Having just started working at Yad Vashem last week, I waited eagerly to learn and experience up close for the first time just how exactly Yad Vashem commemorates Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Day (Yom Hazikaron Lashoah Ve'lagvurah in Hebrew), a national day of remembrance in Israel on which the six million Jews murdered in the Holocaust are memorialized. Each year on this day, which so profoundly honors the many victims, heroes, and survivors that experienced first hand this horrifying period of blatant inhumanity, I’m reminded of the importance and continual impact the Holocaust has had in shaping who I am but more importantly the significance it has had on the Jewish people’s collective identity and memory. As the evening’s ceremony got underway I had no idea what a whirlwind of emotion awaited me, as seated with all of the other 2,000 attendees around me, instantaneously I felt a mutual understanding of responsibility, that through determination, education and action we must never allow such devastation to happen again.
The flag being lowered at half-mast reflected the scale of national tragedy that befell the Jewish people, setting a solemn mood to the ceremony that, although I didn’t know it at the time, would also fluctuate between various other emotions as the evening progressed. Having President Peres and Prime Minister Netanyahu deliver their remarks summed up for me just how far the Jewish people have come in such a relatively short amount of time, how we are now in a position to fully internalize the events from the past and have the means in order to prevent such atrocity from repeating itself. Next, the actor Ishai Golan offered a powerful reading of defiance written by one of the fighters in the Warsaw ghetto uprising 70 years ago, capturing the bravery and heroism of those who resisted the Nazis until their final breath. His dramatic reading resonated on an even more profound level, considering he plays the captured Israeli soldier Uri Zach on one of my favorite TV shows, Hatufim (the original Israeli Homeland).
Throughout the ceremony, the Youth Movement Choir sang a variety of songs including the Jewish Partisans’ song (perfectly fitting with this year’s theme), which was sung so flawlessly and with such young and determined heartfelt passion it unequivocally became my favorite of the evening. However, nothing evoked a more diverse range of emotion than the personal stories told by six survivors, each chosen to light a torch in memory of the 6 million Jewish victims who were so horrifically murdered. While each of the torchlighters personally displayed extraordinary defiance and rebellion, whether by jumping off a fast moving train headed for an extermination camp or joining the partisans and fighting the Nazis and their supporters in the forests, every one of the six survivors exemplified more than just this year’s theme for Holocaust Remembrance Day. Following the terrible tragedy of the Holocaust, these survivors’ incredible will to not only stay alive amidst such unfathomable destruction but to continue to create, develop and build their lives in Israel, defined for me the true meaning of inspiration and provided a glimpse into their long fulfilled lives surrounded by family and loved ones. I felt overcome with sheer joy as all of us present were able to share in their story of defiance, survival and triumph. The passing away of Peretz Hochman z”l one of the torchlighters just a few days before the ceremony (his widow lit the torch on his behalf), reemphasized in my eyes the responsibility we have in this generation, having been fortunate to hear first-hand from the survivors themselves, to memorialize the events and personal stories for the generations to come who will soon not have the opportunity to hear directly from survivors. So while not expecting to feel anything but sorrow on Yom Hashoah, I did feel a strange mix of emotions: anger and joy, despair and hope, but namely pride for now being part of an organization that is so completely devoted to the exceptionally noble undertaking of Holocaust commemoration, documentation, research and education for this generation and those to come.