Holocaust Remembrance Day
At the entrance to the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City, a few innocuous-seeming pieces of embroidery sit beneath a glass case. Children sometimes skip towards these bright, shiny bits of cloth, not knowing that these golden stars of David signify a brutal history of discrimination—and, later, annihilation—suffered by the European Jews during the Holocaust.
Yom HaShoah exists to make known the horrors of the Holocaust. On this day we remember afresh and lament the unspeakable atrocities of the Nazis, whose “Final Solution to the Jewish Question” attempted nothing less than the erasure of an entire culture and people. The theme of Holocaust Remembrance Day— “never again”—represents the solemn wish of our people that no such program of planned genocide and annihilation will ever be visited upon us or any other group of people.
Shoah is a Hebrew word that means “catastrophe,” and describes what is known in English as the Holocaust—an intentional and systematic massacre by the Nazis, in collaboration with other governments of Europe, to wipe the Jews off the face of the earth. The Holocaust encompassed a number of overlapping efforts by the Nazis to destroy the Jews: by internment in concentration camps built all over Europe (1933-1945); isolation in ghettos, later “liquidated” (1939-1943); mass execution by Einsatzgruppen, or mobile killing units (1941-1945), and gassing in the death camps (1942-1945).
The Holocaust has no single cause, though an understanding of the antisemitism (Jew hatred) that swept Europe in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries can help us put it in context. By the 1930’s, half the world’s Jews lived in Europe, versus three-quarters 50 years before. During that 50-year period, many Jews had immigrated to the United States, where the Jewish population grew from 250,000 in 1880 to five million in 1930. Jews emigrated for want of economic opportunity and to escape the pogroms, which hounded Jews of Eastern Europe and the Russian Empire with increasing ferocity from 1871 onward.
Along with transatlantic migration, Jews in Eastern Europe moved en masse from country villages to cities. The Jewish people were at once rising and suffering—as pogroms took their toll in the countryside, various governments in Europe granted rights of full citizenship to Jews and admitted Jews to the professions and even elected office.
As Jews advanced economically, anti-Semitic newspapers and political parties were formed and garnered support. Under names such as The League of Anti-Semites, Christian Social Workers Party, Anti-Semitic Congress, Christian Social Party, these malicious associations operated, spreading a toxic ideology of revenge politics and later, racial purity. Jews were vilified in spurious chronicles, most infamously in The Protocols of the Elders of Zion (1903). As a result, urban and rural Jews alike were in a precarious position before, and especially after, World War I.
As antisemitism surged, prospects for immigration grew dim. American quotas for immigration in the 1920’s made it harder for Jews to immigrate to America. Later, the Nazis imposed restrictive immigration laws, which required documentation that many people did not have as well as bribes, to secure passage to foreign countries. Kennkarter (identifying papers), and the lack thereof, became grounds for unwarranted harassment and interrogation, a practice the Germans had perfected in African colonies. The British Empire’s White Paper made it even harder for Jews to immigrate to Palestine when it was issued in 1939, on the eve of World War II.
In short, a perfect storm of restrictive laws and policies on all fronts made it all but impossible for most Jews to leave Europe.
With the rise of the Nazi Third Reich in 1933, hatred of Jews in Germany reached new heights. Germany, reeling from a humiliating surrender after World War I and the onerous terms of the Treaty of Versailles, became an ideological powder keg. Out of the chaos emerged the National Socialist (Nazi) Party, which sought to control the industrial means of production and spread a toxic ideology of “Aryan” racial purity. The Nazis vilified Jews, along with other minority groups (homosexuals, Gypsies, the mentally ill, the infirm), as contaminating elements of German society.
In 1933, Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany, a title he would hold until being named Führer (“ruler”) in 1934. In 1933 the Nazis established the first concentration camps in Germany—sites where Jews and other groups could be relocated (“concentrated”) and isolated from the rest of German society. Later, Jews were deported from the concentration camps to death camps for execution. The concentration camps were run as hard labor camps under whose harsh conditions many Jews perished throughout the 1930’s and 1940’s.
The Nuremberg Laws of 1935 further isolated the Jews from the rest of society. As an example, among other prohibitions, the Nuremberg Laws made sexual relations and marriage between Jews and non-Jews (“miscegenation”) illegal. Those found in violation of this law were made to carry placards saying they had been “defiled” by Jews. But the discriminatory laws and the concentration camps were mere shadows of what was to come.
Treatment of Jews worsened throughout the 1930’s, culminating in 1938 with Kristallnacht (Night of the Broken Glass). On that day, (November 9-10) Jewish businesses and neighborhoods throughout Germany, as well as in annexed Austria and the Sudetenland (Nazi-occupied regions of Czechoslovakia), were attacked by angry mobs incited by Nazi officials. Kristallnacht is so called because of the broken glass (kristall) that littered the Jewish ghettos following this mass pogrom.
Jews composed less than one percent of the German population. Had Hitler limited his genocidal efforts to Germany, the Holocaust would’ve been far less destructive than it was. It took the collaboration and surrender of many other European governments for Hitler to accomplish his designs. For this reason, September 1,1939, the day the Nazis invaded Poland—which, along with Russia, was home to half the world’s Jews—marked a turning point in the dark history of European Jewry. Over the following two years, the Nazis invaded and conquered much of Continental Europe, as well as making major inroads into Russia. Thus they gained access to the mass of European Jewry.
By 1930 almost half of the urban population of Poland was Jewish. This concentration of Polish Jews in cities was unfortunately turned to advantage by the Nazis, who effectively established ghettos (and later, death camps) throughout Poland following its invasion. The ghettos served a similar function to concentration camps: they were holding pens from which Jews were later deported to the death camps.
Conditions in the ghettos and concentration camps were sordid. Restrictions on heat and electricity led many Jews to sleep on top of one another to keep warm. Clean water and toilets were in short supply, effectively turning the ghettos into cesspools. “Rationing,” i.e., state-sanctioned starvation, caused tens of thousands of Jews to die in the Lodz and Warsaw ghettos. In desperation smugglers tried to sneak contraband into the ghettos, and when caught were killed. Ghetto currency, which had no validity as legal tender outside the ghetto, further isolated the ghetto residents from the rest of society. Even pathways were kept separate; in Warsaw, a special footbridge was constructed so that Jews might pass from one part of the ghetto to the other without rubbing shoulders with non-Jewish Poles.
Judenrat—Jewish councils responsible for the administration of the ghettos, rationing, and filling labor quotas imposed by the Nazis—turned Polish Jews against their own people. Censorship and the eventual elimination of mail services made coordinated resistance even more difficult. Following the month-long Warsaw Ghetto Uprising that began on April 19, 1943 (not to be confused with the Warsaw Uprising of 1944), the Ghetto of Warsaw was liquidated and its remaining Jews were shipped off to death camps.
By 1941, Hitler had ordered the carrying out of the “Final Solution to the Jewish Question,” to be overseen by Adolf Eichmann, and this “Solution” included a plan to entirely vaporize the Jewish people. Mass killings began with the Einsatzgruppen—mobile killing units, which operated mainly behind enemy lines in the Soviet Union. Mass shootings, such as that at Babi Yar, and execution in gas vans led to the deaths of an estimated 1-2 million Jews in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.
In 1941, the Nazis began construction of death camps in Poland. By then they had interned most of Europe’s Jews in ghettos or concentration camps, and from there they would eventually be deported to the death camps. Under the guise of “deportation to the East” or “resettlement” Jews were brought by train to the death camps, with most of the deaths occurring from 1942-1944. The symbols of the death camps by which we refer to the Shoah—cattle cars, barbed wire fences, gas chambers, crematoria—give us only an inkling of the horrors that took place during this period.
In sum, six million European Jews, living under Nazi rule in Germany and other European states (including Belgium, the Netherlands, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Austria, Hungary, and Northern France), perished in the Holocaust. An estimated 1-1.5 million of the victims of the Shoah were children. The Nazis inflicted other grave abuses, including vivisection and torture, upon the Jews imprisoned in concentration camps.
Following the war, many Jews who had gone into hiding or survived the camps went home to villages and cities that no longer existed, having been torched, “liquidated” by the Nazis or destroyed in combat. Those whose homes still stood often found people living in them they did not know. Europe had not only let its Jews suffer unprecedented atrocities—it now had no room for the remnant of Jews who miraculously survived. The Holocaust ended on May 7, 1945 with the unconditional surrender of Germany to the Allies. It would take another seven years before all “displaced persons” were resettled.
Holocaust survivors immigrated mainly to Israel, with smaller groups immigrating to Argentina, South Africa and the United States. Israel was the first nation to establish a Holocaust Remembrance Day, in 1949 before the Knesset changed the date in 1951 and signed it into law in 1953. It states: “The 27th of Nisan shall be Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Day, devoted, year after year, to the commemoration of the disaster which the Nazis and their collaborators brought upon the Jewish people and of the acts of heroism and revolt performed in those days.”
Yom HaShoah is a national holiday, observed in public, and depending on denomination, in the synagogue; see below. Every year, on the evening at the start of Yom HaShoah, six Holocaust survivors light beacons at Yad Vashem, Israel’s official Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem. The six beacons are lit in memory of the six million Jews who died at the hands of the Nazis1. The Knesset has also mandated that a two-minute moment of silence be observed, announced by the sounding of sirens throughout Israel, along with other rites and prohibitions:
Remembrance Day shall be marked throughout the State by a two-minute silence, during which all work and all road traffic shall be suspended; there shall be memorial gatherings, popular rallies, and commemorative functions in Army camps and educational institutions; flags on public buildings shall be flown at half-mast; wireless programmes shall express the special character of the day, and places of entertainment shall present only features consonant with its spirit.2
Holocaust Remembrance has also bled over into culture at large, most prominently through museums. During the Third Reich, the Nazis planned to build a museum in the city of Prague —the ”Museum of the Extinct Jewish Race.” Holocaust Remembrance Museums, most prominently Yad Vashem in Israel, answer this malicious effort at erasure. “Remember,” we are told. “Never forget”—a slogan based on God’s prescription in Deuteronomy 25:17-19:
Remember what Amalek did to you on the way as you came out of Egypt, How he attacked you on the way when you were faint and weary, and cut off your tail, those who were lagging behind you, and he did not fear God. Therefore when the Lord your God has given you rest from all your enemies around you, in the land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance to possess, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven; you shall not forget.
No official liturgy exists for Yom Hashoah. Orthodox synagogues do not alter their religious services on this day. Conservative synagogues read from Megillat Hashoah (the Holocaust Scroll), and Reform Movements from Six Days of Destruction, but traditions and rituals vary.
The mettle of our people was tested to the breaking point during the Holocaust. Many Jews carried on the traditions of their ancestors even in the direst of circumstances, just as some Jews risked life and limb in armed resistance against the Nazis. Chaim Kaplan wrote in his Warsaw diary on August 12, 1940: “Public prayer in these dangerous times is a forbidden act . . . But this does not deter us.” Then, as now, Jews must sometimes risk their lives to observe God’s commandments.
The general effect of the Holocaust; however, as reflected in the bleak views espoused by the late prominent Holocaust survivor and author Elie Wiesel, has been to diminish Jewish belief in God. The enormity of the Holocaust led a generation of intellectuals and survivors to deny the possibility of a benevolent God and to distrust the concept of a “chosen race.”
As Jewish believers in Jesus, we believe that God’s promises endure. Jeremiah 31:17 tells us: “There is hope for your future, declares the Lord, and your children shall come back to their own country.” We can at once acknowledge the horrors of the Holocaust and the validity of God’s word, as well as bear witness to the past and look forward to the future. Neither erasure is necessary. When we consider the other holidays of the Jewish year, which commemorate past plots to eliminate the Jews, the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, the massacre of hundreds of thousands of Jews during and after the Bar Kokhba revolt—we can find a sense of cultural and historical continuity rather than rupture. The Holocaust, unique in scope, is perhaps not entirely unique in the context of Jewish history.
The complicity of Christian Europe and the Roman Catholic Church in the Holocaust is much debated. As much as the Holocaust has caused hand-wringing in these communities (consider, for instance, the Evangelical Church in Germany’s recent decision to terminate future missionary outreach to the Jewish people), the Holocaust has also opened a door for many branches of Christianity to reach out to the Jewish people. And indeed, Jewish believers in Jesus were among both those who perished in the Holocaust and the survivors.
Establishing Holocaust Remembrance Day was a multistep process. Established on Tevet 10 in 1949, the date was modified to Nisan 27 in a resolution (not a law) passed by the Knesset in 1951. Yad Vashem was then deputized to supervise commemorations in a 1953 law, public observances were legally mandated in 1959, and places of entertainment were legally required to shut their doors on Holocaust Remembrance Day by a 1961 amendment to the 1959 law.
In addition to Yom Hashoah, other Holocaust Remembrance Days exist throughout the world. The United Nations established an International Holocaust Remembrance Day in 2005; it takes place on January 27 to commemorate the liberation of Auschwitz on that date in 1945.
How do you commemorate the Holocaust? In what ways does the Shoah inform your Jewish faith and beliefs about God? We’d love to hear your answers to these questions. Please tell us on Live Chat or leave us a message in the tab on the bottom right-hand side of this page.
1. Elon Gilad, “The History of Holocaust Remembrance Day,” Haaretz, April 27, 2014, accessed June 16, 2017.
2. Martys’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Day Law 5719-1959, Knesset, accessed June 16, 2017.