At precisely 10 a.m. Tuesday morning Israel time, a two-minute siren sounded throughout the country to mark Holocaust Memorial Day, as it does every year.
And as they do every year, people in the streets, in shops and in their homes stood silently for the full two minutes. Drivers pulled their cars to the sides of the roads and stopped.
But this year, there weren’t many people in the streets, shops or roads; the few who were out wore protective masks. Although Israel has eased some of the restrictions imposed on the public due to the coronavirus, travel and movement are still limited. Most people are still locking down in their homes—especially the elderly, which includes the declining population of Holocaust survivors.
Over the years, the Israeli government and official institutions, schools and other organizations have developed a set of annual ceremonies and rituals to mark the day. This year, of course, they had to be adapted to the health ministry’s restrictions against public gatherings. Most ceremonies were held virtually, and many others were canceled. Since schools are closed, most school-aged children did not participate in any event.
Last night, the annual wreath-laying ceremony in Jerusalem was broadcast from Yad Vashem, the national Holocaust museum, but it had been pre-recorded. Keynote speakers sent their messages by video. Usually, the ceremony is attended by hundreds of dignitaries and survivors, but this year, only the emcee and musicians stood on an empty stage, facing the empty plaza dedicated to the memory of the Warsaw Ghetto.
On social media, Yad Vashem invited the public to participate in an international campaign to recite the names of Holocaust victims and share their video, using the hashtags #RememberingFromHome and #ShoahNames.
Speaking by phone, Leah Hason, a Holocaust survivor, told a group of journalists that the quarantine was, “like a picnic. I sit in a nice place, and everything is clean and I have food and my phone and music to listen to…I have a wonderful family to take care of me. It is nothing for me, compared to what I went through. I suffered enough when I was a child. I will not allow corona to make me suffer.”
Edna Gitlin, an elderly survivor, told Israel’s Channel 13 TV, “We survivors are very strong, we went through the worst and we will be OK. “ But, she says, she misses the meetings at Amcha, an organization that is Israel’s largest mental-health and social-support services provider for Holocaust survivors. (The word “Amcha,” which means “your people,” served as the code word that helped survivors identify fellow Jews in Europe.) “Usually, on Holocaust Memorial Day, I go to Amcha or to the Knesset, and I know that I am not alone, she says. “Today I feel alone.”
Most years, Hason and Gitlin participate in meetings organized by Zikaron Basalon (Hebrew for “Memories in the Living Room”), a volunteer organization started some ten years ago. According to Dana Sender-Muller, the organization’s cofounder and board member, Zikaron Basalon was founded to “shift away from the formalized ceremonies and set up more personal gatherings in homes. “Individuals and groups sign up as hosts, participants or survivor-witnesses. By matching up Holocaust survivors who are able and willing to tell their stories with groups of people who want to listen to them, Zikaron Basalon “provides a place for every story and for every person who wants to listen. Our meetings are about intimacy, with more personal conversations.”
The initiative has been growing, and Zikaron Basalon has organized thousands of sessions throughout the world since it was founded. But this year, Sender-Muller says, “our primary concern has been for the welfare of the survivors, and to find ways so that the survivors could participate in an event that both respects them and keeps them safe.”
This year, Zikaron Basalon facilitated digital meetings and offered numerous training sessions for hosts and survivors to teach them how to use Zoom. According to Sender-Muller, nearly one million people around the world had registered to participate in sessions last night and today.
The virtual sessions follow the same format as previous meetings, focusing on the past, present and future. First, a survivor-witness shares his or her story; then the participants recite a poem or sing a song together, representing the shared present. “And then we have a discussion,” she explains. “We encourage people to think about how what they heard has impacted them. How we can create a different, and better, future for all of us. Who we are as a people and what kind of people we want to be.”
Many of these sessions will use the “Haggadah” prepared for these events by a team at the Van Leer and Shalom Hartman Institutes in Jerusalem. Professor Michal Govrin, who headed that team, explains that, like the Passover Haggadah, read only two weeks before Holocaust Memorial Day, this Haggadah is also based on the concepts of memory and the Passover imperative, “And you shall tell your children.”
“Like the Haggadah for Pesach, this Haggadah articulates the passing of the torch,” Gorvin explains. “We who recite the Haggadah were not there at the Exodus from Egypt, from slavery to freedom, but we are commanded to remember. We, the second, third and following generations after the Holocaust, did not experience the horrors, but we also have the responsibility to remember. We must bring the memory from lived experience to community remembrance.”
The Haggadah opens with a reading in unison:
“We were not there. We did not go through it, we did not experience
And yet, we want to take upon ourselves
The responsibility to remember and to remember responsibly
And even if I do not have the words, And even if you have
Only a few, and even if I am far, and even if I am close
And even if we belong to each other, and even if we don’t
Feel that we belong to each other— we will come together within
Ourselves, among ourselves, we will try to be together
We are here today.”
Toward the end, each of the participants is encouraged to say and write down where their family came from, creating a “memorial wall” that extends “from Europe, to Ethiopia, to the Soviet Union,” Govrin says. “During the Holocaust, our shared fate was forced upon us. Today, that shared fate is a choice that we make.”
The Haggadah emphasizes acts of compassion, human kindness, small acts of heroism and the Righteous Gentiles who saved Jews. “For us, this is the meaning of exemplary,” Govrin says. “This isn’t about the atrocities, the lows to which humanity can stoop, or the indescribable cruelty or the suffering. We emphasize those moments when people were able to maintain their humanity in the face of inhumanity. The Nazis wanted to annihilate the humanity within us all. Resistance—those who shared a crust of bread, who took a gun in their hands, who comforted another person, who saved another soul—those were the people who kept humanity alive.”
Participating in a Zikaron Basalon event on Zoom today, Hason tells her story by focusing on two events. First, she describes fleeing the ghetto in the town where she was born, climbing up a mountain of snow. She was five years old and suffering from typhus, and her mother had to carry her. “But the snow was high, and my mother couldn’t walk anymore. She put me in the snow and started to go away. I called to her in Polish, and she didn’t come back. I called to her in Yiddish, ‘Mama, have you thrown me away to die?’ And she came back. We spent the night in the snow, without blankets, and my mother held me. We heard the shots below, the Nazis made the Jews dig their own graves and then shot them. We heard Shma Yisrael, Shma Yisrael, and then everything was quiet. And my mother held me.”
She then goes on, “I remember the sun and the heat, and it was very hot, with no water. I was starving and so thirsty. We were in hiding. I was about seven years old. A Gestapo officer found us. And I understood that we were going to die. And I said to myself, ‘After four years of running and hiding? And now, maybe we have a chance because the Russians are very near, and maybe we will survive. I fell on my knees. I remember the officer’s boots, not his face, his boots. I kissed those boots and I shouted, ‘Let me live! I am just a little girl! Let me live!’ And he made a sign with his hands and sent my mother and me away. ‘Run away,’ he said. ‘Run. And if you see someone, do not ever tell them that you saw me.’”
“Maybe that is why, today, when I see refugees or poor people or suffering people, I feel I am one of them. Someone allowed me to live and that is why I am alive. And so today, I am always with the poor and the minorities. We have a nice country, and I have food and a home, but not everyone does. We must never forget that.”
But as survivors pass away, there will come a time when there will be no more opportunities to hear about the Holocaust from people who actually lived through it.
Says Govrin, “The essence of Jewish memory is an active memory. It is a memory that can change the world if we focus on those human beings who, at the height of evil and darkness, chose to seek out the good and to offer human kindness. We must take upon ourselves, as we wrote in the Haggadah, the responsibility to remember, and we must remember responsibly.”
Today, before the sirens went off, hundreds of volunteers throughout Jerusalem placed a flag and a potted plant outside the doors of survivors, and as the sirens blared, they stood with them, but at the required six-foot distance, so that they would not be alone. And on-duty police officers called to survivors to come to their porches during the siren, and saluted them.
Amcha organized hundreds of volunteers to come out of their homes and stand in the streets, holding signs that read, “We are close in memory, and we embrace you from afar.”