groups had been particularly active in armed resistance. A number of these fighters had come to Israel and had been absorbed into the Labor establishment.

It is ironic, of course, that this group took the lead in pressing for Holocaust commemoration. In effect, this was deemed the one group that had no apologies to make-because it had fought! These leaders had brought no "shame" on Zionist ideals; they represented no negative model that might "contaminate" Sabras [native-born Israelis].

Under this leadership, the campaign for a memorial authority soon built armed resistance centrally into the theme. The authority was to memorialize Hashoah VeHagevurah, "the Holocaust and the Heroism." For the ghetto fighters, there was only one day worthy of being a memorial anniversary for the Holocaust--April 19, the beginning day of the Warsaw ghetto revolt, the greatest revolt of them all, the uprisings that had held the Nazis at bay for a longer period than the great French army.

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Rabbi Irving Greenberg

Rabbi Irving (Yitz) Greenberg was the president of Jewish Life Network/Steinhardt Foundation and founding president of CLAL, the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. He also is the author of For the Sake of Heaven and Earth: The New Encounter Between Judaism and Christianity (2004, Jewish Publication Society).