Israel remembers Holocaust, its victims, despite restrictions

Israelis honored the victims of the Holocaust and remembered, though in somewhat different ways, due to the pandemic.

By World Israel News Staff and AP

Despite the restrictions brought on by the coronavirus, Israel succeeded in remembering the victims on Holocaust Memorial Day which began on Monday evening.  The day is officially titled Yom Hashoah, Israel’s Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Day.

Holocaust Remembrance Day is one of the most solemn dates on the Israeli calendar. Survivors typically attend remembrance ceremonies, share stories with teenagers and participate in memorial marches at former concentration camps in Europe.

The country’s central ceremony, which typically draws thousands to the national Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial alongside Israel’s top leadership, was prerecorded without an audience. With the adjacent museum shut down due to public gathering restrictions, commemorations and exhibits all shifted online.

However, the Monday evening ceremony, always artfully done, did not feel too different for those watching on television. The only part of the ceremony that felt lacking was a torch-lighting ceremony, normally the height of the event. Instead of six torches each being lit in turn by a Holocaust survivor, they had been pre-lit.

Memory through Zoom

Although survivors on Tuesday stayed indoors in their apartments and nursing homes, they still participated thanks to modern technology.

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Survivors, via Zoom, were able to tell their stories to students and others. Zoom meetings were organized by the municipalities of Jerusalem, Haifa, and Ashdod, hosting discussions about the Holocaust and its impact.

It was an online version of the “Memory in the Living Room Project,” an innovation in passing on the memory of the Holocaust in which people gather an intimate settings to hear survivors, or the children of survivors, tell their story.

A central focus of Holocaust remembrance is the dilemma of how to pass on the memory of the Holocaust to the next generation as those who lived it slowly die out. The living room project is one answer.

On Monday evening, major Israeli TV channels even broadcast their own version of the living room project featuring famous Israeli celebrities and national figures, with President Reuven Rivlin virtually hosting.

Perhaps the biggest surprise of that event was the participation of one of Israel’s most popular comedians, Adir Miller, who spoke eloquently about the survivors in his family, which included his grandparents and parents.

10 am siren

A two-minute-long siren sounded at 10:00 a.m. to remember the Holocaust’s victims. It typically brings Israeli life to a standstill. Pedestrians stand in place, buses stop on busy streets and cars pull over on major highways — their drivers standing on the roads with their heads bowed.

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But this year, the streets were already mostly empty. Cafes and restaurants, which typically shut down for the remembrance day, are already closed. The country has been in near lockdown mode for more than a month trying to staunch the spread of a virus that has killed 181 and put a quarter of the country out of work.

However, the siren could be heard cutting through the air and into apartments and houses. What activity was on the street came to a halt.

TV channels have dedicated their programming to Holocaust memory. And despite the remarkable political event of a unity deal being signed on Tuesday evening just before remembrance day, that news was pushed to the back of the papers, which devoted their main pages to remembering the Holocaust.

Survivors v. corona

For Holocaust survivors, the coronavirus is a flash in the pan.

Aviva Blum-Wachs, 87, who survived the Nazi invasion of her native Warsaw, said the hardest part of the current pandemic was being separated from her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. But she said there was no parallel to her wartime trauma experience.

“We were closed in the ghetto. We had no food, no telephone. There was horrible fear of what was outside,” she recalled, from her Jerusalem home. “There is nothing to be afraid of now. We just have to stay home. It’s completely different.”

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There are about 180,000 Holocaust survivors remaining in Israel, and a similar number elsewhere around the world. Israel’s first coronavirus fatality was a man who had escaped the Nazis in World War II, and at least half of the 14 residents who died in a particularly badly infected retirement home in the southern city of Beersheba were Holocaust survivors.

Dov Landau, 92, bristled at any comparison to their plight during World War II – when the Nazis systematically murdered 6 million Jews.

“One has nothing to do with the other. This could never compare to the five years I went through in the Holocaust,” said Landau, who survived Auschwitz and several other death camps, but lost his entire family. “This is a temporary disease that will pass.”