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How to Reflect on Yom HaShoah: Some Thoughts and Recommendations

Tonight marks the start of Yom HaShoah: Holocaust Remembrance Day (יום הזיכרון לשואה). During this day, the world stands still to remember and reflect on the tragedies and horrors that were performed by the Nazi regime during the Holocaust. We will light candles, delve into testimonies of survivors, and honour the memories of the 6 million Jews, who were systematically hunted, brought to the depths of evil, and then murdered.

Here in Israel, tomorrow morning at 10 o’clock, the whole country will stand still in a two-minute silence of solemn reflection. As the sirens will roar through the streets, and the whole country will pause all activities, our hearts will scream: ‘’We will never forget’’. The history of the Holocaust is a history for humankind. One that must always stay with us, that should make us cry out ‘’Never Again’’, and actually investigate our own acts in order to make sure that indoctrination, racism, and dehumanization disappear from the face of the earth. It is painful, deeply horrifying, and saddening.

But it is necessary.

It’s our duty to make sure this history won’t be forgotten, and that the stories of both those who survived and those who perished keep being remembered. And since it sometimes might be difficult to come up with ideas exactly how to do that, I would like to provide you with some personal recommendations. Especially when it comes to films and books, there are so many choices that it’s almost impossible to pick favourites. But here are some of mine:

Films:

  • The Pianist (2002). This film is extraordinarily haunting, but also very beautiful. Based on Wladyslaw Szpilman’s true survival of the Warsaw Ghetto, the film shows the gradual changes towards complete despair of the Jews in the ghetto, and ultimately the ghetto’s complete destruction. An absolute must-watch. And may I say something about the music in this film as well? Incredible;
  • Night and Fog (1956). This film was created only 10 years after the end of WW-II. By combining both original pictures of the Polish concentration camps, with footage from the war itself, the film portrays the absolute horror and inhumanity of the war. For some, this film may be absolute overkill: because it really makes you stare straight into the face of absolute evil;
  • La Vita è Belle (1997). Although long, this film does an excellent job in portraying the horrors of the Holocaust, without constant face-to-face, uncensored horror. Combining humour, drama and history, this film focusses on a Jewish-Italian librarian (Guido) that ends up with his young son in a death camp. In an attempt to hold his family together and help his son survive , Guido imagines that the Holocaust is a game and that the grand prize for winning is a tank. Oh, if only!;
  • Shoah (1985). This film is, like Night and Fog, not for the feint-hearted. The director, Claude Lanzmann, interviews in this film (that’s over 9hours long) survivors, witnesses, and ex-Nazis. Not scared to ask even the most horrifying details, Lanzmann was able to really create an all-round portrait of not only the Holocaust, but also how it’s horrors keep living on in the survivors. Definitely worth tuning in for, if only for a fraction of the total film. 

Books:

  • Eli Wiesel – Night. Originally written in Yiddish, this book by now Nobel Prize winner Elie Wiesel, was one of the first Holocaust memoires to ever be published. Short, horrific, but an absolute classic masterpiece. If you haven’t read this yet, please do so as soon as possible. It will be worth it; 
  • Hetty Verolme – Hetty: a true story. Now, I read this book in Dutch, and I really think that it’s Dutch title ”De kleine Moeder van Bergen Belsen” [The small mom of Bergen Belsen] does the book more justice than it’s English title. In this autobiography, Hetty Verolme provides a unique, and heartbreaking tale of survival, against all odds. In which she, young as she still was, became a key figure in the survival of children of Bergen Belsen. A largely untold story, which deserves much more attention than it has gotten;
  • Henry Abramson – Torah from the Years of Wrath. From 1939-1943 Rabbi Kalonymus Kalmish Shapir, a Hassidic rabbi, was one of the leading religious figures in the Jewish Ghetto. While being there, he wrote a book which was – years after his death – found and published under the name Aish Kodesh. In his original manuscript, Rabbi Shapir writes down thoughts on the Torah, holidays, and passing time in the Ghetto. He seeks answers to the searing theological questions posed by the war, such as ”Why do the righteous suffer?” and ”Where ís G-d?” This book, which related the Aish Kodesh with actual historic events as they rolled out in the Ghetto, is more suitable for a (religious) Jewish audience, but a book that I highly recommend;
  • Charles Lewinsky – Gerron. In this book, which was also turned into a film, a Jewish film director (Kurt) is put in charge of creating a propaganda film of Theresienstadt. That: or both he and his wife will get sent to Auschwitz. The book describes both Kurt’s life before the war, as well as his life during the war. It really triggers all sorts of emotions: happiness, sadness, horror. An absolutely beautifully written must-read.

Although films and books due provide unique images and testimonies, they sometimes are also just a bit too passive: especially when you already watch films and books related to the Holocaust throughout the regular year. Therefore, and also just because they are actually amazing annual events, I really highly recommend tuning in for some of the (online) remembrance ceremonies. Two that are specifically worth it are the:

As Rabbi A.J. Heschel wrote: ‘’Indifference to evil is worse than evil itself.’’. So tonight and tomorrow, take a moment whoever small: to stand still, reflect and recognize the importance of human tolerance and dignity. Only when we take lessons from the past to improve our own behaviours in the present and the future, can we really live up to the ‘’Never Again’’. 

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