Remembering the Heroes on Yom Hashoah

by Rabbi Debbie Reichmann

This year, Yom Hashoah, aka Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day falls on April 18.

I have been honoring this Yom Hashoah for as long as I can remember. That’s not very surprising since I attended Jewish school from pre-K through High School. What’s interesting to me, though, is in all those years of my childhood, it was always referred to with the abbreviated ‘Holocaust Remembrance Day.’ No one really acknowledged the other part. The part about remembering the heroism.

It is, of course, appropriate to focus on the senseless loss of 6 million lives. The suffering and horrors they endured. The sheer size and magnitude of the heinous crime committed by antisemitic, racist, and nationalist people. When we say “Never Forget” it is this aspect we point to, and we should. We can not forget that people, regular everyday people, were twisted into monsters doing monstrous things by a rhetoric of fear and baseless accusations. We can not forget that humanity is capable of unfathomable depravity.

But, what about that heroism? It needs attention, too. It is a common misconception that the Jews went quietly to their deaths. They did not.

Before the war, the Jewish leaders in Germany used every democratic means at their disposal (until there were none) to confront the Nazi government’s encroachment on democratic values.  Then, during the war, first in the ghettos and then in the concentration camps, Jews resisted. Most of these stories died with the people whose efforts were in vain. But, some have persisted.

The most famous, of course, is the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in the spring of 1943. But, it was not alone. The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum shares the accounts of underground resistance movements in about 100 ghettos. The camps, too, had their fair share of resistance. On August 2, 1943, about 1,000 prisoners revolted in Treblinka, and later that year, prisoners in Sobibor killed 11 guards and set the camp on fire. These are but a few instances recorded by the USHMM.

There were other Jewish heroes. Individuals who risked their lives time and again to smuggle weapons to partisan fighters, who fought with the resistance, who saved one life or a few. Some of these are known, but many are not. There were the “Righteous Among the Nations,” those non-Jews who recognized the horror and who took action.

And there were the unnamed and uncounted heroes. Those who engaged in unarmed resistance. Those that kept their faith. Those that found compassion to help others. Those who tended to those weaker than themselves. Those who dared retain their humanity.

The story of the Holocaust is not merely a litany of abuse, debasement, and murder. It is also a story of opposition in the face of certain failures. We often pare down the events of the Holocaust into timelines, bullet points, and statistics, and given the enormity of the events in question, that approach is a necessary tool. But, it can not stand alone. The details, intricacies, and sheer complexity of this period of history must also come through. If we don’t remember that the Jews fought back, if we don’t remember that there were heroes and that those heroes wore many faces and demonstrated bravery in many ways, we aren’t honoring this Day as we should. 

Let’s honor this Yom HaZikaron laShoah ve-laG’vurah, this  ’Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day’ with as full a picture as we can. For, if we must “Never Forget,” then we must never forget all the aspects.



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