Today is rather complex. We are celebrating Shabbat, our weekly opportunity for rest and renewal. It is also National Holocaust Memorial Day, the day set aside by the British government since the millennium for remembrance of the Holocaust, and for educational activities about the horrors of Nazism and subsequent genocides. So: a day of joy and a day of sorrow. Meanwhile, in the garden of members in Hove, the children and their parents are enjoying a morning of activities celebrating Tu Bishvat, the New Year for Trees which falls on Wednesday
Traditionally, mourning is suspended on Shabbat. And yet, we must pause to acknowledge National Holocaust Memorial Day. The Nazi terror machine was set in motion in 1933 when Hitler came to power, and continued churning out its horrors until Hitler was defeated by the Allies in April 1945. That terrifying time could be remembered on any day in the calendar. So, why 27th January? On 27th January 1945, the Red Army liberated Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest and most notorious of the Nazi concentration camps that also doubled up as a death camp, and was the site of the murder of millions of Jews and Poles. And so, that date marks the beginning of the end of what the philosopher, Emil Fackenheim referred to as ‘Planet Auschwitz’. 27th January 1945: a date salvaged from the depths of the abyss; edged with hope.
The calendar that regulates our lives – and Jews live in two calendars – is full of dates that we tend to take for granted as intrinsic to the annual cycle. The creation of a new date reminds us that every special date on the calendar has a political dimension. The British government chose to mark National Holocaust Memorial Day on 27th January. There was, perhaps, a more obvious candidate: Kristallnacht, ‘the night of the broken glass’ on 9th November 1938. After five years in which the Jewish citizens of Germany were subjected to a systematic process of legal, economic, cultural and social discrimination that excluded them from German society, 9th November 1938 marked the beginning of the violent persecution of the Jews of Europe. Why was this date chosen by the Nazis? Significantly, since 1989, 9th November has also marked a new milestone: the reunification of Germany. This only begs a further question: why was 9th November chosen for German reunification? Before Kristallnacht, 9th November was already a significant date in the German calendar. On that date, in 1848, the execution of liberal leader, Robert Blum, came to be seen as the first step towards the crushing of the German Revolution in April and May 1849. On 9th November 1918, the German monarchy ended when Kaiser Wilhelm II was overthrown. On the same date, in 1923, the Nazi party experienced a setback, and during Nazi rule, 9th November was observed as a national holiday in memory of the Nazis who died in what became known as the ‘Beer Hall Putsch’ of that year. So, the inauguration of violent pogroms against the Jews on 9th November 1938 was not accidental – and it is not surprising that 9th November was chosen as the date for German reunification. Clearly, since 1989, the significance of 9th November in German consciousness as the date of a new beginning for the German people, has effectively trumped the significance of Kristallnacht. And so, since 1989, Kristallnacht has been chiefly marked by the Jewish people. This year, the 80th anniversary coincides with Shabbat, and we will be holding a day of commemoration, concluding with a film screening.
I have spoken about two dates for marking the Holocaust. But for Jews there is another date: Yom Ha-Shoah, which unlike 27th of January and 9th November, takes place in the spring, on the 27th of the Hebrew month of Nissan, just a few days after the end of Pesach, Passover, the festival that celebrates the liberation of our ancestors from slavery. Of course, the choice of this date is also political. But first, let us consider the name: Yom Ha-Shoah, literally, ‘the day of devastation.’ Reference to sho’ah, ‘devastation’ is found repeatedly in the Hebrew Bible, in particular in the books of the prophets. Sho’ah, is not the Hebrew translation for ‘Holocaust’. Look in the dictionary of Biblical Hebrew edited by Christian Doctors of Divinity, Brown, Driver and Briggs, and first published in 1906, and you will find that ‘holocaust’ is the translation of the Hebrew word, olah, ‘burnt offering’. For Jews, it is inappropriate, to say the least, to speak of the murder of the Jews of Europe as an offering to God. There was nothing ‘sacred’ about the smoking crematoria of the death camps.
I mentioned that the choice of date for Yom Ha-Sho’ah was political. After the Sho’ah ended, Jews across the world began to discuss how it might be commemorated – and not surprisingly, Kristallnacht was an obvious choice. In the Hebrew calendar, 9th November 1938 coincided with the 16th of the Hebrew month of Cheshvan. Hebrew months follow the moon, so in the middle of the month, the moon is full, which might explain the memory of all that broken glass which would have been glinting in the moonlight. Interestingly, Cheshvan is the only month in the Jewish calendar that is not marked by any special commemorations, and for that reason the early rabbis dubbed it as Mar Cheshvan, ‘Bitter Cheshvan’, and the month is still known by that name. How appropriate that the Sho’ah should be remembered during a month devoid of other commemoratives dates, and so already experienced as ‘bitter’. But it wasn’t to be. In 1953, the Israeli government established 27th Nissan as the date for the annual commemoration of the Sho’ah. The original proposal had been 14th Nissan, the anniversary of the beginning of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising against the Nazis, which began on 19th April 1943, on the eve of Pesach, Passover. However, because of its proximity to Pesach, 14th Nissan was not considered suitable by the Israeli rabbinate, so the government settled on the 27th – although for the ultraorthodox, a completely different date was preferred: the 10th day of the Hebrew month of Tevet, which is the anniversary of the beginning of the siege of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 586 BCE. By the 1970s, the commemoration of Yom Ha-Sho’ah on 27th Nissan had become established throughout most of the Jewish world.
So, why did the Israeli government choose the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising as the date for Yom Ha-Sho’ah? Like 27th January, the choice reflects the desire to focus on hope rather than despair. And more than this. On 27th January 1945, the Red Army were the liberators of a remnant of a crushed people. On the eve of Pesach 1943, audacious, defiant young Jews, no doubt inspired by the Exodus, decided to take it into their own hands to liberate their own people. It’s an inspiring story, and until very recently, when visiting Beit Lochamei Ha-Geta’ot, ‘the Ghetto Fighters House’ in the kibbutz in northern Israel, established in 1949 by survivors, you could still talk with a few of those who had managed to escape through the sewage system to join Polish partisans in the woods and continue the fight for freedom.
So, since 2000, there are now three major dates for commemoration of the Sho’ah: Kristallnacht, Yom Ha-Sho’ah and National Holocaust Memorial Day. Within this triad, Kristallnacht and Yom Ha-Sho’ah remind us of the particularity of the Sho’ah; that at the heart of the Nazi programme lay Hitler’s determination to wipe out the Jewish people. I will never forget how a rabbinic delegation to Berlin in 2005 to mark the 60th anniversary of the end of the Sho’ah brought that home to me. As part of our programme, we visited the villa on the Wannsee, the lake outside Berlin, where the Nazi top brass had met together in 1942 to work out the ‘final solution’. One of the items in the exhibition was particularly chilling. It was a typed list of the Jewish populations of Europe, with a total at the foot of the page: 11 million. Hitler didn’t quite succeed in hitting that target. Of course, Britain featured on the list, and alongside, a number: 500,000. Only a narrow strip of water, and the courage of British airmen ensured that Hitler did not reach these shores.
The Nazis did not invent anti-Semitism. 2000 years of Christian Jew-hatred accomplished that. The Nazis did not invent the fantasy of a demonic Jewish race conspiring to control the world. In 1912 Russian anti-Semites published a notorious anti-Semitic forgery, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which continues to be reprinted around the world to this day. The Nazis did not invent the specious notion that Jews are a subhuman race. The development of ‘race science’ in the 19th century gave them all the tools they needed. What Nazism achieved was a further malignant development of racist anti-Semitism with a new project: to make Europe Judenfrei and Judenrein: ‘free of Jews’ and ‘clean of Jews’.
National Holocaust Memorial Day has a purpose that it is distinct from Yom Ha-Sho’ah and the anniversary of Kristallnacht. It was inaugurated in Britain in 2000 to acknowledge the enormity and significance of the Holocaust and to acknowledge the genocides that have happened since 1945, and promote educational activities so that children, in particular, actively engage in learning the lessons of the past for the sake of the future. And so, since NHMD was inaugurated, commemoration has also focused attention on the genocides in Cambodia (1975-79), Bosnia (1992-95), Rwanda (1994) and Darfur (2003). It is vital that National Holocaust Memorial Day remains a date in the calendar of this country, enabling people to learn about the specificity of each case of genocide and to understand the social, cultural, political, and economic conditions that make it possible for one group to target another and single them out for destruction. The current persecution of the Rohingya Muslims of Myanmar, which involved the torching of their villages, and has resulted in the exile of 650,000 people, is not only a replay of ethnic cleansing as carried out in the early 1990s in Bosnia, it also has all the hallmarks of genocide-in-the-making, if it is not brought to a halt.
When I began I remarked about the complexity of this day of joy and sorrow. Let us remember that Shabbat is more than the weekly Jewish festival of rest and spiritual renewal. The invention of Shabbat by our ancestors over 3000 years ago was a radical response to a hierarchical social structure rooted in a dichotomy between the leisured ruling class that never worked and the enslaved masses, who never ceased. Shabbat, the day of ‘ceasing’, which is what the word means, is a day of freedom, when we commemorate the Exodus and remember that all the slaves must go free.
Jews are a remembering people. But remembrance is not an end in itself. Throughout the Torah, and echoed in our blessing for liberation recited after the Sh’ma, we remember the Exodus because we have always seen in that experience an ethical imperative. As we read, for example, in the first biblical code of law, Mishpatim, at Exodus 23:9: ‘A stranger you shall not oppress; for you know the inner being – nefesh – of the stranger, seeing you were strangers in the land of Egypt.’
Who is the stranger? Any person, any people, who lives on the margins. In addition to demonising the Jewish people, the Nazis also rejected all groups considered not to fit the Aryan ideal: the Roma, LGBT people, the disabled. The persecution of those considered ‘other’ was not – and is not – just a Nazi crime. All the genocides since the Sho’ah have targeted ‘others’ – those not considers to be ‘like us’. And to this day the hatred of the other continues. Entire peoples are targeted and individuals are targeted. Earlier this month, a 19-year-old Jewish gay man, Blaize Bernstein, was murdered in Los Angeles by a former classmate, in a ferocious attack that was motivated by homophobia.
The Torah is read in an annual weekly cycle that begins after the autumn festivals, and as it happens, this year National Holocaust Memorial Day coincides with the reading of the portion that relates the Exodus: B’shallach. That conjunction reminds us that, ultimately, freedom and justice will prevail.
Marking National Holocaust Memorial Day on Shabbat also reminds us that for Jews, the celebration of life will always be our priority. The Jewish people is still here today, despite living as a vulnerable minority under a succession of imperial regimes for millennia, despite centuries of Christian persecution, despite the Nazi attempt to wipe us out, because of our determination to live as Jews day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year. The Jewish toast is L’Chayyim! To Life! Today, on National Holocaust Memorial Day, as we lift our glasses of wine and grape juice to celebrate Shabbat, may our toast, ‘L’Chayyim!’ also inspire us to challenge persecution and oppression in every place. And let us say: Amen.
Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah
Brighton and Hove Progressive Synagogue
27th January 2018 / 11th Sh’vat 5778
- See: http://hmd.org.uk/ ↑
- Fackenheim, Emil L. “The Holocaust and Philosophy.” The Journal of Philosophy, Volume 82, Issue 10, Eighty-Second Annual Meeting American Philosophical Association, Eastern Division (Oct. 1985), p. 511. ↑
- For an authoritative and accessible history of the Sho’ah, see: The War Against the Jews 1933-1945 by Lucy S. Dawidowicz, Penguin Books, 1975. ↑
- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/November_9_in_German_history ↑
- See, for example Isaiah 47:11. ↑
- Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon edited by Francis Brown, D.D., D.Litt. with the cooperation of S.R. driver, D.D., Litt.D, and Charles A. Briggs, D.D., D.Litt. Hendrickson publishers, 2006, p. 750. ↑
- For an account of the debate in the Jewish world concerning the appropriate date for commemoration of the Sho’ah, see Irving Greenburg, The Jewish Way: Living the Holidays, Summit Books, 1988 pp. 326-343. ↑
- http://gfh.org.il/Eng/?CategoryID=231 https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/ghetto-fighters-x0027-house ↑
- See: The Villa, The Lake, The Meeting: Wannsee and the Final Solution by Mark Roseman, Penguin Books, 2003. ↑
- https://www.cbsnews.com/news/blaze-bernstein-death-details-released-student-stabbed-20-times-samuel-woodward-idd-as-suspect/ ↑