History and memory are not the same. Some have described history as “something that happened to someone else in the past,” and memory as “what happened to me in the past.” This week we observe Yom Hashoah Ve–Hagevurah, “Day of (Remembrance of) the Holocaust and the Bravery.” When remembering the Holocaust, there are elements of both history and memory. It simultaneously feels deeply personal as well as unifying for the Jewish community. As a group we give honor to historical events and individuals that we ourselves may not have experienced or known. Yet, in many ways we identify personally with these dark times. Perhaps because of a letter we hold from a grandparent with the names of their relatives we never had the opportunity to meet. Or candlesticks or chanukiot we use for our own candles that originated in Europe. It saddens me that we have fewer and fewer relatives and community members left to offer firsthand memories of the Holocaust; but I feel fortunate that those survivors feel compelled to share their personal stories and lessons with us. Whether we are Jews by birth or Jews by choice, the Holocaust plays an important role in our personal sense of Jewish identity. These up-close encounters with the past help us to internalize and incorporate these powerful experiences into our own personal understanding of Holocaust.
It is important that when we contemplate the personal meaning of Yom Ha-Shoah Ve-Hagevurah we recognize its intentional placement on the Jewish calendar. Not only does it occur in the month that coincides with the beginning of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, but it takes places within our period of counting the Omer, marking the days between Passover and Shavuot. This is a time when we, like the Israelites, pass through the lowest and highest spiritual moments of Jewish living. The Israelites spent their time in the desert trying to release themselves of painful memories of slavery while preparing to accept the Torah and find redemption. Jews today seek meaning in the journey from the horror of the Shoah to the high point of celebration on Yom Ha-Atzmaut, Israeli Independence Day. We, too, are asked to grapple with the complexity of Jewish sovereignty as we continue to work toward redemption.
During this week of self and communal reflection, I encourage us all to think deeply about the role of the Holocaust in our own lives. How does it influence our identity with the Jewish community? How does it offer perspective? How does it help us to weigh answers to difficult questions in the present? How will we pass all of this on to the next generation in a way that will feel both communal and personal?
Perhaps one of these two opportunities to commemorate the day will help us to discover those answers.
This Sunday at 4 pm the Jewish Federation of Greater Dayton offers us the opportunity to hear from our community Holocaust survivors. Register here.
And on Thursday, April 8, at 10 a.m., we have the opportunity to virtually walk the 3.2 kms between Auschwitz and Birkenau with survivors of the camps and the March of the Living. Register for this experience.