Yom HaZikaron laShoah ve-laG’vurah is the dedicated Jewish Holocaust Memorial Day. It translates to “Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day” and is often shortened to simply “Yom HaShoah” or “Holocaust Remembrance Day.” It is observed today, April 16, and is the first day of an 8-day period to reflect on the victims of Nazism, which included not only Jews but Russians, homosexuals, and the physically and mentally handicapped, too.
Here’s what you need to know:
1. It Starts 8 Days of Reflection
Prime Minister of Israel David Ben-Gurion and the President of Israel Yitzhak Ben-Zvi inaugurated Yom HaShoah in 1953 after a brief period of deciding when to place the date in the Hebrew calendar month of Nisan. The original planned date was the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, April 19, 1943, but this was too close to Passover in Nisan. According to Haaretz:
One proposed date was the 8th of Av, because on that date in 1942, the Nazis began sending Warsaw’s Jews to death camps. Another was the date of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, which began on the eve of Passover in 1943. Both dates were rejected: Av 8 is a day before Tisha B’av, a day of mourning over the destruction of the Temple, and the holiday of Passover was not considered an appropriate time.
Yom HaShoah was then moved to the 27th of Nisan, which is eight days before Yom Ha’atzma’ut, or Israeli Independence Day. In the Gregorian calendar that the West uses, this date is liable to change every year. In 2016, Yom HaShoah will be on May 5. In 2017 it will be back in April.
2. The First Yom HaShoah Took Place in 1949
While the first official Yom HaShoah took place in 1953 in Israel, the first Yom HaShoah actually took place took place on December 28th, 1949, four years after the Axis fell in World War II and a year-and-a-half after the Jewish state declared independence. According to Haaretz, the liturgy of the first Yom HaShoah was held in Jerusalem. They write:
The ashes and bones of thousands of Jews were brought over from the Flossenbürg Concentration Camp near Munich. They were placed in a crypt, together with decorated Torah scrolls, in a Jerusalem cemetery. A rabbi appointed by the Rabbinate presided over the religious ceremony. The public was invited to an overnight vigil at the crypt and in the morning a prayer service and Talmudic study session were held in honor of the victims.
However, the focus wasn’t to sympathize with the victims of the Holocaust in the first decades of Yom HaShoah. The Jewish Virtual Library writes:
Surveys conducted in the late 1950s indicated that young Israelis did not sympathize with the victims of the Holocaust, since they believed that European Jews were “led like sheep for slaughter.” The Israeli educational curriculum began to shift the emphasis to documenting how Jews resisted their Nazi tormentors through “passive resistance” — retaining their human dignity in the most unbearable conditions — and by “active resistance,” fighting the Nazis in the ghettos and joining underground partisans who fought the Third Reich in its occupied countries.
3. Modern Liturgical Practices Vary
Liturgical practices around Yom HaShoah vary not only from nation to nation, but also from congregation to congregation. While Yom HaShoah originated in Israel, due to Jewish diaspora many observers also reside in the United States. Typical practices during a liturgical service can include the lighting of remembrance candles, recitation of poems, and the Mourner’s Kaddish.
These are practiced only among the more mainstream sects of Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist Judaism.
For those within Orthodox communities, the Jewish Virtual Library writes:
Many ultra-Orthodox rabbis do not endorse this memorial day, though most of them have not formally rejected it either. There is no change in the daily religious services in some Orthodox synagogues on Yom Hashoah though the Orthodox Rabbinate of Israel attempted to promote the Tenth of Tevet — a traditional fast day commemorating the beginning of the siege of Jerusalem in ancient times — as the “General Kaddish Day” in which Jews should recite the memorial prayer and light candles in memory of those who perished in the Holocaust.
4. It is Officially Recognized in the United States
Yom HaShoah is known in the United States as Days of Remembrance of the Victims of the Holocaust, often abbreviated to “DRVH.” It is an 8-day period with the first day beginning on the Sunday before Yom HaShoah. This year it began on April 12.
A House Joint resolution inaugurated DRVH in 1979.
Internationally, Holocaust remembrance is held on January 27, the anniversary of when when, in 1945, the Soviet Red Army liberated the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. This date was chosen in 2005 by the United Nations and dubbed “International Holocaust Remembrance Day.” However, the United States continues to observe the remembrance associated with Yom HaShoah and Israel.
5. It Comes at a Troubled Time
Yom HaShoah comes at a troubled time as the West deals with an increasingly hostile Iran. Iran has continuously threatened that if sanctions against it were not removed, it would continue to strive for nuclearization. Obama has since allowed the first draft of the deal to go to Congress. The New York Times reports:
The essence of the legislation is that Congress will have a chance to vote on whatever deal emerges with Iran — if one is reached by June 30 — but in a way that would be extremely difficult for Mr. Obama to lose, allowing Secretary of State John Kerry to tell his Iranian counterpart that the risk that an agreement would be upended on Capitol Hill is limited.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has called this blasphemy, and has likened it to the appeasement of Hitler in World War II. Iran has been notoriously complicit in Holocaust denial and has previously threatened to nuke Israel out of existence.
Speaking at the state ceremony commemorating “Yom Hashoah Ve-Hagevurah — Day of (remembrance of) the Holocaust and the Heroism” at Yad Vashem Wednesday evening, Netanyahu stated, “The danger is there for all to see… and yet the blindness is vast. The West is capitulating in the face of Iran’s aggressive actions.. Democracies cannot turn their eyes away from the dictatorships of the world that seek to spread their influence. Ahead of World War II, the world attempted to appease the Nazis. They wanted quite at any price, and the terrible price did come.