Today is the 60th anniversary of Yom HaShoah, the Jewish Holocaust Remembrance Day. In Israel, it will be observed as usual, with speeches by the president and prime minister and a nationwide 2-minute period of silence. But many American Jews will commemorate the holiday—if they are even aware of it—with a collective shrug. Not only are there no set rituals with which to observe it, but it may even have outlasted its purpose.
In 1953, when Yom HaShoah was officially established by the Israeli government, the world was only beginning to comprehend the enormity of the Holocaust. The emigration of survivors en masse from the European displaced-persons camps had ended only the year before. Most of the literature that was essential in conveying the human impact of the events had yet to appear. Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz would not be widely read until the late 1950s; Elie Wiesel’s Night was not published until 1958.
Part of the impetus behind the creation of Yom HaShoah was practical: Religious Jews needed a rabbinically sanctioned day to say kaddish and light memorial candles for relatives who had perished under Hitler’s regime, whose dates of death were often unknown. But in the fledgling Israeli state, the question of how to incorporate the Holocaust into the narrative of the Jewish people was also of existential significance. To absorb it, as some initially suggested, into the already established religious days of mourning—which collectively commemorate the destruction of the Temple and the fall of Jerusalem—would implicate the Holocaust in an ancient narrative of sin and repentance. It was morally repugnant, of course, to suggest that the Jews of Europe were in some way spiritually responsible for their own destruction. But in addition, the founders of Israel were invested in a vision of Jews as pioneering and powerful, rather than victims led “like sheep to the slaughter,” as the popular terminology cruelly put it.
For these reasons, the Holocaust could not be commemorated in tandem with any of the other fast days already on the Jewish calendar: It demanded its own day. But when? One natural choice—the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, which corresponds to the Hebrew date of 15 Nisan—falls during Passover, making it off-limits. Mordechai Nurock, the Israeli member of parliament who proposed the establishment of Yom HaShoah, suggested 27 Nisan instead as a date that “coincides with most of the slaughter of European Jewry.” In 1953, the Yad Vashem Memorial Authority was assigned to officially inaugurate the national remembrance day. By the end of the decade, a law was passed establishing the two minutes of silence and other forms of observance, such as flying flags at half-mast.
During the 1980s and 1990s, at the height of public interest in the Holocaust in America, Yom HaShoah seemed to be gaining ground here as well. In 1989, nearly 5,000 people gathered in Manhattan’s Felt Forum for a commemorative service. In the 1990s, Jewish groups on college campuses often staged all-night vigils in which students would read the names of Holocaust victims.
But this trend is ebbing. A few years ago, I responded to a Brooklyn rabbi’s call for volunteers to read during a Yom HaShoah service and was told that the event had been canceled for lack of interest. This year, some of New York’s major cultural institutions, including the 92nd Street Y, will not mark Yom HaShoah at all. The events that still exist have a perfunctory nature: a speaker on a Holocaust-related topic, or perhaps a film. An informal survey I conducted of Jewish friends and acquaintances revealed that precisely none of them planned to observe Yom HaShoah in any way.
One reason Yom HaShoah may be confusing to Americans is that it is a secular Israeli holiday, not a religious holiday. Unlike the other significant days in the Jewish religious calendar, it is not attached to a specific liturgy or set of rituals. To many Jews, of course, it feels fundamentally incongruous to commemorate the Holocaust with a religious service. Wiesel, raised in an observant family, famously cast Night as a story of the loss of faith. And those who do wish to commemorate the holiday through ritual are not sure how. Light candles? And say what prayer, exactly? There are no guidelines for observing Yom HaShoah, either in synagogue or at home.
Another possible difficulty is the holiday’s essential arbitrariness. It might be different if it had been chosen to coincide with a historical anniversary, but as it stands there is something problematic about observing a memorial day that memorializes no particular event. Another option for commemoration is International Holocaust Remembrance Day—observed on January 27, the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz—which was designated by the United Nations in 2005 and is observed throughout the European Union and often in the United States as well.
But there remains a fundamental dissonance in designating a single day for the commemoration of the largest genocide in human history, an event that unfolded over a dozen years and whose implications are still being wrestled with. The Holocaust was not a historical monolith: It is best understood as a constellation of events, from the establishment of the first Nuremberg laws in 1933 to the liberation of the last remaining camps in May 1945. Many of these events have sparked their own memorial activities: This year, for instance, the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht will be observed. Meanwhile, scholars continue to do important work that challenges the popular conception of the Holocaust as defined by the death camps: See Timothy Snyder’s recent book Bloodlands, which establishes the territories east of Poland as primary sites of mass murder, as well as the recent cataloguing of more than 42,000 ghettos and camps by the historians Geoffrey Megargee and Martin Dean.
Of course, it is only because the Holocaust has been so thoroughly assimilated into American culture that it is even possible to argue about how best to commemorate it. In the Arab world, where Holocaust denial continues to spread, the dissemination of basic facts and figures must take priority. Even in Berkeley, Calif., a Yom HaShoah vigil in 2002 was interrupted by a group of protesters who likened the killing of Palestinians to “Israeli genocide”—inadvertently demonstrating why clarity about the Holocaust is so essential.
The challenge, then, is to find meaningful ways of paying our respects to the tragedy. This year, I plan to continue my customary practice: I light a memorial candle and reflect on the history of my family, which includes many survivors. But I do so with the suspicion that such rituals have become obsolete. What we do to commemorate the Holocaust during the rest of the year is far more important.
Ruth Franklin is a book critic and the author of A Thousand Darknesses: Lies and Truth in Holocaust Fiction, which has just appeared in paperback.