Like everything else in this time of pandemic, Yom Hashoah, which took place this week, was not normal.
On Monday, at 10 a.m. Pacific time, viewers worldwide, including here in British Columbia, tuned in online to watch the state ceremony marking the start of Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Day, taking place in Israel at Yad Vashem. Later that day, a cross-Canada commemoration took place, presented by a number of national bodies and with the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre as a contributing organization.
The eerily vacant hall at Yad Vashem was interspersed with video recordings of remarks from Israel’s president, prime minister and chief rabbis, as well as six survivors, who shared their stories of loss and survival. The Canadian commemoration a few hours later was similarly moving, with video interspersed with thoughtful reflections from a member of the third generation who served as host and a message from the prime minister, stories of survivors, and candlelighting by families across the country. (See coverage next issue.)
No doubt the organizers of these events would have preferred to hold them in person. The proximity of family, friends and community strengthens survivors and the successive generations. Being in proximity provides crucial emotional, psychological and intellectual means of conveying the historical importance of that time and its lessons for social justice and human rights today.
The use of digital technology to mark Yom Hashoah was perhaps a little less startlingly odd, given that Jewish people worldwide recently experienced an unprecedented Passover, engaging in “zeders” – virtual seders on Zoom or other videoconferencing platforms – to get together with family over the holidays. The contortions some of our family members went through to make these celebrations happen was cause for some laughs, as well as some tsuris, and Passover 5780 will not be soon forgotten.
This was hardly an ideal way of celebrating – and many in the Orthodox community couldn’t even do this much – but it was necessary given the social isolation required of us during this pandemic.
Yet, while it is important to come together for happy occasions, this time is particularly difficult for those experiencing grief and loss. Having to up-end the ancient Jewish rituals that serve to sustain and strengthen mourners, those who have lost loved ones are left with minimal funeral attendees and shivahs conducted by telephone and computer; hugs only from those who share a household, none of the important reinforcement – and comfort – that comes from the physical proximity of a broader community. Even this sad situation fulfils a mitzvah, though. As painful as it is to be remote from our loved ones in times of grief, it is pikuach nefesh, an act of saving a life, the highest Jewish value and one that overrides almost every other law. During a pandemic, we remain apart from our loved ones because we love them.
Yom Hashoah commemorations often take a sombre tone and include some of the rituals we perform at a funeral, which made viewing the events in seclusion especially isolating. Yet, conversely, there was something uniquely appropriate about this alternative form of marking Yom Hashoah.
While we were fortunate to have survivors participate via video in these and other online commemorations of the day, the undeniable reality is that this was among the last such commemorative days where successive generations will be able to hear firsthand from the mouths of survivors their stories of loss, resistance and survival. Finding ways beyond first-person witness testimonies is the unavoidable way forward for Holocaust education and remembrance. Organizations dedicated to this mission have recognized this reality and have been developing impactful ways to augment and, eventually, replace in-person survivor testimony.
Remembering and, using that memory as motivation, ensuring that the promise of “Never again” is taken up by the next generations is also a Jewish value. It took an admirable mobilization of our local, national and international communal organizations to ensure that the pandemic did not cause us to ignore Yom Hashoah this year. It was precisely the sort of flexible, responsive action that will be required to meet the demands of Holocaust remembrance and education in the decades to come.
Necessity is the mother of invention and the unusual yet deeply moving commemorations this week should encourage us that, whatever challenges and changes the future holds, we remain determined to memorialize and educate about the Holocaust in ways appropriate to the times in which we live.