This week, many countries, including, among others, Israel and the US, will honor Holocaust victims by observing Holocaust Remembrance Day. Although HRD is observed in many different countries, the methods of celebration and even the date itself vary. For example, in Israel it is observed on the 27th day of Nisan, which corresponds to April 27 in the Hebrew calendar. The US observes eight “Days of Remembrance” beginning on April 27. Most other countries, however, including most of Europe and the UN, observe HRD on January 27, which is the date on which Auschwitz was liberated. Israel also observes a “Day of Struggle against Anti-Semitism” on January 27.

A few countries observe HRD on other dates that correspond to significant dates in that country’s history. For instance, France observes it on July 16 as it was on that date in 1943 that pro-Vichy police rounded up Parisian Jews and deported them to Nazi death camps; and Romania observes it on October 9, which was the date in 1942 that Romanian Jews were first departed to death camps.

The choice of April 27th was somewhat arbitrary. As we know, the Holocaust did not begin and end on a specific date. It spanned several years before and during WWII. Therefore, there was no universal, obvious date to designate. For instance, Israel observed the first HRD on December 28, 1949. But, in 1951 the Israeli Knesset decided to settle the matter. It considered the following dates:

(1) the 10th day of Tevet, which is a day of mourning and fasting that commemorates the beginning of the siege of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in the 6th century BCE,
(2) the 8th of Av, which was when, in 1942 the Nazis commenced transporting Jews from Warsaw to death camps,
(3) Passover-eve, which was the date in 1943 when the Warsaw Ghetto uprising began, and
(4) September 1, which, in 1939, was the date on which Germany invaded Poland, beginning WWII.

All of these dates were rejected for various reasons, and in 1951 the Knesset designated April 27 as the official date. The US selected April 28 and 29 as “Days of Remembrance of Victims of the Holocaust” in 1978. It was on that date in 1945 that US troops liberated Dachau. The first observation was in 1979.

In Israel the observation begins at 10:00 am with a siren that blasts for two minutes. It is followed by ceremonies at Yad Vashem. The highlights include speeches, a wreath-laying and the “Every Person Has a Name” ceremony during which Holocaust victims’ names are read by members of the general public. The purpose is remember every victim by his or her given name, not a demeaning number.


What is the significance of these observations and memorials beyond the obvious? In my opinion, one reason is to ensure that the world never forgets the horrors that were visited upon Jews before and during WWII. Although there were indications during the War of the existence of the concentration camps and the horrors being perpetrated in them the Allies failed to take action. Some historians say that the reason was that the stories about the camps were so heinous as to be unbelievable or even preposterous. Others claim the US and British governments were indifferent to the plight of the Jews or even anti-Semitic.

And, then there is the heart-rending case of the “St. Louis.” The “St. Louis” was a passenger ship that steamed from Hamburg in 1939. Most of its 937 passengers were Jews fleeing Nazi persecution. The ship was en route to Havana where it had a permit to land and offload the passengers, but the Cuban government invalidated the permits and refused them entry. The ship then tried to enter the US to no avail. It actually steamed close enough to Florida so that the passengers could see the lights and hear music. Imagine that! So near, and yet so far. No country would grant the passengers asylum. Eventually, the “St. Louis” returned its passengers to Europe, and most of the Jews on the ship ended up perishing in concentration camps.

I believe that another reason many countries observe HRD is to assuage guilt for their actions and inactions during the Holocaust. The perpetrators were not only the Nazis, but also collaborators and ordinary citizens in many countries that the Nazis were occupying as well as those who stood by and did nothing. You can include the US in that latter group.

One can say that remembering what happened is the first step toward ensuring that it won’t happen again, but I feel that anti-Semitism is very much alive and well in many parts of the world. It is simmering just below the surface waiting for the “right” combination of circumstances to burst forth. Given the current economic situation and political and social unrest in many countries, I fear that it will do so at some point in the not too distant future.

A final thought. We should all read and heed the lesson illustrated in the following quote by Martin Niemoller, a Pastor living in Nazi Germany. It speaks to the consequences of not acting until it is too late. There are many versions of this quote, but the gist is as follows:

“First, they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out because I was not a Socialist. Then, they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out because I was not a Trade Unionist. Then, they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew. Then, they came for me, and there was no one left to speak for me.”


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