(April 23, 2017 / JNS) As Sunday evening approached in Israel, stores and businesses shuttered early while the country moved into a state of mourning for the martyrs and heroes of the Holocaust on the Jewish state’s official Holocaust Remembrance Day (Yom HaShoah).
For Israelis, this year’s Yom HaShoah commemorations marked a balancing act between caring for the Holocaust survivors who remain alive and planning for the education of future generations.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke Sunday of “the great significance of the transition from the Holocaust to revival, from the people that is a driven leaf, helpless, to a sovereign people with a defensive force that is among the strongest in the world.”
Netanyahu noted that his governing coalitions over time have significantly increased budgets for Holocaust survivors living in Israel, and that he would “personally head” a special ministerial team to “ensure quality of life and respectable existence for the Holocaust survivors in their remaining years…we have no greater obligation than this.”
The prime minister also issued a call for “national unity” on the eve of the upcoming days of remembrance and independence in Israel, saying, “This is the source of our strength and also the foundation of our future.”
The guiding theme of this year’s official Holocaust remembrance ceremony in Israel is, “Restoring Their Identities: The Fate of the Individual During the Holocaust.” Israeli President Reuven Rivlin held a meeting Sunday in Jerusalem with Austrian Chancellor Christian Kern, during the chancellor’s first visit to the Jewish state.
“Mr. Chancellor, we are connected not only by the present and future, but also by the past: and of course the painful past of the Holocaust. This painful past, and especially the issue of Austria’s responsibility for its part in this past, have influenced our diplomatic relationship,” Rivlin said.
“Israel appreciates your leadership in promoting awareness of this collective responsibility in Austria,” he added. “Unfortunately, anti-Semitism and fascism have not disappeared—not in Austria, and not in Europe.”
At the meeting, the Austrian chancellor recounted his grandmother’s personal relationship with a Jewish couple in Vienna who were forced into hiding upon the arrival of the Nazis in Austria.
Kern said his mother would frequently tell him, “These days, we have to be aware the direct line of remembrance is breaking, the witnesses of that dark period are passing away.”
“We have to increase our efforts to keep the memory alive, and we don’t just do this to honor the memory of the victims, but I am convinced we must do this for ourselves and for the next generation. It shows and defines in which society and in which future we want to live,” said the chancellor.
For this year’s Yom HaShoah, Israel’s Ghetto Fighters’ House museum inaugurates a new Holocaust education program that “will look at the role of the Holocaust in the collective minds one generation to two generations from now,” said Dr. Arye Carmon, board chairman of the Ghetto Fighters’ House and founder of the Israel Democracy Institute.
“We feel very strongly that with the disappearance of the last Holocaust survivors, probably in the following decade or so, that we will be faced with growing signs of denial and forgetting of this phenomenon,” Carmon told JNS.org ahead of the educational program’s inauguration at Yom HaShoah’s official closing ceremony Monday.
“From the turn of the millennium, there have been deteriorating signs against democracy, freedom and human dignity that have expressed themselves in both fledging democracies…and also very established democracies,” he said.
In Carmon’s estimation, there is “an urgent need to place the Holocaust as a warning sign in the collective mind of all free societies, which will deteriorate unless we educate ourselves with the moral lessons of the Holocaust.” He added, “This is just the beginning.”
Moshe Schner, one of the torch lighters at this year’s closing ceremony and a second-generation survivor, whose parents initiated Holocaust Remembrance Day in Israel and founded the Ghetto Fighters’ kibbutz and museum, told JNS.org that Yom HaShoah “marks a new beginning in Jewish history after the destruction of the Jewish world.”
Schner urged the next generation to focus on “reconstruction, ideas of solidarity, caring and human rights in hope for a better humanity and society…focusing on the good in man, rather than filling our minds with the radical evil ideas and acts that caused the Holocaust.” He encouraged empathizing with those who currently suffer in other places in the world, such as Syria.