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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Wrangling over the Date of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising

The Zionists living in Israel objected to the solar calendar date, insisting that the day be marked on the Hebrew lunar calendar. That date was totally objectionable to the Orthodox Jews: It was the fifteenth of Nissan; the Warsaw revolt had broken out on the first night of Passover. The revolt began then because the Nazis, determined to wipe out the ghetto totally, had scheduled their attack on that day.

The Nazis hoped to accomplish two additional objectives in choosing that date for the final assault: one was shattering and trampling the Jewish Passover holiday; the other was completely mopping up in one day, in time to offer the final solution of the Warsaw ghetto problem to Adolf Hitler as a present for his birthday, which was April 20.

In hindsight, one shudders to think about what would have happened had the Orthodox Jews not been opposed and the date of 15 Nissan or the immediate days of Passover following been chosen as the day of commemoration. This would have constituted a decision to permanently incorporate unspoken disdain for the vast majority of the six million dead into the official Holocaust commemoration.

All the arrogance of those outside the Holocaust--those who had never known hunger beyond endurance, terror beyond imagination, family obligations under conditions of grave peril--would have been crystallized in this statement. The Western macho tradition would have won out over some sense of the heroism of mother love, of the courage of educating children in the shadow of death, of the humaneness of thousands of self-help tenant committees, of the quiet dignity of people who (as a Sonderkommando survivor testified) even when standing before the gas chambers never crawled begging for their lives.

As it turned out, the Orthodox Jews would have none of it. Yom Hashoah would necessarily be a day of mourning, sadness and destruction. Passover was a happy day, full of food, family, and assurance of faith. To impose Yom Hashoah on such a day or the festival days following, would utterly negate its character; it would cripple the holiday that was the very heart of Judaism. The Orthodox were ready to accede to a day dedicated totally to the memory of the Holocaust, but they would not allow that day to destroy Passover.

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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).