June 25, 2019

Will we still observe Holocaust Remembrance Day in the year 4017?

A stopover in Munich on Holocaust Remembrance Day. One of several Holocaust memorial days, as Israel’s isn’t the only one.

In Israel, it is a somber day. The radio tones down the music, cheery television shows are postponed, sports events don’t take place (and aren’t broadcasted), restaurants are closed, schoolchildren wear white shirts and stand as the siren soars. Cars stop on the side of the road. Pedestrians pause and bow their heads. Holocaust Remembrance Day engulfs Israel. It is the only place in the world in which this day is truly a much-felt day of mourning.

The date is meaningful, but one could set other dates to remember the Holocaust. Israel decided to mark its Remembrance Day eight days before Independence Day, six days after Passover, when the Omer is counted – a traditional period of mourning for Jews. This is also the time of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. Israelis have gotten used to it. At least many have. The ultra-religious Haredi community is less inclined to mark it. Their Memorial Day for the Holocaust is the traditional Tenth of Tevet fast day. On this day, the Kaddish is recited for people whose date or place of death is unknown, including most of those perished in the Holocaust.

Then there are other dates in which the Holocaust is remembered. The international Holocaust Memorial Day, on January the 27, was notable this year mostly because of the awkward way the White House decided to mark it – omitting the Jews from its statement. And there are countries in which the Holocaust is remembered on other days. Poland, Bulgaria, France. Yet with time – and the seventy years that have passed since the Holocaust are a short period of time, although it might feel longer – a confluence of remembrance days is to be expected. Many countries will follow the international day. Some will follow Israel’s example. The Jews also have to make more than one decision.

They must decide whether the Holocaust needs a separate day of mourning – or whether the Holocaust ought to be remembered in one of the days already marked for mourning (such as the Tenth of Tevet).

They must decide how to mark the Holocaust, as survivors are becoming rarer and a new generation puts together a narrative of mourning for the ages.

They must decide if all Jews mark Holocaust day together – with or without the rest of the world – or whether different Jews follow different paths (Haredis will have their own day, other Israeli Jews their day, Jews in other countries their day – each community according to its convenience and habit).

Of course, calling all these things “decisions” is misleading. There is no authority entitled to make such decisions for all Jews. Holocaust Remembrance Day’s future will be determined by many forces – the government of Israel, Jewish organizations, communities, Jews. Assuming that a Memorial Day for an event as overwhelming as the Holocaust is immune to the eroding effect of the passing of time would be a mistake. Consider Tisha Be’Av: how many Jews today mark the most devastating day in Jewish history? Some do, many don’t.

A clear majority of Jews do not fast on Tisha B’Av. Those who do are mostly Orthodox Jews. Israel is closed on the eve of Tisha B’Av – because of a political decision. The law saves the eve of Tisha B’Av from becoming yet another summer day for a significant number of Israelis. The law serves to preserve Tisha B’Av as a day that Israelis can’t truly ignore. And even then, many do. They find a way around it. Or fume and call it religious coercion.

Is similar coercion also necessary to preserve Holocaust Remembrance Day? I guess the answer is no. Not yet. Holocaust Remembrance Day has much more emotional power over Israelis, and I assume all Jews, than Tisha B’Av. As much as it was horrible, the destruction of the Temple was a long time ago. It is not a personal experience for any living Jew. The Holocaust is still very much a personal experience. Even as survivors are getting older and older, their sons and daughters are still here, their grandchildren remember them, family trees are available for those who want to track their roots and mourn for the branches that were tragically severed.

But this does not mean that this day will stay as psychologically powerful as it is today without any effort. This does not mean that Israelis – and surely non-Israeli Jews who do share the same all-encompassing experience of the day – are not tempted to evade this day of emotional burden. Yesterday there were more than a few Israelis that were looking for a way to watch the important and tense soccer match between Barcelona and Real Madrid (Barcelona came out on top). In Israel, television stations are forbidden by regulations to show it. And yet, it is there, played in Spain, where Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance Day is just another day. It is ridiculous to expect any country to suspend its activities when Israel mourns. And so the result is obvious: some Israelis will feel an urge to do something on Holocaust Remembrance Day that is joyful and everyday-like. And the internet is there to help those of them who want to circumvent the state-regulated TV stations.

Should Israel ban those Israelis from doing what they want? Even beyond the futility of such attempts, due to technological changes that make us less dependent on traditional TV stations, it is not obvious that it should. One could argue that forcing Israelis to observe Holocaust Remembrance Day is not much different from forcing them to observe Shabbat. In other words: if the country has the authority to decide how its public observes a certain day – then all days are open for negotiation. Why Holocaust Remembrance Day and not Pesach (no bread by law)? Why close cafes on Holocaust Remembrance Day and not the beaches too?

On the other hand, we know from experience that if the state does not insist on certain limitations and does not impose certain traditions – the public might abandon these traditions, not because it does not recognize their value but rather because it is, well, lazy and easily tempted. Yes, there is a Holocaust Remembrance Day, and we all recognize its importance, but can we resist the urge to sneak a peek at Lionel Messi? Yes, we put high value on mourning today, but would this day have the same staying power if school-children were on vacation this week, as they are on Tisha B’Av (hence, no school tutelage and ceremonies to educate children to mark Tisha B’av)?

As we remember the Holocaust, we are obliged to think about these highly practical matters. We must think about them as we are the first generation of Jews that will soon have to mark Holocaust Remembrance Day without any survivors around to tell us their stories. We are the first generation of Jews that will soon be sharing the burden of having to shape a Remembrance Day for the ages. Tisha B’Av survived for 2000 years, and is still with us. Can we guarantee such staying power for Holocaust Remembrance Day?