Friday, April 20, 2012

Israeli Students Talk about the Holocaust

It’s 10 AM on Thursday, April 19, and sirens are sounding all over Israel.   It’s not an air raid drill, but the nation-wide commemoration of Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Memorial Day.  For two minutes, the country comes to a standstill as people interrupt their activities and stand in silence while the sirens wail.  It’s an eerie sight to see the traffic completely stopped on the roads and highways, with drivers coming out of their cars and standing in silent reverence to remember the six million Jews who perished in the Holocaust.

Headlines in the Hebrew newspapers on Yom Hashoah

On the eve of Yom HaShoah, the main commemoration ceremony took place at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem, attended by President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.  During the ceremony, six holocaust survivors lit six torches representing the six million victims.  In his speech, Netanyahu emphasized the need to learn from the past in order to secure the nation’s future:

“Our enemies tried to bury the Jewish future but our future was born again in the land of our forefathers.  Here we built a base, and a new beginning of freedom, and hope and action.”

Netanyahu also issued a sobering reminder that the Jewish people still faces an existential threat today in Iran’s repeated calls to “exterminate the Jewish State.”  The Prime Minister said that the Iranian threat is a danger not only to Israel but also to world peace:  "It is the world’s responsibility to stop Iran securing nuclear weapons" said Netanyahu.

For me as a Christian, it’s always a bit surreal to experience Yom Hashoah in Israel.  For the younger generations in the West who grew up in an unprecedented time of peace, the Second World War and the Holocaust seem to belong to the distant past – terrible days now relegated to the history books.  But for the Jewish people and nation of Israel, the Holocaust is still an open wound and a call to vigilance.

I was present on Thursday at a brief but moving Holocaust commemoration service on the Mount Scopus campus of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, attended by several hundred students, faculty and staff.  The function began with a recitation of the “Yizkor” prayer (“may [God] remember”), followed by speeches, memorial songs and poems.  The ceremony ended with everyone singing accapella the Israeli national anthem, “HaTikvah” (“The Hope”).

The memorial ceremony at Hebrew University

I asked a few students what were their thoughts and feelings on this day.

“When I was in high school, I travelled to Poland,” says Avigal, “but from year to year I feel less connected to those tragic events.  This makes me a bit sad, but it’s good that we have these kinds of memorial services; they help you to understand the importance of every day.”

Yonatan agrees: “it’s still very hard to grasp these things and speak about them.  Even when I was in Poland and in Auschwitz, it was hard to grasp what happened there, so it’s even harder here.”

I asked Yonathan what he thought is the role of Israel and the Jewish people today to prevent such events from happening again.

“First of all, we need to ensure that our own behavior and actions are right,” he said, “and then we must make sure that those who suffer from anti-Semitism in the world have a safe place and refuge here in Israel if they want to come here.”

Noga Cohen feels a close connection to the Holocaust, as well as a moral obligation to be learnt from it: “It really shaped my own identity, because I am the granddaughter of a survivor and my mother is a Holocaust scholar.  I’m glad that this day spurs us on to reflect on how to build a better future, and on the importance of fighting against racism in Israeli society.”

Her friend Tom adds: “There are many lessons to learn beyond our own identity as Jews.  On the one hand, it’s not the only genocide that occurred in history; on the other hand, for us we experience its meaning as a people, with implications on the existence of the State of Israel.  There are differences and similarities between the holocaust and other tragic events that happened in history, and I think we need to keep in mind both aspects.”

Noga and Tom

A few steps away, two religious students provided a different perspective.  Rafi tells me that he is troubled at the recent politicization of the Holocaust:

“In recent years, the society has been instrumentalizing the Holocaust for different purposes: the right has used it to warn us against Iran, and the left relates it to the racism of some Jews against Ethiopians and Arabs.  These are important topics, but I don’t agree in relating them to the Shoah, because it was a unique event in history.  I think we need to separate the commemoration from the lessons that need to be learned.  The Shoah is a sacred topic that used to be apolitical and unifying, but now it has become political and divisive.”

Benny and Rafi

Rafi’s friend Benny then explains his own personal connection to the Shoah:

“Both grandparents on my father’s side survived the Holocaust in Auschwitz and Mauthausen, and all members of their families were killed.  This past remained with us in our family, and so you could say that this day is half sacred for us.  On a national level, it’s something ungraspable, both in the scope and amplitude of the evil that was behind it.”

But why did this happen precisely to the Jewish people?

“I think the Jewish people have a certain calling that no other nation has, and this really bothered the Nazis.  I think the Jewish people brought a certain morality to the world that Hitler didn’t want.

And how should we relate to the Shoah today? “First, by remembering this day” says Benny.  “Second, by perpetuating the characteristics and calling of the Jewish people, precisely in the places where they were not wanted – being a light to the gentiles in a moral way – and for this we still have much work to do.  It’s a good day for us to do some soul searching, to improve ourselves for next year, to perpetuate and justify our existence.

The Yizkor Prayer for Martyrs

May the L-rd remember
the souls of the holy and pure ones
who were killed, murdered, slaughtered, burned, drowned, and strangled
for the sanctification of the Name,
because, without making a vow, I shall give to charity on their behalf.
As reward for this,
may their souls be bound in the Bond of Life,
together with the souls of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob;
Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah;
and together with the other righteous men and women in the Garden of Eden.