Yom Hashoah

Today is Yom HaShoah, “Day of the Catastrophe,” which most Americans know as Holocaust Remembrance Day.  Its full name in Israel is Yom HaZikaron laShoah v’laGevura—“Day of Remembrance of the Castastrophe and the Heroism.” By any name it commemorates humanity’s blackest era, but the words are worth attention.

Shoah is a biblical word that has been used for over half a century to describe the mass murder of Jews and others by the Nazis and their associates. “Holocaust” is the common English usage, but many Jews object; it means literally “completely burnt,” and refers to the Temple sacrifices of bible times. The feeling is that this associates mass murder with a positive religious obligation, and that the connotations of human sacrifice are especially distasteful. The notion that some higher purpose was served by these millions of needless deaths—six million Jews and five million others, including Roma (Gypsies), disabled people, gay men and many who just helped Jews–is unacceptable.

We have to face the fact that “Holocaust” evokes these events for not millions but billions of English speakers. The Jewish community, other victims, and their allies have spent seven decades and untold resources educating the world, especially the young, so that few will forget, and even fewer believe the shrill voices of denial. Of these billions, how many know the biblical meaning of the word “Holocaust?”

Still, I have to respect the feelings of someone like my friend Tosia Schneider, a survivor who lost everyone and everything she loved, went through unspeakable horrors herself, and lived with the echoes in her own mind and body ever since. True, she has mastered them, and got the best revenge: a long and happy life, fine children and grandchildren, dedicated service to the Jewish community as a Hebrew teacher, and service to all as a living witness to mass murder, living proof that healing is possible, and a teacher of the principle, Never again.

So when Tosia says use “Shoah,” not “Holocaust,” I listen. She said this in probably the best brief talk on the subject I have ever heard. Imagine trying to encapsulate in twenty or twenty-five minutes all the personal losses, the pain and suffering, the sheer psychological shock that such things were possible, while summarizing the Shoah itself in all its dreadful depth and breadth.

We were in the stately sanctuary of Atlanta’s oldest Reform synagogue, called simply The Temple, famed for its support of integration. Jacob Rothschild, the rabbi then, marched with Martin Luther King, Jr. Even before that, because of what it stood for, The Temple was bombed by racist fanatics. Tosia, having seen and felt the costs of racism and then some, was naturally drawn to The Temple when she first came to Atlanta three decades ago. There she taught generations of children to read a little Hebrew.

She spoke at the service last Friday night. The cantor, Deborah Numark, filled the sanctuary with her stunning, inescapably spiritual voice, and Alvin Sugarman, the congregation’s much-loved rabbi for many years after Rothschild, attended. The interim rabbi, Donald Berlin, led a moving service that inaugurated a new prayer book. He spoke for everyone when he talked about the difficulty of finding words for these things, and about the simplicity and power of the words Tosia found.

She quoted something I had said: When someone says he’s going to kill you, believe him. Privately afterwards, she told me she had considered another of my favorites: A Jew with a gun is safer than a Jew without a gun, but had felt that it would not be proper. That is Tosia: still beautiful in her seventies, recounting the worst things ever done and missing none of their horror, yet radiating calm and decorum. A hero.

Yom HaShoah is today, commemorating the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, where a bunch of rag-tag Jews with stolen guns and Molotov cocktails resisted the German army one day longer than the French nation did. on the Hebrew calendar. But it might have been set on the date of the liberation of Auschwitz. Or the anniversary of Kristallnacht, “the night of breaking glass” in 1938, when thousands of German shops were destroyed in the biggest pogrom in centuries, a tiny taste of what would come. Or the date that the Jewish Brigade of the British Army, boys from what would soon become Israel, engaged the Wermacht for the first time in Italy and won. (One shouted in German at some soldiers in a foxhole, “Get out, you pigs, the Jews are here!”) Or the day that little man, Adolf Hitler, feeling himself an abject failure, put a gun to his head and took his own less than worthless little life.

As the great Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal—“Justice, Not Vengeance” was his motto— reminded us, every date of the year holds an event of great significance in this tragic story. Every single day could be Remembrance Day.

But the day we have chosen happens to be today, and it is at least as good (or as bad) as any other. The Day of Remembrance of the Catastrophe and the Heroism.

Stop. Hear the echoes. Remember.