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What is the problem with Yom Hashoa?
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What is the problem with Yom Hashoa?

Gilbert N. Kahn is a professor of Political Science at Kean University.

Dr. Anat Livne, the director of the Ghetto Fighters’ House Museum on Kibbutz Lohamei Haghetaot, touched a raw nerve last week when she questioned how Israel, Israelis, and Jews all over the world memorialize and commemorate the Shoa. Her remarks came less than two weeks before Yom Hashoa and before her own museum is scheduled to hold its annual commemorative gathering of over 10,000 people. 

This kibbutz, located in the western Galilee near Nahariya, houses one of the three major museums and archives in Israel dedicated to the Holocaust. Founded in 1949 by survivors of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, Jews who fought as partisans, and other survivors, the museum was established to memorialize those Jews who resisted and fought the Nazis. 

Livne opened up an important discussion that for years has been festering among many survivor groups and descendants of Holocaust victims, as well as among many scholars and even some political leaders both in Israel and in the Diaspora: How are we educating about and explaining the Shoa? “I feel that the overly ceremonious nature in recent years has created a feeling that we’re not allowed to think critically about the Holocaust and its lessons,” Livne said.

Her specific critique was leveled at the enormous budget expended by governmental authorities and private individuals and groups to memorialize the Shoa while many survivors are living in destitute conditions. Such ceremonies may well touch many people, she said, but do not have a sufficiently large impact on educating citizens about the Shoa. Further, the humanistic elements that should be learned from the horrors of the Holocaust are being lost as the public is caught up in the pomp and ceremony.

“Memory should be transmitted in different, more significant ways,” said Livne. “It’s hard not to get excited at the lighting of the torches and the ceremony, and I’m aware that it remains with the observer for a long time afterward. But what will remain for the coming generations? What will happen after the last of the survivors leaves us?… The memory of the Holocaust is liable to be exploited for emotional manipulation only.” 

Unfortunately, Livne’s acute observations represent only one aspect of what is happening to Holocaust remembrance. Aside from the need for Jews to think critically, openly, and honestly about the Shoa, there is a need to comprehend the uniqueness of this event in history and specifically within the corpus of the growing interest and concern for genocide as a field of academic investigation. Genocide scholarship must not be permitted to homogenize the Shoa within the generic study of human barbarism. If the uniqueness of the Holocaust within history is not sustained, then Hitler may have won after all. 

Similarly, the promotion of human rights and the strengthening of the political and humanitarian response to those who violate these fundamental moral privileges must never equate such abuses with a plan to totally exterminate an entire race. 

For Jews specifically, memorializing the Shoa must be given a more serious and appropriate place within religious observance, not exclusively a political one. Clearly the Tisha B’Av commemoration of the destruction of the spiritual centers of Jewish life, such as the Temples in Jerusalem, has become a meaningful part of Jewish life, regardless of any individual’s religious affiliation or persuasion. Unless a unique way is found to religiously observe and memorialize the destruction of the Six Million, one-third of the Jewish population at the time, the permanency of the Shoa for Jews will fade into the pages of history books.

The voices of the survivors are diminishing daily. As those who were the first-hand witnesses pass away, the primary source of testimony will disappear. For their sake, the need remains to honor and revere them and ensure that they receive opportunities to live their last years in dignity, but efforts to effectively enshrine into the pages of history their stories and experiences of suffering and survival must persist.

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