Thought of the Week: How should we mark Holocaust Memorial Day?

Written by Rabbi Colin Eimer — 7 January 2016

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word ‘genocide’ – ‘the direct physical destruction of a nation or of an ethnic group’ – was coined in 1944 by Rafael Lemkin, a Polish lawyer, as evidence of the Shoah was emerging. But Lemkin had, apparently, used the word in a 1933 submission to the League of Nations referring to the destruction of the Armenians by the Ottoman Empire during the First World War.

It was only in the early-1950s that the destruction of European Jewry came to be called ‘The Holocaust’, with capital letters. In 1953, Israel designated Nisan 27th, a week after Pesach, as Yom HaShoah.

In this country in 2001, January 27th – the day Auschwitz was liberated in 1945 – was designated Holocaust Memorial Day. Like many synagogues, we will be marking Holocaust Memorial Day (see below)

HMD raises at least two questions for us as Jews: how should we be marking the Shoah and when should we do so? Since 1978 or 1979, my previous synagogue, Sha’arei Tsedek North London Reform Synagogue, marked Yom HaShoah on Nisan 27th. There was a Yizkor Service after which a Shoah survivor addressed about their experiences. HMD was marked in January but by focussing on other genocides and holocausts.

I believe HMD is the time for non-Jews to remember the Shoah, and I don’t believe we, as Jews, should be doing that on HMD. If HMD didn’t exist, there would be no moment in the calendar for the non-Jewish world to mark the Shoah. But it shouldn’t be a time when the Shoah alone is what is commemorated. Sadly there were holocausts and genocides before the Shoah and too many since.

Some argue that the Shoah was so unique that, as Jews, we should be marking it on HMD also. Given what happened, every day of the year could be a ‘Yom HaShoah.’. Of course for us the Shoah was unique. But I’ve heard Jews insisting that only the Shoah should be commemorated and I recognise how invidious this discussion risks becoming, ending up as a sort of “my genocide was worse than yours.” Of course the Shoah was unique but I would be reluctant to tell a Rwandan or a Cambodian, for example, that their genocide was in some sense not as significant for the world as the Shoah.

So just as I think the non-Jewish world should be remembering the Shoah on HMD and trying to learn some of the lessons from the Shoah; so I believe the Jewish world should be remembering every other genocide on HMD and trying to learn some of the lessons from those genocides and keeping Yom HaShoah for our remembering the Shoah.

Wednesday January 27th – 8:00pm – Holocaust Memorial Day – “Who remembers the Armenians?”

Michael Berkowitz, Professor of Modern Jewish History at University College London, will be giving an illustrated talk about the Armenian genocide. Professor Berkowitz is, among other things, a leading expert on the role of Jews in developing photography.