How many people do you know who fast on the 20th of Sivan? The likely answer is zero. It is not one of the minor fast days, and obviously not Tisha B’av or Yom Kippur, so why would anyone fast?
Twice in our history, the 20th of Sivan was designated as a permanent fast day to commemorate massacres against our people. The first time was by Rabbeinu Tam, Rashi’s grandson in 1171, after 31 Torah scholars were executed as a result of a blood libel in France. Rabbeinu Tam declared the 20th of Sivan as a day of fasting “greater than Tzom Gedalya, like Yom Kippur,” and instituted special selichos to be recited. Shortly after, the Crusades expanded and for the next 150 years would bring great devastation of Jewish communities. It overshadowed the incident of the blood libel and the fast ceased being observed.
Almost 500 years later, from 1648-1649, Polish Anti-Semite Chmielnicki launched a series of pogroms that led do the deaths of tens of thousands of Jews and the loss of hundreds of Jewish communities. The Shach, Rav Shabbsai Ha’Kohen, instituted the 20th of Sivan as a private fast day for his family to commemorate their great loss. Soon after, the Council of the Four Lands, the rabbinic authority of Eastern Europe, adopted the fast for all Polish Jewry in commemoration of the tragedies of what became known as Tach V’Tat.
Twice the 20th of Sivan was designated as a day commemorating Jewish tragedies, and twice the observance faded until it is now entirely obsolete.
Learning about the 20th of Sivan, one can’t help but wonder – what will become of Yom Ha’Shoah? Will it continue to be observed 20 years from now? Will gatherings, commemorations, ceremonies, and school assemblies be held, or as time passes will Holocaust Remembrance Day fade into oblivion?
Sadly, the likelihood is that Yom Ha’Shoah will go the way of the 20th of Sivan. While the Holocaust was a defining event and experience for the last two generations, evidence shows that young people today want to “move on,” put it “behind us,” and come “out from under its shadow.” The younger generation is rapidly seeing the Holocaust in the context of the Crusades, the Inquisition, and the Expulsion from Spain: events that are part of our past, rather than as something that happened to our parents and grandparents, a very real piece of our personal lives.
I don’t know what will happen with Yom Ha’Shoah in the future. What I do know, is that as long as we are blessed to have our precious and holy survivors, Yom Ha’Shoah is not just about commemorating an event of Jewish history and memorializing the kedoshim, the 6 million who were murdered in our past. For who knows how much longer, Yom Ha’Shoah is about the present and the opportunity to honor and express our awe at the extraordinary survivors in our midst.
Our survivors have lived through the greatest atrocities and most horrific circumstances in the history of the world. They endured unimaginable suffering, inconceivable loss, and profound pain. They rebuilt their lives with deep faith, amazing and inspiring optimism, and in most cases little to no expectation that the world owes them anything in return for what they have been through.
With the Holocaust survivors whom I have been privileged to know, I have found that there is one request they have of us, one wish and hope: they are desperate for us not to forget what they went through. They reawaken their darkest memories and become traumatized each time they share their horrendous stories. More than one survivor has told me that for days after telling their story, they cannot sleep, eat, or find a peaceful moment. Nevertheless, they open themselves up to great pain continue to tell their story with the hope and expectation that we are listening, that we will remember, and that we will continue to tell it long after they are gone.
In his Hagaddah, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks writes:
There is a profound difference between history and memory. History is his story – an event that happened sometime else to someone else. Memory is my story – something that happened to me and is part of who I am. History is information. Memory, by contrast, is part of identity. I can study the history of other peoples, cultures and civilizations. They deepen my knowledge and broaden my horizons. But they do not make a claim on me. They are the past as part. Memory is the past as present, as it lives on in me. Without memory there can be no identity.
Our survivors tell their story and give personal testimony because more than anything they don’t want the Holocaust to be relegated to history; they desperately want it to remain part of our collective memory.
In his article, “Holocaust Commemoration and Tish’a Be-Av: The Debate Over “Yom Ha-Sho’a” published in Tradition 41:2, Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter traces the origins of Yom Ha’Shoah and examines the great debate surrounding its observance. Whether you feel Yom Ha’Shoah should have been established or you believe Holocaust remembrance should be incorporated into our day of national mourning, Tisha B’av, is academic at this point. The reality is that the Jewish calendar marks Yom Ha’Shoah and failure to participate in remembering is essentially a slap in the face of our beloved survivors who yearn to know that we have not forgotten their loss and suffering.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.