In the weeks after Pesach, Jews and Israelis across the world mark three of the most important days of the contemporary Zionist calendar. The Jewish month of Iyar brings with it mixed emotions, as the sadness of Yom Hazikaron – the day on which we remember over 23,000 men and women who gave their lives in the service of their country, and many more who died in terrorist attacks – turns to jubilation just 24 hours later as we celebrate the creation of the State of Israel. But one week earlier, Israelis mark Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Day, commonly referred to as Yom HaShoah. On that day, we honour the life, legacy and memory of six million of our brothers and sisters who were murdered by the Nazis and their accomplices during World War II.
The proximity of these three important days is not accidental and the events they mark are inextricably linked. While Israel’s legitimacy is not derived from the Holocaust, its existence is the strongest guarantor that such horrific events will never happen again to the Jewish people. Over the last two years in the United Kingdom, I have been struck by the different ways in which Israel and other countries commemorate the Holocaust. Among the various differences, is the choice of the dates chosen by both Israel and the international community to mark this event and the symbolism behind them.
In 1959, the Israeli Knesset legislated that Yom HaShoah would be marked on the 27th day of Nissan. The original, preferred date was 13 days earlier – the day that the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising began. However, because that day is also Erev Pesach, it was decided not to permanently link the celebration of our liberation from Egyptian slavery with the horrible events of World War II.
However, the sacrifice of the brave fighters of the Warsaw Ghetto was to be forever linked to Yom HaShoah as stories of heroism by Jews and others across Europe have always been central to Holocaust commemoration in Israel. On the other hand, to emphasise the Allies victory over Nazi Germany and the liberation of the camps, the international community selected January 27th, the day of Auschwitz-Birkenau’s liberation, to be International Holocaust Remembrance Day. For each and every community, for each and every individual, these two dates serve different purposes. They provide different prisms through which we remember family members who perished and the bravery of those who stood up to evil during one of the darkest periods in human history.
I am the grandson of four Holocaust survivors. My paternal grandparents survived Auschwitz-Birkenau. My maternal grandmother and her parents were saved by their non-Jewish neighbours who hid them under the floor of their home for more than a year. My maternal grandfather survived the Warsaw Ghetto and 8 concentration and death camps until being liberated by the Red Army in May 1945 in Theresienstadt.
Unfortunately, today we are approaching the point at which the Holocaust will cease to be a memory and will start to become history, as put by Daniel Taub, Israel’s Ambassador to the UK. With only my maternal grandfather alive today, this reality is all too true for me personally.
In order to adapt to a reality in which survivors will no longer walk in our midst, the task of finding an enduring, compelling way to commemorate the Holocaust, one that will speak to future generations, is a calling of the highest order. Here in the UK, the work of the Holocaust Commission is a vital element of achieving this goal. It is a matter of public policy to which each British citizen can and must contribute, regardless of his or her religious, ethnic or political affiliation.
If you want to help inform the work of the commission, please visit its website by clicking here. Individuals and organisations can submit evidence and proposals until Friday, May 31st at 5:00pm and I encourage you to do so. With approximately one month remaining, we must do everything possible to ensure, as the Prime Minister has said, that “Britain has a permanent and fitting memorial and the educational resources needed for generations to come”.
Each survivor has a story. Each victim has a name. Let us ensure that they are never forgotten and that their memory and legacy are truly a blessing.