A Personal Yom HaShoah

Last night we began the observance of Yom Hashoah v’Hag’vurah (the Jewish National Day of Commemorating the Holocaust and the Heroism) at the Monument to the Martyrs of Zagłębie, just outside Modi’in, in a special ceremony which included beautiful remarks by former Israeli Ambassador to the United States Michael Oren, including a presentation of photographs taken by his father of the atrocities in the concentration camps during his service in World War II.

It was my honor to chant the memorial prayer for the 6 million, using a special text and melody composed by Cantor Sholom Katz. Before the war, Katz was the Chief Cantor of Bucharest. During the war he was captured by the Nazis and imprisoned in a concentration camp. He said in later years that when he was forced to dig his own grave in the camp he asked the guard to allow him to sing. He sang the traditional El Molei Rachamin which so moved the guard that he allowed Katz to escape. This rendition was composed in 1946 coming when he was invited to sing the memorial prayer in Switzerland at the World Zionist Congress, with Dr. Chaim Weitzman delivering the eulogy for the 6 million.

What made it particularly personally meaningful is that my grandfather, Leon Tisser z”l, is buried about 20 miles from where I stood. He was sent out of Germany with his younger brother just as the Nazis began activating pogroms in Dresden, Germany. He served in the British military and then in the nascent IDF, only to lose his life as a young man of 33 in Israel. My father was just four months old; my grandmother a widow at 23. My grandfather lost his father, his youngest brother, and surely many more relatives we did not know, in the Shoah. We lost many other relatives as well. Next Tuesday, I will stand by his grave on Yom Hazikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day for Fallen Soldiers and Victims of Terror. I know he would be proud that the State he fought for in 1948 is still strong, and that today, near 70 years after his death, his grandchildren and great-grandchildren visit, support, and love our homeland.

It’s a different experience chanting the memorial prayer for the 6 million in Israel than it is in the States. There is a different sort of anger about the Shoah here. It permeates the air of the entire country. And standing in front of the Israeli flag, with Israeli tour guides, guards, and citizens present, brought tears to my eyes.

I returned to my hotel later that night to watch documentary programs about survival and loss on Israeli TV, and I woke up to the same. Restaurants closed early, hotel bars stopped serving alcohol last night for 24 hours. This is important in such a different way here. The whole country came to a standstill at 10 a.m. for the “tzfirah” (siren). Today is one of those rare days on which a nation truly stands as one, even if only for a few hours.

May the memory of the 6 million Jews slaughtered in the Shoah, as well as the millions of others who were killed with senseless hatred, always be for a blessing. May the echoes of their memory guide us to live lives of meaning, always fighting for truth and for peace. May we continue to tell their stories and live lives guided by the virtues of love, morality, justice, and peace, that the words “never again” are alive in our minds and hearts, and not merely a cheap slogan.