Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Yom HaShoa: The Day of Remembrance

There are some who refuse to remember on Yom HaShoa.

The reason they give for refusing to remember is because they are busy quibbling about the date. "It should be on Tisha B'av!" they cry. "We cannot add a new holiday!"

This is one of the reasons Rabbi Yom Tov Schwarz's work, Eyes to See, is so desperately needed.

My father purchased this book for me. I found it to be purposeful- a book that is well-written, logical, obviously well-researched, told from the viewpoint of a man who is, above all things, compassionate.

It is his compassion that moves him to write, to cry out, to deplore the nonsense that so many grasp, to speak of meaning and halakha simultaneously.

Rabbi Yom Tov Schwarz does not merely think we ought to celebrate Yom HaShoa as a day of rememberance...he believes it ought to be a fast day.

He brings proofs for his opinion, cites historical examples, and documents his ideas clearly and effectively in a chapter titled 'The Failure to Establish an Annual Day of Mourning, Fasting and Repentance for the Holocaust is a Grievous Sin.'

He proffers proofs of all kinds- logical, historical and rational...but I wish to quote his emotional proof. I do not want to misrepresent him, and again state that if you are a rationalist, you will be more interested in his other ideas and proofs. I am more interested in this idea, however:

    To put this in perspective, let us examine the following response from the Responsa of the Radbaz (vol 3, no. 585), where he writes as follows:
    Question: One of the leading Torah authorities of the generation suffered the death of his son, and did not shed even a single tear over him. Is this a positive attribute, or not?
    Answer: This is indeed a negative attribute. It is indicative of hard-heartedness, and an evil quality of the soul. It is a trait of cruelty...Crying, mourning, and shedding tears for the passing of relatives- let alone for the passing of a righteous individual- is characteristic of the prophets, the saintly and the pious. Such behavior is indicative of the purity of one's soul, and of his humility before the Creator. He will then grieve over his sins, and mourn for his transgressions, which were a cause for this tragedy. It was not without reason that our Sages taught (Mo'ed Katan 27b): "Three days [following a death] are for weeping; seven (Shiva) for mourning; thirty (Sheloshim) for [the prohibition of] ironing and haircuts." Had weeping been considered unseemly, the rabbis would certainly not have instituted three days for this purpose. So too, with regard to Avraham Avinu a"h, the Torah states (Gen 23:2) that he came "to eulogize Sarah, and to weep for her." We find similar examples with regard to Yaakov, King David, and countless others.

I'm paraphrasing the next paragraph-Rabbi Schwarz infers that by the very nature of the question we can see that "the questioners were motivated by astonishment, for this behavior was strange, and unlike anything they had ever seen before." He describes that some might have thought the desire not to cry was to fulfill a very high spiritual level- similar to Aharon's silence upon the death of his two sons-but then continues to show the Radbaz believed that "reacting to the death of a family member in this manner is improper for a Jew, and indicative of a cruel nature."

Now, continuing:

    Now, if our master, the Radbaz, viewed one's failure to shed tears over the passing of his son as an indication of his cruelty, how much cruelty does one reveal when nearly one's entire family- brothers and sisters and, in some cases, even spouses and children, or parents and uncles and aunts- were gruesomely murdered with disgrace and degredation, their bodies burned together with the bodies of thousands of other holy ones, and their ashes scattered over the face of the earth. Yet a mere generation later, when marrying their son or daughte,r this post-Holocaust family spares no effort in making it the very biggest wedding, so that they will receive more glory and honor than other people, and squanders vast sums of money in order to emulate princes and counts, without even the slightest indication or reminder that in our own lifetime, this family and the entire Jewish nation suffered a great catastrophe. How can such pleasure, honor and glory be pleasant to him when he visualizes a single image from amongst the hundreds and thousands of horrible images during the days of the Holocaust?

    Did not the prophet Jeremiah cry out (Jer. 8:23), "If only my head were water, and my eyes a fountain of tears, so that I could weep day and night for the slain of the daughter of my people!" Similarly, we find many instances in Megilas Eichah (Lamentations), in which Jeremiah weeps not only for the destruction of the Holy Temple, but also for the multitudes who were slain at the time of the destruction and the many horrible deaths that they suffered, as well as for the terrible travail that our forefathers endured, and the ensuing chilul Hashem (desecration of G-d's Name). More than 1,800 years later, our fathers had still not ceased to recite these lamentations each year on the bitter day of Tishah B'Av, as well as on each night, during Tikkun Chatzos, crying profusely all the while these prayers were recited.

Rabbi Schwarz explains why he believes a day to commemorate the Holocaust must and should be seperate from Tisha B'Av. But I think perhaps the more important thing for all to concentrate on is simply the fact that we ought to mourn.

There may be those who find the practice unecessary- who may dislike the idea of a separate day to remember the destruction and the strength we experienced through the Holocaust.

I think, however, that such people do themselves and their students a disservice by stressing the fact that "no, we cannot mourn on this day, we have to mourn on a different day." Does it matter? Does it truly matter? The fact remains the same- the Holocaust is when generations perished, where Jews, gypsies, political prisoners, homosexuals, cripples...all perished. This fact astounds us, confuses us; we are not sure how to understand it. But it must be through compassion- through suffering-through trying to comprehend the incomprehensible.

We are told we must relive the Exodus. We must remember ourselves as slaves, descendants of idol-worshippers, and then we must relive the glorious redemption as we underwent a transformative and long process- changing from the slave to the king.

Before we were kings, we were slaves. We cannot understand the Exodus unless we understand suffering.

And how much more so by the Holocaust.

At times we are repulsed, even disgusted by the pictures we see of emaciated men, standing by the concentration camps. Sometimes, in the back of our minds, we might think about these men, going quietly like 'lambs to the slaughter." We think that we wouldn't change, we wouldn't transform, surely we would have been among the heroes, the martyrs, the men who remained clean and decent and upstanding human beings.

And maybe we would have been. Maybe you and I could have retained our humanity. Maybe we are the ones.

And maybe not.

The most disturbing scene, for me, from Elie Wiesel's Night, has not been that of the fire and smoke, or even that of the corpses, but this one (page 95):

    Some years later, I watched the same kind of scene at Aden. The passengers on our boat were amusing themselves by throwing coins to the "natives," who were diving in to get them. An attractive, aristocratic Parisienne was deriving special pleasure from the game. I suddenly noticed that two children were engaged in a death struggle, trying to strangle each other. I turned to the lady.

    "Please," I begged, "don't throw any more money in!"

    "Why not?" she said. "I like to give charity..."

    In the wagon where the bread had fallen, a real battle had broken out. Men threw themselves on top of each other, stamping each other, tearing at each other, biting each other. Wild beasts of prey, with animal hatred in their eyes; an extroardinary vitality had seized them, sharpening their teeth and nails.

    A crowd of workmen and curious spectators had collected along the train. They had probably never seen a train with such cargo. Soon, nearly everywhere, pieces of bread were being dropped into the wagons. The audience stared at these skeletons of men, fighting one another to the death for a mouthful.

    A piece fell into our wagon. I decided that I would not move. Anyway, I knew that I would never have the strength to fight with a dozen savage men! Not far away I noticed an old man dragging himself on all fours. He was trying to disengage himself from the struggle. He held one hand to his heart. I thought at first he had received a blow in the chest. Then I understood; he had a bit of bread under his shirt. With remarkable speed he drew it out and put it to his mouth. His eyes gleamed; a smile, like a grimace, lit up his dead face. And was immediately extinguished. A shadow had just loomed up near him. The shadow threw itself upon him. Felled to the ground, stunned with blows, the old man cried:

    "Meir. Meir, my boy! Don't you recognize me? I'm your father...you're hurting me...you're killing your father! I've got some bread...for you too...for you too..."

    He collapsed. His fist was still clenched around a small piece. He tried to carry it to his mouth. But the other one threw himself upon him and snatched it. The old man again whispered something, let out a rattle, and died amid the general indifference. His son searched him, took the bread, and began to devour it. He was not able to get very far. Two men had seen and hurled themselves upon him. Others joined in. When they withdrew, next to me were two corpses, side by side, the father and the son.

    I was fifteen years old.

There are many who try to recreate the people from the Holocaust. They call them heroes. Martyrs. The sacred ones.

This is not who these men were.

They were frightened. Some were brutal, bestial, doing what they had to in order to survive. Others acted in a superhuman fashion and restrained themselves. They were all of them, all of them, victims.

They were scared, frightened, running from their children, trying to outrn their fathers. Family ties could not mean anything. Some were acting on instinct, struggling to survive in any way they can or could.

We are not their judges. None of us can judge them. There were many who refrained from this behavior; there ar emany who withstood. But there are others who became beasts.

And I think that perhaps this is the true sadness and reason to grieve for the Holocaust. We can tell ourselves fairytales and claim that everyone who died was pure and good and innocent. We can say that these people were all heroes by virtue of being persecuted. That isn't true. They were victims, and some of them discovered facets of themselves that were ugly and awful. When we cry about the Holocaust, we mourn the dead...and we also mourn these people. We mourn for the people who were transformed, through hunger, through beatings, epithets and propoganda...into animals. We could be them. Who knows what lurks within me? What I could and could not withstand?

The Holocaust is a subject that forces our tears, our questions, our anger with God. How could He allow this? What kind of God could this be? We have no easy answers; we have only our questions.

The Holocaust is also something that brings us together. Every Jew- no matter whether he is Atheist, Reform, Reconstructionist, Orthodox, Conservative, Humanistic or of any other affiliation- is united through our sense of tragedy.

As Rabbi Soloveitchik stated (source here):

    When representatives of Jews and Jewish interests kelapei hutz are involved, all groups and movements must be united. There can be no divisiveness in this area, for any division of the Jewish camp can endanger its entirety...In the crematoria, the ashes of the pious and those filled with praiseworthy deeds mingled with the ashes of radicals and freethinkers. We must jointly fight against the enemy who does not recognize the difference between one who worships and one who does not.

Today is a day of sadness. Mourning and remembrance for our brethren. Our grandparents. Our relatives. A day of reflection, of questions, of thoughts. A day to realize that we are united by our past. And a day to consider ourselves...as though we had been there.


Orthoprax said...


So, are you going to fast tomorrow? After reading this, I think I might...

Lab Rab said...

Powerful words ... I'm more swayed by the precedent of 20 sivan than anything else. Otherwise, the sentiments you mentioned, while wholly appropriate, should just be expressed on Tisha B'Av.

Whether or not there should be a separate Yom Hashoah, whenever I am leading kinnos or teaching on Tisha B'Av I always make sure to include readings of Holocaust stories. Like the one you quoted, they capture the theme of "anguished humanity" that is so difficult find in other works of literature.

Ezzie said...

While I do still think the proper time is Tisha B'av, I think it is callous that there are those who refuse to acknowledge Yom HaShoah at all.

Beautifully written post, Chana.

kevin beck said...

May God grant us all peace on this bitterly sad day.

Blessings to you.

FrumGirl said...

What you say is so true. It literally brought tears to my eyes... no, we should not blind ourselves to the realities of what happened. Thank you for bringing this book to my attention.

My only question is... (and I ask out of curiousity, not because I don't believe in commemorating Yom Hashoa) why this churban to be commemorated and not the many others that happened in the past to our people that also killed the righteous and also by the thousands... like the crusades, chmelnicki, the spanish inquisition... etc. There was a churban every generation of the diasporah. Is it based the fact that this time it was 6 million, does that make this instance more savage or more important? The others less?

Or is it the fact that this is merely political for Israel that has people against it because the state of Israel was built based on the murder of these six million?

Or is it because it is secular?


Pastor Doug Hoag said...


Your post was moving and insightful. It never ceases to amaze me how humanity, at one moment, can express such beauty, and at the next act so brutally.

You've accurately expressed what happens to people when they are treated like animals and dehumanized.

God bless you, and I pray that you continue to be "Beauty" in the midst of your sadness in remembering.

David_on_the_Lake said...

Did you know that there's a day that the Council of the Four Lands set aside in the 1600s to commemerate Tach V'Tat when 100,000 Jews were brutally slaughtered in a period of 2 years (before the gas chambers..everyone had to be individually hacked to death)? How many people do you know that say selichos or commemerate on the 20th of Sivan?

So..if there's an emotional feeling toward the day..then it will continue..but in 60-70 years from now..I see it being a hollow day...that exists on the calendar only.

Another gripe many frum people have with Yom Hashoah is that it's part of a Zionistic agenda..which frum people tend to shy away from..whether you agree with that or not..

Anonymous said...

I think it was R' Soloveitchik who was most opposed to the establishment of yom hashoah as a separate and distinct day from tisha b'av. I am sure if we search around on the net we can find and link a written summation of his responsa on this topic. Brad

Chana said...

Hello Brad,

You're right (and I didn't know that before, so thanks). I can't find a written responsa (but would appreciate someone who could?) but did find this statement.

"Notwithstanding, it should be noted that Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, z.l., felt that mourning for Holocaust victims should be reserved for Tisha B'Av, the national Jewish day of mourning)."

Neil Harris said...

Just found your blog. I've been a fan of EYES TO SEE since I first saw it. Rav Schwartz should read your blog!!!

blueenclave said...