Today is Yom Hashoah v'Hagvurah - the Day of Remembrance of the Holocaust and Bravery in Israel - and around the world and I wanted to write some reflections about this day.
Holocaust memorial day in Israel is one of the most important and one of the most sombre days of the year. In cities across the country, ceremonies are held in city centres and are extremely well attended. Restaurants, stores and shops close early on the evening of Yom HaShoah. People put on white shirts and walk over to the local commemorations.
We went to the Ra'anana commemoration. The theme this year was 80 years since the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. The one-hour event included a torch lighting by a survivor of the uprising. Teen participants in Jewish youth movements lit hundreds of candles to symbolize the millions of Jews killed in the Holocaust.
There were several readers - who read out diary entries, poetry and other writings from people who perished over the course of the Warsaw uprising - or others who somehow managed to survive. There were several musical performances as well which were powerful and emotional. The mayor of Ra'anana, Chaim Broido, spoke about his parents - who were Holocaust survivors - and others spoke about the horror of the events that took place in Warsaw. The memorial closed with the chanting of "El Maleh Rahamim" by a Ra'anana Hazan (cantor) and then the singing of Hatikvah, Israel's national anthem.
We walked back home - and turned on the TV. All of the Israeli stations show Holocaust programming on the evening of Yom HaShoah. We watched one program about a heroic French Nun, Sister Denise Bergon, who saved more than 80 Jewish children - and the story, in particular, about two French sisters who she managed to keep alive.
We watched a few other programs, including a moving interview with several Holocaust survivors and the way in which their children have made efforts to spread their stories to as many people as possible.
This morning, at 10 a.m., across Israel, there was two-minute long siren. Everything stops across the country. People who are travelling stop their cars and get out and stand next to the cars until the alarm is over. It is extremely powerful.
Later this morning, I watched the National Holocaust commemoration at Yad Vashem featuring Israel's Knesset members, various rabbis, Supreme Court judges, survivors, and others who all participated in different ways. The last part of the event was "the reading of names." Various participants, including Prime Minister Netanyahu, Chief Justice Hayat, cabinet members, opposition Knesset members and others - all took turns coming up to the microphone and telling the story of a few Holocaust victims - and reading out the names of these victims and others.
So many Knesset members and other Israeli officials told the story of their grandparents or great grandparents - or uncles or aunts - or other family members. So many people were affected by the Holocaust - and lost so many family members. I couldn't help but think about my family members who perished during the Holocaust as well.
My great grandfather, Moshe Yaakov and his wife Channa, were murdered on August 16 or 17, 1941 by Lithuanian Nazi sympathizers in the town of Kamajai, Lithuania. We were later told by cousins of ours, who miraculously survived the war, that it was the son of neighbours of my great grandparents - who actually murdered them.
On the other side of my family, my great grandparents Avram and Chaya were sent by train to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Their son, Gabriel (my grandfather's brother), was also sent there with his wife and two children. Gabriel was separated from the rest of the family and somehow managed to survive the war. He was eventually liberated from Auschwitz, emaciated, but alive. His parents, his wife and his two children were taken away from him. He never saw them again. They were all murdered at Auschwitz. After being liberated at the end of the war, Gabriel was sent to a displaced person's camp. He was able to find my grandfather and reunite with him in New York - and Gabriel eventually remarried and had one daughter (my dear cousin, who passed away just over a year ago).
On both sides of my family - there were many others who were murdered - and whose names we do not have. But for those whose names we do have - I wanted to state their names - in line with the well known Yad Vashem theme - "Each Person has a Name."
The Nazis and their collaborators not only sought to murder all of the Jews in Europe. They also sought to erase their identities and their memories. They gave each imprisoned person a number and seared these numbers onto the arms of the prisoners. My uncle Gabriel had a number like this burned onto his arm.
Many Jews in Europe were murdered - and in many cases - their identities were unknown. Many were buried in mass graves or murdered or otherwise vanished. And one of the key projects of Yad Vashem has been to try and collect as much information as possible about the victims - to dignify these people by finding their names, their identities and telling their stories.
To see the various Knesset members each coming up to the podium and recounting the names and stories of different victims was not only powerful and emotional - it was also another reminder of the importance of Israel as a Jewish state and as the only real defender, protector and haven for the Jewish people. For this one day - Knesset members from different sides of the aisle put aside their differences and all took part in remembering, dignifying and honouring the victims of the Holocaust - and recounting stories of many brave men, women and children who somehow fought back or otherwise survived.
May the memories of all of the victims be for a blessing - Y'hi Zichram Baruch.