This week we observed Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Memorial Day, on the 80th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Thank you to our member Harvey Loeb who spoke about how his parents were saved from Germany by the Kindertransport.
I want to share a personal story that helped me understand the meaning of Yom HaShoah. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, I travelled to Ukraine to find the Shtetl of my grandfather, a small town called Stavisht near Kiev. There I met two elderly Jewish sisters, Sura and Golda, who spoke Yiddish, still living in my grandfather’s shtetel with about 20 other Jewish families in a village of about 1,000 people. The sisters, took me to the Jewish cemetery, and showed me two mass graves. They told me they had fled just before the Nazis arrived, when the Jews of the town were rounded up, marched to the edge of the town where they were shot in a ditch, just a few feet from the last street of the village.
Two years later when the Nazis retreated, the sisters came back home. The local non-Jews showed the sisters where their parents and the other Jews of the town had been killed. The Jews and the non-Jews then worked together to dig up the bodies of about 150 Jews and brought them to be laid to rest with respect in the Jewish cemetery. Side by side, they created two mass graves one for men and one for women. The sisters told me they recognized their own uncle, who had been a tailor, and they found tailor’s chalk still in the pockets of his jacket, that he was wearing when he had been shot.
I asked the sisters, what date did this happen? They said we only know that is was in Tishrei, September, but no one knew the exact date. I wanted to light a Yahrzeit candle for the murdered Jews of my grandfather’s shtetel, and I did not know the Yahrzeit date.
I was then living in Israel, so when I got back to Jerusalem I decided I would be a good grandson of the Stavisht, and went to Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust research center, to find out what was the date of the massacre, so that I, would know when to light a Yahrzeit candle.
At Yad Vashem I was shown the Einsatzgruppen reports. These reports were sent to Berlin by the mobile killing squads that carried out the mass shooting of Jews in Ukraine. I spent two full days poring over the lists of towns, numbers of Jews murdered and the dates. After two exhausting days I found many of the towns near by grandfathers’ shtetl, but I never found Stavisht listed, and I never discovered the date of the murder of the Jews there, and it is unknown till this day.
This is when I finally understood, why we have Yom HaShoah. Because there are Jews who died and we don’t even know when to light a yahrzeit candle in their memory. Yom HaShoah is the date we remember those who would have been deprived of a Yahrzeit.
We remember them on Yom HaShoah.
One week after Yom HaShoah is Yom Ha’aztmaut, Israel’s Birthday. These two dates are known as the High Holy Days of the civil religion of Israel, and are treated with reverence akin to Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippor. This year we are celebrating 75 years of achievements. We hope the next 75 years will be a celebration of hope for the Jewish and democratic state.
Please come tonight to the temple for a delicious dinner and joyous service celebrating Israel’s birthday.
Yom Huledet Sameach – Happy 75th Birthday Israel!
Rabbi David Wilfond