Setting a Date for Yom Hashoah

After much debate, a compromise date--satisfactory to none--is chosen.

Print this page Print this page

As the full extent of the Holocaust revealed itself to the captive Jews of Europe, many recognized that the concept of Kiddush HaShem, martyrdom for God's sake, might lose its significance. In the Middle Ages, Jewish martyrs had the choice of converting to Christianity and saving their lives or of consciously offering their lives rather than abandoning their God and Torah. In many cases, they had the chance to publicly witness their faithfulness and to state their defiance of those who sought to intimidate them into betrayal.

Kiddush HaShem during the Holocaust

During the Holocaust, however, the Nazis gave no choice. All Jews were killed whatever their intention, practice, or desire. Assimilated Jews and even Jews converted to Christianity were killed. Then what possible connection could there be between the nobility of martyrdom and involuntary death for a cause one does not believe in? Can this be the Nazis' final triumph, that mass death robs all death of meaning? These questions were posed to Rabbi Menachem Ziemba of Warsaw and to other rabbis.

Rabbi Ziemba and the other rabbis knew better. They ruled that any Jew who was killed because he or she was Jewish was considered to have performed Kiddush HaShem. The truth underlying this ruling is that every Jew carries the covenant in his or her very existence. Whatever the religious behavior or commitment, a Jew's existence alone is witness to God and covenant.

As long as one Jew is alive, all the associations and testimony of the tradition are summoned up: One God, Messiah-is-not-yet-come, ultimately-we-shall-see-the-triumph-of-life. For this reason, the Nazis sought to destroy every last Jew. Therefore, chosen or not, each death was a statement fraught with meaning. The very need to kill the Jews is, in a way, a statement of how powerful is the message they still radiate.

Mourning All Jewish Victims

A commemoration day on 15 Nissan, defined by armed resistance, would have been a betrayal of this truth of Jewish existence and death in the Holocaust. Pushed off for two weeks, the connection to armed revolt attenuated and obscured, Yom Hashoah became a day of mourning for all Jews who died. The modern bias for intentionality notwithstanding, despite the demand for overtly expressed defiance, all Jews who died in the Holocaust are martyrs; all witnessed with their lives and deaths.

In fact, the Holocaust is increasingly revealed as the fundamental watershed in Jewish and human history after which nothing will ever be the same. It is one of those reorienting moments of Jewish history and religion when basic conceptions of God, of humanity, and of Jewish destiny shift.

Yom Hashoah and Yom Ha’atzmaut

As the commemoration day now stands, Passover joy is shadowed by Yom Hashoah. In effect, Passover is wounded but not destroyed, which is the truth witnessed by Jewish life after the catastrophe. Wounding but not destroying Passover is another way of saying the covenant is broken but not defeated or replaced.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Rabbi Irving Greenberg

Rabbi Irving (Yitz) Greenberg was the president of Jewish Life Network/Steinhardt Foundation and founding president of CLAL, the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. He also is the author of For the Sake of Heaven and Earth: The New Encounter Between Judaism and Christianity (2004, Jewish Publication Society).