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Holocaust Memorial Day: Its Evolvement in the Past and its Problems in the Present

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by Academic Advisor, Prof. Dina Porat

This presentation follows the evolution of HMD in Israel and among Jewish communities abroad during post-war years, and pinpoints the reasons for HMD becoming a national and an international day since the 1990s.

A few weeks before the first anniversary of Germany's surrender, the members of the Central Committee of the liberated survivors still staying in the D.P. camps in Germany, decided that the 8th of May will be an annual HMD, because it was impossible to keep the many personal and communal memorial days. "It will be a holiday for us and the next generations... a historic symbolic day in Jewish history, marking the liberation from Hitler's yoke". It was perhaps the non-Jewish date that prevented its becoming a national tradition; it has been kept by tens of thousands of Red Army veterans who immigrated to Israel - about half a million Jews served in its ranks, and more than a million and a half in the Allied armies, undergrounds and Partisanka - and they annually march the streets of Jerusalem decorated with their medals on that day.

On January 1949 the chief Rabbis, the Sephardi and the Ashkenzi one, declared that the 10th of Tevet will be a HMD, being the day of commemoration of all those whose burial place is unknown. It is also the day on which the king of Babylon put siege on first Temple Jerusalem, and Titus, the Roman commander, did the same during the Second Temple times. "This day", said the rabbis, "connects the old Holocaust [the siege and the subsequent loss of independence] which will never be forgotten, with the new one". They declared so because Jewish tradition aims at combining mourning days to one date, otherwise the dates accumulated during 3000 years would be endless. Judaism is "and thou shalt live in it [in your Judaism]", not mourn constantly.

Times passed, and in the meantime the 8th of May continued to be marked, as well as 19th of April, the day on which the Warsaw ghetto uprising started, on Passover eve of 1943. The Germans customarily stormed ghettos on holidays, and Adolf Hitler who was born on the 20th, was about to be given the destruction of the ghetto as a present. The survivors marked the day proudly, but one cannot have a mourning day on Passover eve, and the 19th is again a non-Jewish date. Therefore, at the end of the 1950s, after many and long deliberations in the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, the 27th of Nissan (April) was set as HMD, because it falls after Passover and before the Memorial Day for the fallen soldiers and Independence Day. The survivors - in the 1950s one out of four Israelis was a survivor - were very much involved in the process of decision, Yad Vashem was charged with carrying out the law, and the day gradually became most central in Israel's life. When David Ben-Gurion, then prime minister, was asked in 1950 to speak on the 19th of April in the Ghetto Fighters Kibbutz, he refused, claiming that a newly born nation should be built upon activity and creativity, be normal, and not carry the Holocaust on its back. Today this is unthinkable - all the country's leadership is there in Yad Vashem on the opening ceremony, and the day lasts actually at least a week. The ancient commandment to "remember", and to pass history on to your children, is fully kept.

In 1977, following the turn over in Israeli elections, the new prime minister, Menachem Begin, suggested that HMD be combined with the 9th of Av, the day on which the two Temples were destroyed. The Knesset, in a rare demonstration of unanimity, rejected the proposal, claiming that with time it becomes ever clearer how unique the Holocaust was. Also, Av is most always August, a month of vacation and harsh heat.

While the 27th of Nissan became a central day within the Jewish world, there was no move to make it an international event between the 1960s and the 1990. This was a result of post-WWII international atmosphere: The Cold War started, and the new enemy was the Soviet Union, not the Nazis. International and UN treaties and charters were worded in general and even vague terms, in order to reach peace, reconciliation and a new start, thus avoiding the pinpointing of former perpetrators and victims. So much so, that anti-Semitism was not mentioned in any of these documents (except for one), it was not defined, neither was racism, and not legislated against. The best proof of that is Eleanor Roosevelt's introduction to Anne Frank's diary first English edition (Doubleday, 1952), in which she does not mention the fact that Anne was Jewish, nor the reason why "these people" were in hiding. And Mrs. Roosevelt headed the committee that prepared the Universal Declaration of Human Rights a while before.

In the beginning of the 1990s countries gradually assigned dates for HMDs, some because of local events such as the beginning of deportations (Romania), the introduction of a Jewish Code (Slovakia), the final evacuation of a ghetto (Lithuania), April 19th (Poland), or in conjunction with other Nazi crimes against the local population. Some of them already chose the 27th of January, Auschwitz liberation day, as the appropriate date. In 2002 the EUMC decided on having this date as a HMD in the EU countries, and on November 2005 the UN reached the same decision.

Let us try and follow the political and social process that brought about this national and international development. First, the downfall of the Eastern Block, where the "Heart of the Holocaust" took place, demographically and physically. Access to the sites of killings became possible, societies started becoming acquainted with their war time past, and the newly born states wanted to reach out to the western world, in which the Holocaust, alongside human rights, were central. The strengthening of the European Union meant also taking a deeper look into its countries' minorities and tragedies, and an understanding of today's Europe as an outcome of the recent past. Socially speaking, the waves of immigrants brought by the globalization of economy started deliberations regarding human rights, minorities, refugees and foreigners, their definition and legal rights. It was in this context that definitions of and legislation against anti-Semitism, Holocaust denial and racism started, and commemoration followed suit. Culturally, the post-modernist trends, brought to center stage the claim to an equally legitimate narrative of any individual and group, normative as well as those considered irregular.

The Stockholm Conference and Declaration of January 2000 enhanced the possibility of making the Holocaust a starting point for the education of the youngsters in a new millennium. The year 2004 marked a significant rise in both verbal and violent anti-Semitism. Compensating for this was, according to officials involved, one of the reasons behind the UN decision, alongside the wish to set forth mechanisms against the extreme right that increasingly voiced opinions and perpetrated violence against the new comers, and preached hatred of the foreigner. The liberation of Auschwitz, where a 1.1 million Jews were murdered, as well as a quarter of non-Jews of all nations, has already become an international symbol of evil and the of the need to safeguard against its repetition by commemoration and education of the younger generations.

The UN resolution was adopted by a vast majority of its members, in a spirit of elevation, and the Arab countries did not raise objection. Yet recently the European Parliament decided on August the 23rd as a day commemorating all victims of totalitarian and Fascist regimes. This resolution, which equates the responsibility of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union for the outbreak of the war, might undermines the significance and the practice of the 27th of January. So may the recent trend to concentrate on human and minority rights in a declarative and politicized manner, without carefully checking circumstances and backgrounds. It is indeed up to the ITF to "develop strategies for HMD in a way that injects substance, real meaning and educational value into these events", as was decided in this plenary.

Prof. Dina Porat, Academic Adviser.