With the setting of the sun on Wednesday evening, we begin the commemoration of another Yom HaShoah. This day of remembrance and solemn reflection of the cost of absolute evil has been observed since December 1949, when a group of rabbis gathered on the 10th of Tevet, already an established fast day on the Jewish calendar, to bury the bones and ashes of thousands of Jews that had been brought to a cemetery in Jerusalem from the Flossenberg concentration camp. In 1951, after lengthy and difficult negotiations between the ultra-Orthodox, who did not want Yom Ha-Shoah to fall in the month of Nissan and intrude on the joy of Passover, and ghetto fighters, who wanted to commemorate the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising which began on Passover, the Israeli Knesset passed a law establishing the 27th of Nissan as “Yom HaShoah v’HaGevurah.” The name was meant to convey that we should remember not only destruction and suffering but also heroism, resolve, courage and determination.
The name “Yom HaShoah v’HaGevurah” suggests that the meaning of the Holocaust is about both suffering and heroism. There is no end to tragic stories of pain and suffering from that dark period of our history. And there are also stories of heroic resistance and defiance. The intense debate among religious leaders and ghetto fighters that led to setting the date of Yom HaShoah on 27 Nissan was about preserving the religious integrity of Pesach, but it was also about the tension between the Holocaust as a story of victimhood or a story of heroism.
A familiar Passover symbol- Marror, or the bitter herb- also reflects this tension. We are commanded to eat Marror at the Seder in order to vicariously taste the bitterness of slavery and oppression. Experiencing bitterness can make someone bitter, suspicious of others and unable to see goodness in the world. Experiencing bitterness can also sensitize us to the trauma of suffering and can make someone empathetic and understanding. Perhaps we are told to eat Marror precisely so we can consider how to respond to the despair and suffering we encounter in the course of our lives.
Nobody should dare tell a Holocaust survivor how they should respond to the suffering they endured. There are survivors who could not shake the bitterness of their suffering and who lived their years with a cynical attitude and untrusting of others. There are also survivors whose experience of bitterness led them to be empathetic, sensitive and understanding. One such person was Helen Paktor, who witnessed the murder of her father and brother, survived the hell of Auschwitz, and went on to raise a family and build a productive and positive life. Helen taught others about how a human being should behave and what a virtuous life entails.
Helen passed away this week at the age of 93, and she is on my mind and in my heart as we commemorate another Yom HaShoah. Yehi Zichra L’veracha…her memory will indeed endure as a blessing.