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A Day to Remember: Yom HaShoah

 

The Christian religion began with the life and work of Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus was a Jew as were his earliest followers.  In one sense it is possible to say that Christianity began as a movement within Judaism.  After the death and resurrection of Jesus, these early followers believed him to be the Messiah who was promised in the Jewish scriptures.  Christianity emerged as a separate religion only in the centuries after the crucifixion of Jesus.

Sometimes we may regard Judaism simply as a forerunner of Christianity just because Christ was of the Jewish people.  However, this is a very incorrect view of people who trace their ancestry back to early Biblical times.

Special Identity

Traditionally, anyone born of a Jewish mother is Jewish, whether they are religious or not. Most Jews, regardless of their religious outlook, have in common a great sense of identity with the Jewish people.  There are several aspects to this.  Firstly, Jews share a common history right from the Old Testament through the foundation of the State of Israel in 1948 to the present day.

Secondly, Jews share a language.  Although many Jews will have another language as their first tongue, Hebrew is common to them all as the language of prayer, study, and education.

Thirdly, Jews are united by a history of persecution.  Despite times of peace and prosperity, the history of the Jewish people is blighted with a litany of discrimination and suffering with the most horrifying example being the Holocaust during the Second World War.

Following the war and the establishment of the State of Israel four new holidays referred to as “modern” Jewish holidays were added to the Jewish calendar and are observed as national holidays in Israel and around the world by Jewish communities. One of these is Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) observed this year, during this week on April 8th.

On this Day

The concentration camps of Auschwitz, Dachau, Belsen, and Treblinka, where the Nazis sent all opponents and suspected opponents of their rule were places of cruelty, death, and horror.  It was within their terrible walls that Hitler arrived at his ‘final solution of the so-called Jewish problem – total extermination by mass methods.

Gas chambers were constructed into which as many as 2,000 people at a time could be herded.   Children being led to their death were told they were going to have a shower.  Young Jews, after working as slave labourers, were forced to dig their own graves before being shot.  By such methods, 6 million Jews were destroyed. Only after the war did people of the world – and many people in Germany – learn the full extent of the nightmare.  The war had added yet another word to our vocabulary – genocide, murder of a race.

The world commemorates International Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 27th, on the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, but in Israel, the Shoah, the term in Hebrew for the Holocaust, is remembered on a different day.  The word ‘shoah’ means ‘whirlwind’ or ‘destruction’.   Their date for the Yom HaShoah is set in accordance with the Hebrew calendar and hence does not have a fixed date.

According to the Hebrew calendar, Yom HaShoah begins on the 27th day of the month of Nisan at sunset, and ends on the evening of the following day, in keeping with the Jewish custom of marking a single day. In the Torah, the first part of the Jewish Bible, Nisan is the first month of the Jewish calendar and coincides with the months of March and April on the Gregorian calendar.

Most Solemn of days

In 1959, the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, passed a law officially establishing Yom HaShoah in law.  It also authorised various official ceremonies throughout the country as well as a nationwide public siren followed by two minutes of silence.

A few years prior to this, in 1953, the Knesset had passed a law for the creation of Yad Vashem in the outskirts of Jerusalem. Yad Vashem encompasses forty-five acres on the Mount of Remembrance and is comprised of various museums, research and education centres, monuments, and memorials.  Among these are the Museum Complex, the Hall of Remembrance, the Valley of the Communities, and the Childrens’ Memorial.

In Israel, Yom HaShoah is one of the most solemn days of the year.  Ceremonies include the lighting of candles for Holocaust victims and listening to the stories of survivors.  Religious ceremonies include prayers such as Kaddish for the dead and the El Maleh Rahamim, a memorial prayer.  Other events are held throughout the country, with national ceremonies at Yad Vashem.

Holocaust Memorial Day reminds us not only of the millions of victims of the Nazis but also those who have been killed in other genocides around the world.  This day highlights how important it is to tolerate other people’s beliefs and differences and not to exclude them or spread messages of hate.

Written by Marie – Therese Cryan

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