By Pete Tobias, rabbi at The Liberal Synagogue Elstree
The annual observance of Yom HaShoah, this year falling on 16 April, raised the perennial question of how we might best commemorate the victims of Nazi atrocities.
Yom HaShoah was introduced by Israel in 1951 as an annual day of memorial for the suffering of the Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe. Israel’s then leaders wanted the message of “never again” to be heard loud and clear from the fledgling state, so chose the anniversary of the 1943 uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto.
The liberation of Auschwitz on 27 January 1945 is perhaps a more solid basis for a Holocaust memorial – the date of the UK’s national Holocaust Memorial Day – for it was in the bleak, helpless misery of Auschwitz that the true horror of the Final Solution unfolded. But, this day detracts, too, from the task of recalling the victims. From the moment of Auschwitz’s liberation, humanity was forced to face the reality of its own potential for evil.
There are other days in the Jewish calendar that provide space for reflection upon the tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people – Tisha B’av, for example, often observed at summer youth camps, or the martyrology section of the Yom Kippur Musaf service.
But can such a tragedy be recalled in a single day? Jewish tradition offers another period of sadness. The seven weeks of the Omer between Pesach and Shavuot, recall a time of uncertainty when our agricultural ancestors feared the east wind that might blight their crops. It also recalls a plague that claimed many lives and Jewish victims of the Crusades.
In my shul, at every service during this period, the day of the Omer is announced and followed by a memorial prayer and silence, during which we try to ponder the horrific suffering of ordinary Jews like themselves. It is, of course, impossible even to imagine the terror and pain experienced by the Shoah victims. But by spreading the attempt to remember across a seven-week period rather than trying to condense it into one day, perhaps a greater level of dignity and memorial might be achieved.