Today marks Yom HaShoah 5781, the date upon which Jews all over the world remember the Holocaust. In Israel, the date, which this year falls on the 26th day of Nissan, is a national holiday commemorating the lives of the almost 6 million Jews who perished due to the scourge of Nazism during World War II.
The commemoration began Dec. 28, 1948, after a decision by the head of Israel’s rabbinate that an annual memorial day should be set down to honor the memories of those who perished. In 1951, Israel’s Knesset decided that our millions of fallen heroes should be honored on the anniversary of the date on which the Warsaw Ghetto uprising began, which was April 19, 1943, on the secular calendar. The Knesset passed a resolution establishing that the 27th day of Nissan in the Jewish calendar would honor the fallen. (In some years, including this year, the date may vary slightly because of the proximity of Shabbat.)
As Jews, it is well for us not only to remember the Holocaust, but to speak of it, study it and teach our children about it. Like the story of our forefathers’ Exodus from Egypt, the experience of the Holocaust lies at the very center of the modern Jewish experience, and permeates our existence from its ashes to today.
Adolf Hitler and his deranged followers sought to literally annihilate 11 million Europeans of Jewish origin.
On Sept. 15, 1935, Germany announced the Nuremberg Laws, which stripped German Jews of citizenship. The Nazis banned Jews from marrying or having sexual relationships with persons of “German or related blood.” Ultimately, Jews were denied all political and civil rights; property, businesses and homes were confiscated as Hitler utilized IBM’s most advanced punch card technology to systematically track Germany’s Jews, their holdings and heritage.
In contemporary Judaism, as well as in Israel, there have been serious arguments about who is and who is not Jewish. Hitler and his thugs, in formulating the Reich Citizenship Laws, postulated that individuals with remote relationships to Jewish ancestors were deemed Jewish. Thus, thousands of Germans, who practiced Catholicism and other religions, were defined as Jews and subject to vile discrimination.
The savagery of the Holocaust is unparalleled in the history of mankind because a warped philosophy sought to actualize the extermination of every single Jewish person in Europe of Jewish ethnicity.
It is worth considering how the Holocaust differs from other historical incidences of mass murder. The Nazis also sought to rid German society of individuals they believed weakened their bloodlines — Roma also known as Gypsies, Jehovah’s Witnesses, gays and lesbians, those mentally and physically disabled, blacks, Communists and Social Democrats.
As historian Dan McMillan explained in his brilliant book “How Could This Happen? Explaining the Holocaust,” European Jewry was “the only large ethnic group to have been targeted for complete extinction, a fact that sets the Holocaust apart from all other genocides. Not only did the Nazis set out to murder every Jewish person they could find, but they also reduced them to material objects, processing their bodies as if they were carcasses. They cut off women’s hair to make textiles, tore out teeth to harvest gold fillings, and used Jewish prisoners as laboratory animals.”
And, why did this negation of man’s decency occur? McMillan posits that “It was the determined attempt by the German government during World War II, aided by collaborators in most European countries, to murder every single person of Jewish ancestry on the European continent. Some 11 million human beings by the Germans’ own calculations. If Hitler had won the war, he almost certainly would have tried to destroy every remaining Jewish community on earth. This goal of complete biological extinction, together with the degree of power the killers exercised over their victims and their complete denial of their victims’ humanity, makes the Holocaust unique among all mass killings in history.”
It is entirely fitting that the observance of Yom HaShoah is so close to the anniversary of the uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto.
Against incalculable odds, brave Warsaw Ghetto fighters refused to submit to Hitler’s forced deportation. They resisted. They chose to die fighting and created a powerful example for all Jews.
To commemorate Yom HaShoah this year, let us remember that as Jews we are all connected by a seamless history of surviving horrific oppression. Let us remember the brave fighters who spilled their blood as they fought in Warsaw’s Ghetto in the spring of 1943. May we never forget that, as Jews, we may live in different neighborhoods, have different lifestyles and different points of view, but we are indelibly connected by our common history and heritage.
All too recently, in August 2017, neo-Nazis and white supremacists, imitating Hitler’s stormtroopers, paraded through the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia, proudly proclaiming “Jews will not replace us.”
The horror of the Holocaust can be traced to rowdy gatherings in seedy beer halls where social misfits celebrated their hatred of our people. The Holocaust grew from small gatherings of vicious antisemites and eventually held sway over millions bent on eradicating the Jewish people.
On Yom HaShoah, let us remember and honor the 6 million Jews who perished and honor their memories. May it never happen again!
A version of this editorial appeared in the April 8, 2021, issue of the Jewish Herald-Voice in Houston. Reprinted with permission.