This Just In: Yom Ha Shoah
By William M. Cwirla
Yom Ha Shoah, literally “The Day of Catastrophe,” or popularly speaking “Holocaust Remembrance Day,” falls on April 7-8 this year. Officially known as “Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day,” it is a solemn national and religious holiday in Israel and among Jewish people throughout the world, commemorating the six million Jews who perished in the Holocaust and the heroism of the survivors and their rescuers. In the state of Israel, flags are lowered to half-mast, public places are closed, and various political and religious ceremonies are held on the 27th day of Nisan, which occurs this year from sundown on April 7th until sundown April 8th.
Yom Ha Shoah was first celebrated on December 28, 1949 as a day of mourning and fasting when the ashes, bones, and religious artifacts from the Flössenburg concentration camp were buried in a cemetery in Jerusalem. Yom Ha Shoah became a national day of observance in 1959 by action of the Knesset, Israel’s governing legislature. Various readings and rituals have developed over the years for use in local synagogues and homes.
Why We Must Remember
It might be easy for those of us who are not Jewish to ignore this day, but that would be a mistake. As Christians, we share a common heritage with Jewish people through the promised “seed” of Abraham, his son Isaac, and ultimately Abraham’s greater son, Jesus. The apostle Paul reminded his non-Jewish readers that they owed a debt of gratitude to the descendants of Abraham, to whom belong the Torah, the prophets, the covenants, and ultimately the Messiah, our Lord Jesus Christ. The apostle compared us Gentile believers to a wild branch grafted onto native Israelite root stock (Romans 11:13-26). We are children of Father Abraham through faith in the Promise, Y’shua HaMashiach, Jesus the Christ.
The word “holocaust” comes from the Greek holokauston, burnt offering (Leviticus 1:3ff). This is not to suggest that the death of six million people could possibly atone for sin or that their lives were in some way a sacrifice to God, but it is a way of understanding an otherwise incomprehensible atrocity. Their lives are a testimony to the depths of humanity’s depravity - intolerance, hatred, bigotry, prejudice, and genocide. The Holocaust is certainly not the only genocide in the history of humanity but it is among the worst and stands as a monument to the evils of which man--turned away from God--is capable.
What then is our response to and reflection of or regarding Yom Ha Shoah as those who confess Jesus to be Christ and Lord, and how best can we relate to this historical event?
1. Reflect Repentantly on Human History.
This doesn’t mean repenting for the sins of others, but recognizing that the same evil at work in history is also at work within each of us. Old Adam in us demonizes those who are not like us, whether on ethnic, religious, or racial grounds. Like Cain, we are capable even of murdering our brother over religious rivalry. We are quick to “scapegoat” (another Old Testament word!), falsely blaming others for the woes of society. There was a time when Christians were blamed for the problems of Roman society and were persecuted as a result. People like Hitler capitalized on long-simmering cultural resentments against the Jews, making it easier for people, including Christians, to look the other way.
2. Become Better Informed About the Holocaust.
Movies like Schindler’s List (1993), Sophie’s Choice (1982), Life is Beautiful (1997), The Pianist (2002), and Everything is Illuminated (2005) provide meaningful perspectives to how the Holocaust affects even those who are not Jewish. Here is a list of 50 Holocaust-themed movies. Books such as The Book Thief, The Hidiing Place, or The Boy in the Striped Pajamas help to bring literary insight. This is an excellent reading list of Holocaust-themed books. The Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, where I live, has many online resources to help you learn more about the Holocaust.
3. Listen Reflectively to Our Jewish Friends and Neighbors.
Third, we can listen reflectively to our Jewish friends and neighbors. The Holocaust is recent enough history that many Jewish people you meet will have some direct connections. Listen to their stories sympathetically and empathetically. “Mourn with those who mourn.” Ask interested questions with the intent on learning. My mother grew up in Germany during World War II, and she tells stories of hiding Jewish people in the basements of non-Jewish homes to protect them from being arrested. Remember that others died in the concentration camps, too: Christians, alleged homosexuals, dissidents, and anyone who did not fit in Hitler’s masterplan to purify the German race. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran pastor and theologian who conspired to assassinate Hitler, was hanged in the Flössenburg concentration camp days before it was liberated by the Allies. The Holocaust touched many lives in many ways.
Pray that such atrocities never happen again, while recognizing that they are going on even now as you read this. Pray that all who mourn would find their comfort in the God of all comforts, in Jesus, the Son of God, the Man of Sorrows who is acquainted with suffering, hatred, and persecution. Jesus Himself was the victim of the anti-Jewish sentiments of Rome and of the religious insitututions that would not tolerate a threat to their power.
5. Speak of Our Faith with All Due Respect and Understanding.
Y’shua HaMashiach came first to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. Jesus is as much the Messiah of Israel as He is the Christ of the Gentiles. He is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. We have more in common than just Father Abraham through his son Isaac. We share a common Messiah in Jesus of Nazareth, the crucified and risen One, the once for all sin-offering for the life of the world, who suffered for the world and who suffers along with the world, reconciling all things to the Father.
Why We Must Never Forget
Yom Ha Shoah is a day of remembrance. In our day, it has become fashionable to revise, edit, and cancel history that is unpleasant or difficult to face. In Germany, students are required to study the Holocaust in school and face the discomfort of their own history. There are class field trips to concentration camps. History must be preserved and discussed, no matter how uncomfortable it may be. We must never let the Holocaust be forgotten lest it be repeated. Lord, have mercy.
Rev. William M. Cwirla is the pastor of Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Hacienda Heights, California. He is also a president emeritus of Higher Things.
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