I. On the eve of
The week-long holiday of Passover, which celebrates the Jewish people’s exodus from Egypt, just ended last Friday night in Israel and, five days later, another holiday has begun. Only this one isn’t a celebration or a day off from school or work or cause for a family meal. This one is Yom HaShoah or Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Day, a 24-hour day of recollecting.
In school on Wednesday, the girls heard a Holocaust survivor speak. That afternoon, I taught teen yoga as usual, but later that night, Daniella’s English reading and writing class was cancelled. Men and women worked a full day, but, as it was drawing to a close, the city quieted. Stores and restaurants closed. The streets slowed.
Around 8pm, Philippe and I rode our bikes on the main street Ahuzza toward the center of town, where busses blocked off the area surrounding Yad Lebanim, the community center where rallies and protests and ceremonies are held in the plaza. Thousands of people milled about, some standing and talking, others sitting and waiting. We locked the bikes and joined the crowd, passing through the perfunctory security barriers. Dozens of young men and women wearing fluorescent yellow vests, carrying walkie-talkies and handheld scanning machines, examined us as we entered. After a record breaking 91 degree day with hot wind, cool air enveloped us and I shivered for the first time in hours. White plastic chairs were set up in neat rows facing a podium and barbed-wire like sculpture and six screens. Large overhead lights projected different colors on the walls. Images of yellow stars with JUDEN, of the gates to concentration camps with the famous words ARBEIT MACHT FREI and of barbed wire fences flashed across the screens and walls. We found seats toward the back and, seconds later, the program started.
Somber music played. A group of young girls dressed in white waltzed out and took their places standing. An MC introduced himself and welcomed us to the evening. He then introduced another man, an author, I think, who read to us about his childhood, as a son of survivors. The girls sang. The MC spoke again. The mayor of Raanana came on stage and recalled his youth, as a son of survivors. The author read more stories. Images of camps and ghettos and emaciated bodies and memorials flashed across the screen and walls. A woman sang Eli, Eli i in Hebrew
My God, My God
May these things never end:
The sand and the sea
The rustle of the water
The lightning in the sky
As she sang, I thought about my week long trip to Berlin four Mays ago with my mom. I had flown in from Israel and she from California. One of the highlights of our time was two half days with a non-Jewish guide who has a PhD in Jewish history and who took us to a few off-the-beaten-path memorials, each one more powerful than the next. I remembered how on our last day, when my mom and I went in search of one of the more minor memorials in a street-lined residential neighborhood, we ended up instead in a nearby public school, standing in front of a classroom full of high school kids learning English and speaking to them about being Jewish, Israel, the Holocaust*. It was one of those surreal moments , truly unforgettable.
It was difficult to believe that four years later, I was back in Israel. Still touched by that encounter, I recalled those students who had been so willing to share their families’ stories and their connection to the Holocaust. Sitting next to Philippe at the ceremony, I shivered and asked him to wrap his arm around me to keep me warm. Six survivors, men and women in their 70s and 80s, all Raanana residents, walked to the podium. One by one, they were introduced and the MC recounted their life stories—how old they were during the war, if they were sent to a camp/ghetto/orphanage/hiding, if any of their family members survived, when they came to Israel, their profession and marital status along with number of children/grandchildren and for some, great grandchildren. While their story was being told, photos of their former selves and of their families blanketed the walls behind them. Each one was escorted by a grandchild, most of whom were serving in the army and wearing a uniform, and asked to step forward to light a torch, in memory of the six million murdered.
With the six flames lit, we stood and sang the national anthem, HaTikvah. I looked around at the people next to and in front of me, all standing. There were men and women, teens and children, soldiers and babies. Some men wore a kippah on their heads, which indicates a certain level of observance, but many did not. Some women were dressed in long skirts and dresses and covered their heads, which indicates that they are observant, but many did not. I decided that this day, unlike any other holiday in the Jewish calendar, unites the religious and the secular in a way that most others divide them. In this country of immigrants and accents, religious and secular, it seems that everyone connects to the Holocaust. It is, after all, the raison d’etre of the country. And I thought about how, even if I didn’t choose to move here, it pulls at my heartstrings each time.
II. On the day of
Thursday, the girls went to school and I taught yoga earlier than usual in order to finish in time for the morning ceremony. At 9:55am, Philippe and I were home, each on different phones, and Galina, the non-Jewish Moldavian house cleaner, was hard at work. Five minutes later, the woman on the other end of the phone said to me in what sounded like an Irish accent, “Stand up now! Stand up!” Her words registered and I thanked her as we abruptly hung up the phone. The two-minute siren sounded and I stood, my gaze to the ground. I didn’t know where Philippe was in the house but realized he was no longer on the phone either. The vacuum stopped and all I could hear was the long, even wail. As soon as it ended, Galina started vacuuming again and Philippe and I found each other.
We each left in our two different directions. As I drove to Tel Aviv for yoga, I listened to the radio, aware that the music was softer than unusual and not interrupted by annoying ads every few minutes. When I switched to different stations, most of which usually played pop music, it was a mix of sad songs and talk shows about the war.
When Daniella came home from school, she told me that of seven hours, they only had two real periods of class work. Otherwise, the day began with the siren, then a ceremony in which some very musically gifted 12thgraders played their flutes and sang and then the 11th and 12th grade kids who had gone to Poland last fall showed a slide presentation of their trip, stopping every once in a while to tell the story of who, what, when, where, why.
Daniella knows that in two years, she, too, will go to Poland. Most high school students in Israel do. In fact, an article appeared in The Times of Israel, which said that the number of students heading to Poland on subsidized visits is set to be around 11,000 this year, an increase of 423 percent… It is seen as a rite of passage and a way of reinforcing Jewish and Israeli identity… 92% said that the visits helped them better understand the importance of the Land of Israel and the Jewish nation, and 85% reported feeling pride in being Israeli.
And I already know that most schools ask for parent volunteers to chaperone, and that I will step forward. The one and only time I went to Poland was in the winter of 1988 when my job as bilingual assistant at the European Jewish Congress in Paris organized a one-day educational trip for non-Jewish Parisian high school students and survivors. Bundled up in our warmest coats and escorted by Polish guides, we visited Auschwitz and Birkenau to bear witness. As much as it was difficult to look at the pile of people’s shoes and the pictures of cremated bodies, it was–and always will be–imperative. To keep the memory alive, so that it never happens again.
Twenty-four hours after Yom HaShoah ended, shabbat began. And we transitioned from a time of sadness to a time of joy. All in the name of memory, memorials, remembrance.
*I wrote a story called Remembering about our happenstance visit in that Berlin school. If you are interested in reading it, please email me and I will happily share.