Do we need two days to commemorate the Holocaust?

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Seventy-five years after the liberation of Auschwitz, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington will livecast to the world a commemoration with mourner’s Kaddish, reflections from a Holocaust survivor and music from the Trio Sefardi. The online event on Jan. 24, coincides with International Holocaust Remembrance Day three days later.

That’s when the Goethe-Institut Washington will screen the documentary “Shoah,” and the Italian Cultural Society will explore the writings of Italian mothers and daughters affected by the Holocaust. And the National Archives has an exhibit commemorating the 75th anniversary of the liberation.

Such international commemorations stem from a resolution of the United Nations General Assembly. In 2005, it designated Jan. 27 as International Holocaust Remembrance Day. For those who traditionally mark the Holocaust on Yom HaShoah, this other, U.N.-led memorial day may seem odd. So how are these two days different? And do we need two days to remember the Holocaust and mourn the 6 million murdered Jews?

“Yes,” says Holocaust scholar Deborah Lipstadt, a professor of Jewish history at Emory University. “One out of every three Jews on the face of the earth was murdered. It’s no small thing. We’ve never recovered the numbers. It has left the Jews with very significant trauma.”

Commemoration is important, she says, because it helps people remember what happened and avoid repeating those mistakes.

“That’s not to say they haven’t been repeated,” Lipstadt says, pointing out more recent genocides in Yugoslavia, Rwanda and Myanmar. “But who knows how much how more there would’ve been if there wasn’t this commemoration? Remembering serves a purpose. It not only is a tribute to the victims, but it’s a lesson, and this is one of the ways of imparting the lesson.”

Professor and historian Deborah Lipstadt. Photo courtesy of Deborah Lipstadt.

International Holocaust Remembrance Day has been widely adopted and recognized, Lipstadt says, and has taken on international significance.

“Do [these countries] necessarily recognize the world’s silence and role in allowing [the Holocaust] to happen and not responding earlier?” she says. “I don’t know. Do they see it as something that was strictly done by Germany and the rest of the world takes little responsibility? But at the very least the world takes a moment to stop.”

By contrast, she says, Yom HaShoah, which this year begins at sunset on April 20, is “very much a Jewish” day, linked to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.

“The Jewish family mourns on that day,” says Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean at the Simon Wiesenthal Center. “It’s more Jewish familial, but this is a chance for our neighbors to understand our grief and our loss and to show solidarity with survivors and children of survivors.”

Israel first marked Yom Hazikaron laShoah ve-laG’vurah in 1951 as a national memorial day for the 6 million to be marked by two minutes of silence. In 1959 the Knesset chose 27 Nisan in the Hebrew calendar to mark Yom HaShoah annually. One date that had been considered coincided with the Warsaw Ghetto uprising just before Passover in 1943.

“[It] commemorates the bravery Jewish people both who survived and perished in fighting back against the Nazis not just militarily but spiritually,” Cooper says, with Yom HaShoah’s association with the uprising.

This is an aspect of Yom HaShoah that Washington resident Erin Piateski appreciates.

“I like the way that the date of Yom HaShoah focuses on the Warsaw Uprising, because in fact, the Jewish people were not just waiting around for years for the Red Army to save them,” Piateski says. “I’ve sometimes seen an implication in the media that the Jewish victims of the Holocaust … could have done something differently. I like the commemoration of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising because it shows that Jews did take steps to defy the Nazis and defend themselves, and we can honor their memory and remember their heroism.”

While Yom HaShoah focuses on Jewish victims, International Holocaust Remembrance Day is a broader memorial of the many victims of the Holocaust, including Jews, Roma, political prisoners, the disabled and Christian Poles. It also honors the soldiers who liberated concentration camps.

But Lipstadt says that isn’t the day’s focus.

“In the ceremony in the [U.S.] Capitol rotunda every year, it begins with the procession of the flags of the people who liberated the camps,” she says. “Of course we want to celebrate them … of course we want to commemorate them, but that’s not the major focus, no.”

Piateski says she sees her community and local synagogues observing Yom HaShoah, but not the international day. Guila Franklin Siegel, associate director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington, says the international day has a diplomatic core.

Her agency doesn’t organize events connected to International Holocaust Remembrance Day. But JCRC does use the day as what Franklin Siegel called a “launching pad” for the many Yom HaShoah events it hosts in the spring.

“Yom HaShoah is the day designated for Jews,” Franklin Siegel says. “[JCRC’s] emphasis is on local commemoration involving and empowering the Jewish community, and the local Holocaust survivor community.”

However, she emphasizes that the international day is important because “deep understanding of the Holocaust is waning.”

“In order to truly, truly maintain the painful legacy of the Holocaust, to give real meaning to ‘Never Again,’ we need the entire international community to buy in and to be a part of holding up the lessons of the Holocaust,” adds Franklin Siegel.

Lipstadt says with both days, “it’s what you do with it that counts.” They’re both educational opportunities, and should be used to teach Jews and non-Jews alike.

“In both cases, if you stop to reflect, to remember, and to learn something about what happened,” she says, “and to learn so that it’s more than just, ‘Oh I feel terrible,’ but you expand your knowledge, your understanding. And maybe you say, ‘I speak out about other things because I know this. As a Jew, I speak out on other things.’”

Rabbi Abraham Cooper. Photo courtesy of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

Part of the goal of International Holocaust Remembrance Day, Cooper says, is to help “the rest of the world” understand the horrors of the Holocaust. He worries, though, that the day often loses sight of Israel — and even of Jews.

“And that opens also the possibility, in which you sort of conflate all tragedies that take place, among them, the Holocaust,” Cooper says. He says we need to be “honest historically” and recognize all groups the “Nazis went after,” but doesn’t want world leaders to observe this day without recognizing the current anti-Semitism in the world.

“We have to make sure that we don’t in a sense say to people, ‘It’s OK if you are ready to memorialize dead Jews but show no concern or respect for live ones,’” Cooper adds.

This year’s World Holocaust Forum at Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center, will take place in Jerusalem on Jan. 23. Cooper says the symbolism of leaders
from Russia, Germany and other countries meeting in Jerusalem for the commemoration — the 75th anniversary of the Auschwitz-Birkenau liberation — is significant.

“There’s an opportunity here for us to hopefully recalibrate the narrative that unfortunately, first and foremost, the Shoah was a Jewish tragedy and there’s no better place to do that in Jerusalem in 2020,” Cooper says.

And, Lipstadt adds, she is glad there are more chances to educate the larger community. “Two days are not too much.”

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Twitter: @jacqbh58

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