Thursday, April 16, 2015

Yom HaShoah / Holocaust Memorial Day 2015/5775

Haaretz today ran an article, "A dozen reasons why Israel should do away with Holocaust Remembrance Day." It was no doubt supposed to be provocative, but even if some of the individual points were valid or worth discussing, the whole was less than the sum of its parts. Above all, in condemning the holiday "because it has become a tool in the hands of ultranationalist ideologues," the piece simply substitutes one political agenda for another. It's one of those ideas that, as the saying goes (not in fact Orwell's, but close to his thinking) is so absurd that only an intellectual could believe it.

One might as well say that we should end Fourth of July celebrations because American patriotism sometimes degenerates into triumphalist jingoism. The solution is not to do away with the holiday, and rather, to infuse it with new and deeper meaning. The founding of a revolutionary democracy or the commission of genocide are worth commemorating, and far too important to discard on the whims of a self-important op-ed writer.

At the very least, the simple and non-political rituals of commemoration should seem unobjectionable. The traditional ritual of mourning on the anniversary of death involves lighting a candle that burns for a full day.

I have taken to placing mine on top of this immense old candlestick, of hammered iron in the Arts & Crafts or Werkbund style, circa the beginning of the twentieth century.

The dealer I bought it from acquired it from a scrap metal dealer in Dortmund, so it's precise origin is unknown, Clearly, though, given its striking size (77 cm. tall, or just over 30 inches), it came from institutional setting rather than a private home. In fact, it is identical in appearance to a brass one sold at auction over a decade ago. That one came from the destroyed Leipzig synagogue in the Gottschedstraße, destroyed in Kristallnacht. It seems more than likely, then, that what I have here is another relic from the pogrom that began the Holocaust, and as such it seems especially fitting to call it into service for this use.

Many have remarked on the challenge of representing the genocide through conventional monuments. Some do, however, succeed in being both original and powerful.

Still, to me, the most powerful "monument" is actually a ritual used in Israel: On the morning of Holocaust Memorial day, an air raid siren sounds, and the entire country literally comes to a halt for two minutes. People stop where they stand on the sidewalk, cars and buses pull over to the side of the road, and drivers and passengers get out and stand respectfully  in silence. Then life resumes. It is the most eerie and moving ritual I have ever seen.

It is evanescent, yet eternal: lasting only two minutes yet repeated every year. It is a monument in time, of time. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said, "Judaism is a religion of time aiming at the sanctification of time. . . . Jewish ritual may be characterized as the art of significant forms in time, as architecture of time.”

And because this ritual so abruptly interrupts daily time itself, it conveys almost better than anything the tear in the fabric of the world and civilization that the Holocaust represented.


I have often thought that the United States should adopt something similar for Memorial Day. I still recall how, as children, we stood and observed a moment of silence at 11:11 a.m. on November 11, in tribute to Veterans' Day's origins as Armistice Day. We have lost that sense of an entire nation united in mourning the tragic costs of war.

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