Yom HaShoah or Holocaust Remembrance Day fell this year on yesterday evening and today. Yom HaShoah (literally “Day the-Holocaust” in Hebrew) was declared a national memorial day in Israel in 1953, five years after the state’s establishment, and is now observed throughout the Jewish world.
Unlike much older Jewish holidays, Yom HaShoah has had to be improvised. By now, in Israel (where I’ve been living for almost 30 years), the day has a structure and contents that rather effectively convey somberness and an intense identification with the Holocaust’s victims.
Yom HaShoah begins in Israel (at sundown) with a ceremony in a square beside Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem. I’ve been watching it on TV now for years and generally find it tactful, authentic, and moving. It includes speeches by the prime minister and the president before an honor guard, the lighting of six torches (symbolizing six million victims) by Holocaust survivors, musical presentations, and most of all the heart-wrenching singing of the prayer “El Malei Rahamim” by the chief army cantor.
Yom HaShoah is a regular workday, but with places of entertainment closed and all TV and radio programs devoted to Holocaust-related themes. At 11 a.m. sirens blare throughout the country and all traffic and motion stops. Drivers exit their cars and, like the surrounding pedestrians, stand for the two-minute duration of the siren in silent commemoration. These are moments of eerie, slightly frightening power.