From the immediate period after the Shoa until the establishment of the State of Israel and after, rabbis, politicians, and Jewish communal leaders have debated when and how to memorialize the Nazi slaughter of six million Jews of Europe.
Various dates were suggested and adopted by different constituencies. Nisan 27 (the Hebrew date of the final liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto by the Nazis in 1943) was adopted in 1951 by the Knesset and became Yom HaShoa throughout the Jewish world. The United Nations observes International Holocaust Remembrance Day on Jan. 27, the day on which Auschwitz was liberated. Some Orthodox communities remember Shoa victims on Tisha B’Av — when the destruction of the Temples in Jerusalem and other historical tragedies are mourned — and on the tenth day of the winter month of Tevet, a minor Fast Day.
None of these choices addresses the reality that memory of the Shoa is fading into history. Survivors are dying off, and even the children of survivors are aging. As a result, the Jewish community must make some hard decisions which it avoided previously. Like Veterans Day and Memorial Day on the general calendar, Holocaust memory will soon be given very little attention not only by the general population but by most Jews as well.
Even in Israel, there is a growing sense that Yom HaShoa is acknowledged with only transitory recognition of the enormous tragedy that befell the Jewish people. A state ceremony is held at night, the nation comes to a standstill for two minutes of silence in the middle of the morning, and the radio stations play more subdued music. Nevertheless, a survey earlier this year by the Center of Organizations of Holocaust Survivors found that over 80 percent of Israelis think the Holocaust will one day fade from memory and become “just another event.”
In the United States, the White House and Congress, among many other public institutions, continue to go through the formal motions of ceremonies commemorating the Shoa, which are usually attended by survivors, school children, and older community members, and largely ignored by the mass of American Jews.
Other realities are affecting Holocaust memory. University curricula, journalists, and scholars have begun to universalize the Holocaust. As the renowned Israeli Holocaust scholar Yehuda Bauer had predicted, the Holocaust has become just another form of genocide without any sense of its intrinsic uniqueness.
Similarly, university students are considering human rights abuses in Nigeria by the Boko Haram, the genocide in Biafra, and the roundup of Jews for the death camps in Europe in the same courses. The Turkish slaughter of the Armenians beginning in 1915 — like massacres in Biafra in 1967, Cambodia in 1975, Burundi and Rwanda in 1994, and Darfur in 2003 — as well as countless other examples of genocide do not resemble the unique phenomenon that was the Holocaust. Unlike other examples of genocide, the Holocaust was a set of governmental decisions by the Nazis to destroy a race not only within their country or their borders, but anywhere they lived or were found.
Finally, there never developed a groundswell of support from religious authorities to create a definitive prayer, service, or ritual to commemorate the memory of the six million. The lighting of yellow memorial candles in the home never caught on. Attaching the Holocaust to Tisha B’Av turns a unique event in Jewish, and world, history into an afterthought. (There is not even a universally accepted kina (dirge) which is recited in all synagogues.)
Historically, Jewish communities in Europe instituted Fast Days and remembrances on days of historic tragedy. These days or events during the middle ages were memorialized religiously although they affected far smaller numbers. They were also eventually memorialized in some of the poetic elegies (kinot) recited on Tisha B’Av (which begins this Saturday evening at sundown). This did not mean that small towns and cities did not remember them separately during the year, for generations after they had occurred.
Given the scope of this tragedy and the nature of memory — as well as human beings’ innate desire not to remember sad events — it is likely that in a few generations there will be very few people who will still remember the Holocaust. It will only remain on the calendar and in the minds of individuals and communities if the rabbis and Jewish leaders of today take it upon themselves to innovate where their counterparts, in the more immediate aftermath of the Holocaust, were much too conservative and passive to act. They need to take it upon themselves to do what Jewish leaders did throughout history. They need to institute and agree upon a multi-denominational form of observance to remember the Holocaust, such as a Fast Day, a Seder, a meaningful ritual — such as reading the names of the victims, one by one — or some other innovative format to mark Yom HaShoa. If they do not do so, our grandchildren will not remember the Holocaust, and our grandparents will never forgive us.