Yom HaShoah - How to remember the Holocaust
by Rabbi Yehudah Prero
Shoah is the Hebrew word for "whirlwind." It is the term used to described
the conflagration that swept up six million Jewish souls between 1938 and
1945. A war was waged against the Jews in which unspeakable atrocities were
perpetrated against a defenseless people. Men and women, young and old alike,
were butchered at the hands of the accursed Nazis, may their name be
eradicated for all time. Every year, on Yom HaShoah, we remember the martyrs
who sanctified the name of G-d in the camps, the ghettos, and in the gas
A story is told of a unique Chanukah in Aushwitz. It was December, and a
group of Jews in Aushwitz desired greatly to have a candle lit on the
upcoming holiday. Obviously, there was no way the Germans would allow this to
happen, and candles were impossible to come by in the camp. However, this did
not deter these Jews. They saved small portions of fatty butter every day
until they had enough to make a small candle. On the eve of Chanukah, they
gathered in secret, a group of emaciated bodies who had given up their sole
sustenance, around one rabbi. The rabbi then made the three blessings that
one recites on the candles the first night of Chanukah. After the blessings
were made and the candle was lit, one of the assembled approached the rabbi
and asked "How could you make the third blessing? In the third blessing, we
thank Hashem for bringing us to this day! How can we thank G-d for bringing
us to this day while we are standing amidst horrors, death, and torture!
Aren't the dead better off than those alive?
The rabbi responded that he too questioned as to whether this blessing should
be made. "However," he said, " when I looked around at the assembled crowd, I
saw the glow on everyone's face, and I perceived that faith was burning
bright in their hearts. I, therefore had to bless Hashem, for allowing me
tolive to see this assembly to martyrs who sancify the name of G-d in public,
who keep their faith amidst the flames."
As we mark the fiftieth anniversary of the liberation of the camps, we must
ask ourselves: If we could ask the six million for a final request, what
would it have been? Certainly, they would have expressed a desire for the
continuity of the Jewish people. They, who died as Jews, would have wanted us
to live as Jews, to continue to grasp the faith to which they held so
tightly. The proper way, then, to memorialize the six million is to
strengthen our commitment to Judaism, and intensify our study of Judaic
learning. With this effort, may we merit to link ourselves to them in the
bond of everlasting life.
However, we find that many Rabbis, survivers of the Holocaust, do not refer
to it as the "Shoah". Rather, they use the term "Churban Europa." In fact,
they commemorate the destruction not on Yom HaShoah, but rather on Tisha
B'Av, the Ninth of Av. Why do they do this?
The truth is that the use of "Shoah" to describe the tragedy of Europe is a
modern invention, quite similar to the word "Holocaust" in English. This
could be taken to imply that the Holocaust was a singular event, a tragedy
without equal. From one perspective, this could be a great error.
While Hitler may have been the last great anti-Semite to plot to destroy us,
he was hardly the first. As we read each Purim, Haman actually came just as
close to genocide, but through a series of miracles no mass murder took
place. Over the intervening millenia, thousands and millions have perished
during two conquests of Israel and the destruction of two Holy Temples, the
Inquisition, the Crusades, the Chmielnicki Cossack Pogroms - a series of one
destruction (Churban) after another that have befallen the Jewish people.
If we look at the Holocaust as a singular event, we may be lulled into the
belief that anti-Semitism is a passing phenomenon, and only a small
remembrance is required in order to ensure that no other man arises who tries
to kill "from the youth to the old man, babies and women, in one day..." as
we read in Megillas Esther.
Therefore it is important that we recognize that events over the last 2000
years, though much further from our recollection, are just as much a part of
the tragic element of Jewish history. When the Second Temple was destroyed,
only swords were available - those who wished to murder us did not have
modern tools of mass destruction at their disposal - and yet they still
killed hundreds of thousands. In addition, that destruction reduced us from
a sovereign nation to a scattered and lonely people, setting the stage for
the other tragedies that followed. We still await restoration of a rebuilt
Jerusalem, the City of Peace, may it come speedily in our days. None of this
reduces the mind-bending tragedy of 50 years ago - but nor should we be
guilty of forgetting those other tragedies that came before.
In this regard, our observances of "Yom HaShoah" should be united with our
observance of Tisha B'Av - the day upon which we recall _all_ of the great
misfortunes that have befallen us. Just as there are poems recalling the
destruction of two Temples, the massacres, Inquisitions and pogroms, so too
must we incorporate readings on the destruction of Europe in this Century
into our observance of that day (there is a particularly beautiful poem
written for this purpose by Rabbi Shimon Schwab z"l, the recently-deceased
leader of the relocated German Jewish community in Washington Heights. The
Chassidic Rebbe of Bobov, and others, have also contributed to the tragic
The story is told of Napoleon Bonaparte, travelling through the Jewish
section of a city on Tisha B'Av. He rode by a synagogue, and as he did he
heard people wailing and crying. He sent an officer to investigate, and he
returned with word that the Jews were bemoaning the destruction of their
Temple, some 1650 years before. When he heard this, Napoleon was astonished
- and he said that any people that recalled the destruction of a Temple for
so long, would certainly merit to see it rebuilt.
May the merits of six million martyrs rise before G-d, and may their merits -
and those of the survivors - succeed in bringing an end to our long
dispersion. May we see the building of the Third Temple, speedily in our
Check out all of the posts on the Omer! Head over to
http://www.torah.org/learning/yomtov to find the newly redesigned YomTov Home Page, and click on the holiday you are interested in to find all of the archived posts on that topic.
For questions, comments, and topic requests, please write to Rabbi Yehudah Prero.