A short overview of Holocaust commemorations
By Ira Sharkansky
JERUSALEM–The Holocaust leads all other tragedies in the extent of its commemoration. Numerous countries have an annual observance on January 27th, the anniversary of the day in 1945 when the Soviet Army liberated the largest Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz. Some of them also commemorate Israel’s observance in the Spring. It comes a week before the Memorial Day for soldiers and civilian victims of terror, and then Independence Day, i.e., a week to mark disaster and salvation.
The Holocaust has not entered Israel’s collective memory easily, or uniformly. For many years is was a subject to avoid. Individuals were ashamed of those led quietly to slaughter, and a people so despised as to have no one to help them. Children born to survivors found their parents unwilling to speak about it. The State of Israel created a Memorial Day and established Yad Vashem, and included in the formal observance a reminder of rebels who resisted the Nazis. Nevertheless, the emphasis continues to be on overwhelming power. Those who opposed deserved heroic stature, but they did not accomplish much.
The figure of six million is an estimate, reflecting other estimates of Jewish populations before and after the Nazi conquests. The figure has entered into ritualistic expressions about the Holocaust, although some researchers cite other numbers that they have calculated.
The Holocaust is not the only case of mass slaughter or attempted genocide in history, but it stands above all others in the extent to which it is commemorated in national memorials and museums, and incorporated into school lessons.
Jews in Israel and elsewhere emphasize their own views of what they think is important to remember.
For some, the Holocaust is a story of Jews who aided the Nazis. They included individuals who served as police in the ghettos, helping the Nazis control or round up Jews for killing, and those who cleaned the gas chambers and crematoria. Israelis continue to debate whether such individuals had any choice, and cite the fate of most collaborators: killed when they could no longer serve.
One of Israel’s few instances of political murder was that of Israel Kastner, a Hungarian who negotiated with Adolph Eichmann for a train load of Jews sent from Budapest to Switzerland. For some he was lionized, but for others he was a scoundrel who favored relatives for places on the train. He was shot on a Tel Aviv street in 1957.
One of my neighbors cannot hear the name of Franklin Roosevelt without comparing him to Hitler for his failure to save the Jews of Europe.
Ultra-Orthodox Jews who have yet to recognize the legitimacy of Israel tend not to honor the Memorial Day that the State has declared. While other Jews stand quietly when the sirens sound in mid-morning, they may continue to walk. Ultra-Orthodox rabbis have a biblical explanation for their people’s suffering: God’s punishment for sin. In this case, the sin was the apostasy of Reform Judaism, which developed in Germany during the 19th century.
The media begins to report on Holocaust stories several days before the annual commemoration. There may remain several hundred thousand survivors still living in Israel, and the coverage emphasizes their memories. But now there is substantial attention to what their children remember about growing up in a family marked by tragedy, school groups visiting the death camps, the failure of Israeli programs to care for the needs of aged survivors, or to return resources to those with claims. This year the principal program on public television, immediately after the telecast of the national ceremony at Yad Vashem, featured a conversation between Shlomo Artzi, one of the country’s most popular singers, and Yair Lapid, one of its most prominent newscasters. They spoke about their fathers, both successful politicians, who survived the Nazi regimes in Romania and Hungary, respectively.
For several years now, the Knesset’s session on Holocaust Memorial Day has been devoted to “For everyone there is a name,” with Members reading from the list of individuals who perished. This year Shimon Peres read the names of his relatives burned alive while seeking refuge in a synagogue.
Leftist Jews and others accuse Israel of imposing a Holocaust on the Palestinians, or using the Holocaust as an excuse for occupation and other persecutions.
The Holocaust may be a drawing card for traveling Israeli politicians, but it generally does not figure in policy discussions. More important are simpler concerns to defend against the violence of Palestinians and other Arabs, and frustration at their repeated rejections of what most Israelis perceive to be decent offers.
In recent years, however, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has elicited parallels with Hitler’s intentions as expressed in Mein Kampf for his denial of the Holocaust, obsession with nuclear power, and predictions of Israel’s destruction. The costs of attacking Iran are well known, but officials and others have also spoken about the costs of not dealing with Ahmadinejad’s threat.
It has become conventional to ridicule the bombast, waffling, and delays associated with Barack Obama’s assertions that Iran must not be allowed to develop nuclear weapons, as well as his ritualized commitments to Israel’s defense. This year’s Holocaust Memorial Day has been an occasion for returning to these themes, as well as remembering, and politicians’ promise of “Never again.”
Sharkansky is professor emeritus of political science at Hebrew University
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