Good evening everyone. I’ve been asked to speak to you about Yom Ha-Sho’ah – literally, the day of the Sho’ah: the day set aside sixty years ago for the commemoration of what we Jews prefer to call the Sho’ah, rather than, the ‘Holocaust’. If Sho’ah is an unfamiliar word to you, the word, ‘Holocaust’, actually requires some explaining, too. If you look in the standard dictionary of the Hebrew Bible, compiled in the 19th century by three Christian ministers, the Reverends Brown, Driver and Briggs, you will discover that the word ‘holocaust’ is the translation of the Hebrew word, olah, meaning, ‘burnt offering’. For Jews, the six million killed by the Nazis cannot be equated to a religious sacrifice – that would be too imply that there was something sacred about the mass murder of our people. And so we prefer to use the word Sho’ah, meaning ‘devastation’, ‘ruin’, ‘waste’, ‘calamity’, or ‘ catastrophe’, which also has its origins in the Hebrew Bible (see, for example, Isaiah 10:3)
So, we have a name for the annihilation of the six million, but what about a date for the commemoration of this particular genocide? What historian Lucy Dawidowicz calls ‘The War against the Jews’ in her book of that name (Penguin Books), began in 1933, and did not end until the Allied powers defeated Hitler in the spring of 1945. In other words, the Sho’ah lasted well over 4000 days, so which particular day would be most appropriate for an annual day of commemoration? I will leave you with that question for a moment, while I tell you about a particular chapter during the Sho’ah.
This year the first day of Pesach, the Festival of Passover, coincided with the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, which began on 19th April 1943 – the eve of Pesach that year. To put the uprising in context: within 18 months of Hitler’s decision to liquidate all the ghettos, more than two million were deported to the death camps. By the end of 1942, approximately 300,000 of this number had been rounded up in the Warsaw ghetto and transported to Treblinka, leaving, between 55,000 and 60,000.
In January 1943, a small group of mostly young Jews, using a stash of smuggled weapons, attacked German troops as they were rounding up more Jews for deportation. Within a few days, the troops retreated. Emboldened by this small victory, led by 23-year-old Mordecai Anielewicz, the ghetto fighters, organised as the Z.O.B. (Zydowska Organizacja Bojowa – Jewish Fighting Organization), set about acquiring more weapons and making plans to defend the ghetto. As they prepared for the final deportation, the Germans also made sure that they were ready to meet resistance. And so, on April 18th on the eve of the final deportation to Treblinka, Jurgen Stroop, an SS officer, who had experience of fighting partisans, was put in charge.
Warned of the timing of the final deportation, the ghetto fighters make sure that the Jews who remained in the ghetto went into hiding. When the German troops entered on the morning of April 19th 750 fighters armed with a handful of pistols, rifles, and Molotov cocktails took on more than 2,000 heavily armed and well-trained German troops – and held out against them for 27 days. The first major blow came on May 8th when the Germans captured the headquarters bunker of the ZOB at 18 Mila Street, and Mordecai Anielewicz and a large number of his colleagues were killed in the fighting – although several dozen fighters escaped through the sewers. By May 16th it was all over. Approximately 300 Germans and 7,000 Jews were killed during the uprising, and another 7,000 Jews were deported to Treblinka.
Some of the ghetto fighters who survived, emigrated to Israel in 1949, and you can still meet a handful of them at the Ghetto Fighters House at Kibbutz Lohamei Ha-gheta’ot, in the Western Galilee. This valiant moment became so important in the collective psyche of the nascent Jewish state that when Jewish scholars began to discuss setting a date for commemoration of the Sho’ah, the Israelis argued for one that coincided with the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Since Pesach itself wasn’t possible, in 1951 Yom Ha-Sho’ah was established in the calendar as 27th Nissan, a few days after the Festival, and eight days before Yom Ha-Atzma’ut – Israel Independence day (5th Iyyar).
So, a date for the commemoration of the Sho’ah was fixed in 1951. But there were other candidates: The Nazis began to persecute the Jewish community of Germany as soon as they came to power in 1933, but it was not until November 1938 that social, economic and political persecution transformed into violent assault. Beginning on the night of 8th/9th November, houses, synagogues and Jewish shops were firebombed, windows broken, contents ransacked and burned. Reminiscent of the pogroms of Czarist Russia, this event became known as Kristalnacht, the ‘Night of the Broken Glass’. Would the anniversary of Kristalnacht be an appropriate date to commemorate the Sho’ah? When the debate about setting a commemoration date got going after 1945, a number of Jewish scholars in the diaspora thought so. And there was another compelling reason for choosing this date. In the Hebrew calendar, Kristalnacht took place in the month of Cheshvan. Because Cheshvan is the only month in the Jewish calendar when there are no special commemorations – apart from the weekly Sabbaths – the early rabbis renamed the month, Marcheshvan, which means, ‘bitter Cheshvan’.
Wouldn’t a ‘bitter’ month be a particularly appropriate time to commemorate the Sho’ah? As it happens, the Hebrew date was the 15th of Cheshvan, that is, in the middle of the month, when there is a full moon. Interestingly, it is only when we remember the Hebrew date that we get an insight into why the events of the night of 8th/9th November became known as ‘the night of the broken glass.’ Of course, a massive amount of glass was, indeed, broken. But imagine what all those shards of glass looked like on the 15th of Cheshvan in the light of the full moon! So why isn’t Kristalnacht remembered by the Hebrew date? Because, a key moment in the Nazi era, the day is significant in an international context.
So, we have a date that recalls the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in April 1943; and we have a date that recalls the beginning of the violent persecution of the Jewish people in November 1938. And, of course, other significant dates during the Sho’ah could also have been selected. At the turn of the millennium when the British government decided to inaugurate National Holocaust Memorial Day, they chose the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz by the Red Army on 27th January 1945, a date which marks, in a sense, the beginning of the end of the Nazi era. From a Jewish point of view, of course, the horror was far from over, with thousands of Jewish inmates perishing on death marches as the Nazis evacuated the camps in response to the Allies’ advance.
In addition to the particular moments during the Nazi period that might have been considered sixty years ago when Yom Ha-Sho’ah was introduced into the Jewish calendar, there was an ancient candidate for Sho’ah remembrance: Tishah B’Av, the 9th day of the Hebrew month of Av, the day which commemorates the destruction of the first Temple by the Babylonians in 586 BCE and the second Temple by the Romans in 70 CE. Interestingly, for some years after the official decision to fix the date of Yom Ha-Sho’ah, Jewish communities around the world did include commemoration of the Sho’ah on Tishah B’Av. On one level, it is an obvious choice for the date: following the destruction of both Temples so many other devastating events in the life of the Jewish people have been associated with Tishah B’Av – for example, the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492.
However, one of the central themes in the Jewish discussion about the date of Yom Ha-Sho’ah has revolved around the particularity of the Sho’ah. The Jewish people can trace a long history of churban – the Hebrew word for ‘destruction’. But the question arises, is the Sho’ah just the most recent example of churban, or is it essentially unique? There are different views. I would argue that on the one hand, the Sho’ah is connected to the Jewish people’s historic experience of churban, and on the other it was utterly distinct on a number of levels, not least because it was the first attempt to wipe out the Jewish people, as a people, from the face of the earth – what the Nazis called ‘the final solution of the Jewish question’, and because the technology employed by the Nazis transformed mass murder into an industry of slaughter. And so, wherever I have practised as a rabbi, we have held, both, a commemoration service on Yom Ha-Sho’ah, and also included commemoration of the Sho’ah in our service on Tishah B’Av – when, incidentally, we also remember all the destructions of the Jewish people throughout history, as well as important destructive moments of universal significance, such as the outbreak of the First World War and the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, both of which, coincidentally, took place in early August, around Tishah b’Av.
So, as we can see, there are political and theological implications connected with the adoption of any particular date for commemoration of the Sho’ah.
At the moment, Jewish communities around the world are counting the days between the festivals of Pesach and Shavuot, Weeks. Known as ‘the counting of the Omer’, the ritual of counting each day has its roots in the Divine Service of the Sanctuary in Temple times, when, as we read in Leviticus chapter 23, the priest would wave an omer, a sheaf of grain, for seven ‘complete’ weeks, from the day after the Sabbath during Pesach, until Yom Ha-Bikkurim, ‘the day of first-fruits’ on the fiftieth day. If we remember that the ancestors of the Jewish people were farmers, we can see that the period between sowing the seeds and reaping the grain, was a time of great anxiety – hence the marking of time until the first harvest. After the Temple was destroyed the rabbis reinvented the Festival of Weeks as a commemoration of the Revelation of Mount Sinai, since, as Exodus chapter 19 relates, the slaves arrived in the wilderness of Sinai at the beginning of the third month following the departure from Egypt. In this way the rabbis ensured that what had been a sacred feast associated with the land, a particular place, would be connected with a particular time, and could be celebrated in every place. The rabbis also developed the notion that the period between Pesach and Shavuot was a time of mourning because it was during the ‘seven weeks, in the year 135 CE that the Romans finally crushed the three-year-long Jewish revolt led by a messianic figure known as Bar Kochba, which was supported by many rabbis of the day, including, Rabbi Akiva.
Why am I telling you this? Because the crushing of the Bar Kochba revolt was a traumatic event which marked a turning point for the Jewish people, no less important than the destruction of the Temple, which had followed the crushing of the first revolt against Rome. And so, with this historic resonance, the Omer period as a whole may be seen as another candidate for the commemoration of the Sho’ah. However, this is not just because the Jewish people experienced a trauma in the second century during this time. More importantly, it is because that trauma is not remembered on a particular day. And it is this that, in my view, makes the Omer period an important time for Sho’ah remembrance. After all, the Sho’ah did not take place on one particular day, but rather, day after day after day. And yet, just as the Omer period is time-limited, so the Sho’ah did come to an end, albeit after twelve long and excruciating years – and Hitler’s dream of a ‘thousand year Reich’ was finally shattered.
In my congregation, Brighton and Hove Progressive Synagogue, in addition to commemorating Yom Ha-Sho’ah, we also remember the Sho’ah throughout the days of the counting of the Omer. And we do something else, which also makes a big difference to the way in which we remember that devastating time: we remember a particular community, and, in particular, the individual members of that community by name. We remember the community of Frydek Mistek in eastern Czechoslovakia, which was destroyed by the Nazis. And we remember this particular community because we are the guardians of one of their Torah scrolls. The community of Frydek Mistek was rounded up by the Nazis between the Rosh Ha-Shanah, the New Year, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement in 1942. All those were deported were later killed – mostly in the death camp of Treblinka. However, in 1962, 1564 Torah scrolls were found in a disused synagogue in Prague. To cut a long story short, the Rabbi of Westminster Synagogue in London, an American called Harold Reinhart, was inspired to rescue the scrolls, and so he brought them back to the synagogue in truckloads, where those that could be repaired were repaired, and catalogued, and then distributed to progressive synagogues throughout the country. So that’s how we got to have our scroll from Frydek Mistek. But it was not until 2002, following the 40th anniversary of the rescue of the scrolls, that we decided, after attending a special conference at the Westminster Synagogue, to make a point of actively preserving the memory of the community of Frydek Mistek, by creating an exhibition, and by reading from their scroll on the anniversary of the deportations, and during the Omer period.
And so, remembering the destroyed community of Frydek Mistek amidst the six million, reminds us of the millions of individual lives and the tens of thousands of individual communities that were laid waste.
Yom Ha-Sho’ah: a day for remembrance of the Sho’ah. The Omer period: a ‘complete’ span of time to remember all the days of that devastating, unique long moment, which, did in fact become a past event that we can look back at and remember. As it happens, the date chosen to mark Yom Ha-Shoah, because of its association with the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, does in fact, take place during the Omer period, on the 13th day of the Omer. In view of this, given the decision was made sixty years ago, to choose one particular day, perhaps it was, after all, a good choice.
Finally, the question I might have posed at the beginning: Why should we remember the Sho’ah? Because we must not forget the terrors perpetrated by the Nazis and their cohorts – and in the hope that one day, human beings will learn not to demonise the other, and so ensure that genocide is finally consigned to history.
I would like to conclude my remarks by counting the Omer:
Ba-ruch A-tah A-do-nai E-lo-hey-nu, Me-lech ha-o-lam, a-sher ki-d-shanu b-mitz-vo-tav v-tzi-va-nu al s-fi-rat ha-omer.
Blessed are You, Eternal One, our God, Sovereign of the Universe, who sanctifies us by doing Your commands and who commands us concerning the counting of the Omer.
Today is the 43rd day of the Omer, making six weeks and one day of the Omer.
Rabbi Elizabeth Tikvah Sarah
Network Meeting of the Crawley Interfaith Network
31st May 2011 – 27th Iyyar 5771
 The Rabbis subsequently interpreted the word, ‘Sabbath’ in the text (Lev. 23:15) to mean the first day of the festival, thus fixing the date of the Festival following the seven weeks of counting as the 6th day of Sivan.
 The rabbis referred to this as a ‘plague’ – see Talmud (Yevamot 62b)
 Our anniversary service is held on Shabbat Shuvah – the ‘Sabbath of Repentance’ between Rosh Ha-Shanah and Yom Kippur.