How Israelis Balance Tragedy And Joy Is Itself A Miracle
A tour of Yad Vashem on Yom Hashoah gave me new insights into the national psyche.
What headlines? The scene on Emek Refaim in Jerusalem
amidst days of conflict at the Temple Mount nearby.
Greetings from Jerusalem.
My wife and I had planned to visit Israel in the spring of 2020, but then came the pandemic…
So we feel blessed to be here now for several weeks, when the weather is beautiful and the country encounters the collective experience of marking the lows and highs of Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day), Yom Hazikaron (Israel Memorial Day) and Yom Ha’atzma’ut (Israel Independence Day) – all within a week.
Israelis seem particularly adept at going from deep sadness to great joy in a short period of time. Compartmentalizing their emotions allows them to live normal lives – whatever that means. Maybe it’s the Jewish condition that has allowed us to survive as a people for thousands of years, despite great tragedies and persecution.
The result is that Israel, according to the most recent World Happiness Report, ranks ninth in the world on the index despite the constant pressure of the Arab-Israeli conflict and the existential threat of a nuclear Iran committed to destroying the Jewish State. (The U.S. ranks 16th.)
During Passover week, the Israeli headlines each day described “Jerusalem On Edge” as tensions at the Temple Mount resulted in numerous clashes that required police intervention. But within sight of the Old City walls, the streets were quiet, the birds were chirping and people went about their business. Indeed, with schools and many businesses closed for the holidays, Israelis, after two years of Covid, were back in large numbers hiking and touring the land.
The traditional family outings took place despite the alarming number of lone terrorist attacks in recent weeks. When those occur, the shock, anger and grief among the population is all too real. But people here seem to acquire a resilience over time that allows them to keep going.
Everything stops, though — literally – for two minutes at 10 a.m. on Yom Hashoah when a siren is sounded throughout the country and people stop in their tracks – where they are walking or driving – and stand silently at attention, recalling the horror of the Holocaust.
We stood on the normally busy Emek Refaim, in the German Colony of Jerusalem, Thursday morning. As the siren wailed and people stood solemnly, I sensed the deep connection Israelis have to their history and culture, and to each other. For a moment, at least, their sharp religious and political differences were drowned out by the mournful sound – a modern-day shofar calling each of us to reflect on what it means to be living in a Jewish state decades after millions of European Jews were murdered because they had no place to go.
There is no commercial programming on television on Yom Hashoah. The day is devoted to retelling the story of the Holocaust, commemorating those who perished and honoring those who survived.
Like thousands of others, my wife and I visited Yad Vashem, Israel’s official memorial to the victims of the Holocaust.
Bringing the story to life: Lara Kwalbrun, a university professor and guide at Yad
Vashem, emphasized that “the world knew everything” during the Holocaust.
One of the most powerful messages we took away from our three-and-a-half hour tour was how, beginning with Hitler’s rise to power in 1933, the deadly grip on European Jewry tightened incrementally until it was too late. Over time, Jews lost their rights, their property, their belongings, their lives and their very identity.
Our American-born guide, Lara Kwalbrun, somehow managed to seamlessly combine history and testimonies of survivors to weave a narrative of how an unimaginable tragedy came to be. She noted that the goal of Yad Vashem is not only to be a place of memory, history and learning but a place to to give the victims their identity.
That’s one reason why there are many personal items on display throughout the museum – a photo of a young man’s girlfriend found in his pocket after he was shot; another young man’s law degree certificate that he kept in the hopes of finding employment after the war; a bracelet; a brass timepiece; and the large pile of men’s, women’s and children’s shoes, and more. All to remind us that the dead are not statistics; they represent real people with hopes and dreams for the future.
Another key message, all too timely, was that the Nazis’ savagery against Jews was well known to much of the world – but to no avail. A gathering of nations, convened by the U.S. at Evian, France in 1938 to determine who would open their gates to Jewish refugees fleeing Europe, was a disaster. (Only the Dominican Republic offered asylum.) Hitler got the message that no one cared. After the conference he said that if any of the nations decide to take Jews in, he would even offer luxury ships to help them leave.
Fatal distraction: This sign is representative of the Nazis’ effort to deceive Jews about their fate. It indicates that trains travel to and from Auschwitz — not that it is their final destination.
Golda Meir, an observer at Evian from British Mandate Palestine, was not permitted to speak on behalf of her people. She came away convinced that she had witnessed the fate of European Jewry being sealed. She later wrote in her memoir, “there is only one thing I hope to see before I die and that is that my people should not need expressions of sympathy anymore."
These tragic events help one better understand the Israeli emphasis on independence and self-defense in the wake of excessive international immorality, empty rhetoric and inaction.
Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, at the annual state ceremony marking Yom Hashoah, was quite right in asserting that the Holocaust was “an unprecedented event in human history,” and not to be compared with other wars. But I could not help thinking, on our museum tour, of the current Russian assault on Ukraine and how Vladimir Putin has employed the tactics of previous murderous demagogues: lie about what you are doing, garner support at home by demonizing your adversaries, and threaten non-combatant nations to stay out of the fray or suffer severe consequences.
Sadly, “Never Again” has become an over-used and increasingly meaningless response to atrocities that play out on the world stage.
For citizens of the Jewish State, “Am Yisrael Chai” – the People of Israel Live – is not only a rallying cry but an affirmation of the past, present and future.