In 1951, the Israeli government declared Yom HaShoah u’Mered HaGetaot (Holocaust and Ghetto Uprisings Day) to occur on the 27th of Nissan. Many know the story by now: The Israeli government, and many Israeli survivors of the ghettos and partisan groups, desired to commemorate the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising that began on the 14th of Nissan. However, because of the conflict with Passover, the date was delayed by two weeks. Nevertheless, the Orthodox community objected to creating a day of mourning during the joyous month of Nissan. They had previously suggested the 10th of Tevet, a day of mourning that was part of the mourning cycle for the destruction of Jerusalem. Another option was Tisha B’Av, for which Hareid rabbis had written Holocaust kinnot (elegies and mournful poems). Many countries adopted different days for Holocaust commemoration, with January 27th being the most popular by far thanks to its adoption in 2005 by the UN and EU.
For some, the question about when to commemorate the Holocaust deals with the halachic feasibility of establishing a new and perennial day of mourning, the standing of the secular state and its holiday, and the related issues of liturgy and ceremony. For me, the questions go deeper, and I think they emerge out of a central tension: is the Holocaust a singular event in Jewish history that may only be understood on its own terms, or is the Holocaust part of the larger sweep of the tragedy of exile?
There are many arguments for the first position. Elie Wiesel and Claude Lanzmann (director of the critically acclaimed documentary Shoah) are only among the most famous to stake the claim that the Holocaust is fundamentally a rupture with time, history, and civilization. It creates its own apocalyptic world and is bounded by a “ring of fire”, per Lanzmann, that cannot be crossed. The Holocaust has no lessons to teach, in this view, other than the depths of man’s cruelty. The only responses to the Holocaust are revulsion, horror, mourning, and remembrance. No pre-existing day of mourning can encompass this unique tragedy so a day must be set aside to visit this dark place and commune with the deepest emotions and memories that it stirs.
Although I am deeply moved by the Holocaust, I don’t think I agree with the above position. I believe that in the historical moment of memory – that is, in that period of time when eye-witnesses of an event remain – an event like the Holocaust takes on an exceptionalist character. Its survivors attain an unassailable moral stature in our eyes, and the events themselves are a touchstone in their lives that colors everything. In this, events that actually happened become, as they recede in time, larger-than-life, even as those who lived them bear witness to the utter reality that these events were life-sized. In time, as memory turns into history, much that was forbidden to think or to say will be permitted and required if the Holocaust is to remain relevant.
Commemorating the Holocaust as part of Tisha B’Av gives the events an eternally relevant context. As the most recent and well-documented of the tragedies memorialized on this day it provides us with visual memory and intimate contact with the horror, brutality and absence of meaning that mark all of human suffering, and particularly Jewish suffering. The Holocaust gives us access to pogroms, to inquisitions, to blood libels, expulsions, and even to the distant destruction of our Temples and homeland thousands of years ago. But in return, we acknowledge that the Holocaust is not primary in the canon of lamentations. Always first is the destruction of the Temples. The scroll we read will always be Eichah, not Megillat HaShoah. The day will always have a religious character, not a historical one, which means that it will be tied to a notion of repentance, and an understanding of the cause of evil as sin. It will assume God and struggle over His role, rather than present the question of Evil, ot be struggled with anew each year.
I don’t accept the Holocaust as suspended in air, emerging fully-formed from its own head, exceptional and ahistorical. But I also deny that it can be shoehorned into pre-existing tragedy. I certainly reject the triumphalist “out of the ashes” notion that the Holocaust and the founding of Israel are a continuity. Yom HaShoah is its own day, but it needs to be moored to Jewish history and tradition through fasting, prayer, ritual, and ceremony. As of yet, Yom HaShoah’s observance has not felt, at least to me, as authentically and deeply Jewish as I need it to be. That’s why for me, Tisha B’Av will remain a day of Holocaust remembrance.