On Thursday, at 10 am, sirens blared in Israel, and the nation stopped for one minute. We got out of our cars, paused on the sidewalks, and stood still in the classroom. And together, we stood in silence for two minutes and remembered the Shoah (the Holocaust).
Minutes before, as I was sitting with Elana at an outdoor café, there were a bunch of workers trying to get a large truck unstuck. Our roads are tiny in Tel Aviv, and it was going back and forth. I knew any minute the siren was going to blare, and I was curious how these tough fellows, probably some of them Arab, would react.
And then the siren went off. They stopped what they were doing. The driver got out of the vehicle. Along with everyone else, they stood in silence. I thought of Elie Wiesel in a story I recently shared on our podcast.
A young Wiesel witnessed three Talmudic scholars in a German concentration camp. In the midst of all the suffering, they decided to have a trial. Who are they accusing? God himself. They spent the rest of the day accusing God of crimes against humanity. In the end, with millions dead and millions dying, without being able to understand how this could be happening, they declared God guilty.
In Jewish tradition, it is OK to be angry with God. Have you not read the Psalms where David cried out in anguish? Or where Jeremiah accused God of deceiving him? God does not have any self-esteem issues or insecurities.
As the trial was coming to an end, the men noticed that it was getting dark and it was time for evening prayers. So after declaring God guilty, they worshipped him. It reminds me a little of the end of John chapter 6, where many disciples left Yeshua.
“You do not want to leave too, do you?” Jesus asked the Twelve. Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God.” (John 6:67-69)
In the same way, we deal with the Holocaust. We don’t understand it, but in the midst of our anguish, leaving God is not an option.
Six million Jewish people—infants, children, pregnant women, young, old, men, boys, rabbis, musicians, and so much more—were murdered, and millions more were terrorized or ran for their lives because of Adolf Hitler’s Holocaust. Holocaust Memorial Day is a somber time, 24 hours, where Israelis memorialize the victims of the Nazi death camps and the “Final Solution,” horrific events that preceded the rebirth of the nation of Israel.
Israel Prime Minister Naftali Bennett spoke on Wednesday night (our holidays begin the evening before) at Yad Vashem, Israel’s national Holocaust museum and memorial. Bennett, whose coalition government is fighting for survival, called for unity among the tribes (political factions)—a long-standing problem for the Jewish people—even when facing a common enemy like the Nazis.
“Even in the darkest days of Jewish history, in the inferno of destruction, the left and right failed to cooperate. Each group fought alone against the Germans,” Bennett said. “We must not dismantle Israel from within. Today, thank God, in the State of Israel, we have one army, one government, one parliament, and one people — the people of Israel.”
Bennett also cautioned against rising antisemitism and comparisons being made between current events, such as the war in Ukraine and the Holocaust.
“The Holocaust is an unprecedented event in human history. I take the trouble to say this because as the years pass, more and more serious events are compared to the Holocaust. But no, even the most serious wars today are not the Holocaust and are not like the Holocaust,” he said. “No event in history, cruel as it may have been, compares to the destruction of Europe’s Jews at the hands of the Nazis and their collaborators.”
“Never, in any place or at any time, has one nation acted to destroy another, in a way that was so planned, systematic and cold-hearted, completely due to ideology and without another purpose,” Bennett said. “(Today) we have friends, we have close and distant allies, and that’s good, but in the end, the Jewish people, the State of Israel, must always be in charge of their own fate.”
And one area where Israel may be tested on that front soon is Iran. This week, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA—the international group tasked with monitoring Iran’s nuclear ambitions) said that the Islamic Republic has once again resumed making centrifuges for enriching uranium. Their underground facility in Natanz is once again operational and making parts. Despite international pressure and hints at concessions by the US, Iran and the United States have not yet returned to the failed 2015 nuclear deal. And so, Iran has continued on in its race to build a nuclear weapon.
Israel’s military has already begun military exercises aimed at carrying out a “massive attack” (according to a US official) sometime this year on Iran’s nuclear capabilities before they go online and gain the capacity to “wipe out the Jews” as they have threatened.
Israel Defense Minister Benny Gantz, also speaking at Yad Vashem, said Israel must be prepared to deal with this current existential threat.
“Indeed, the State of Israel must have military power and moral power alongside it. This power and morality stem from our ability to live as a strong, cohesive society and not as a people scattered in the diasporas, divided and separated. Our resilience as a society enables and justifies our existence.”
It has been more than eight decades since the Holocaust, and the number of survivors is dwindling quickly. Most are in their 80s and 90s. In Israel, government officials estimate there are about 165,000 Holocaust survivors in the land (another 21 arrived Wednesday, fleeing for their lives again—this time from war-torn Ukraine).
This year, for the March of the Living (a memorial event held at Auschwitz where survivors are honored and the dead are remembered), there were only eight Holocaust survivors who led the march from Auschwitz to Birkenau. However, this year, there was a unique delegation—the first-ever group from the United Arab Emirates, plus several young Muslim influencers from the Gulf States, Lebanon, and Syria seeking to learn about the Holocaust and bring the truth to the Arab world.
In Israel, we observe the day in various ways—attending the event at Yad Vashem, watching movies and documentaries about the Holocaust, and there is a unique event called Zikaron Basalon (living room remembrance), where Holocaust survivors gather in smaller settings and tell their stories.
Prime Minister Bennett heard from a Polish survivor, Aliza Landau. She was only six years old when she and her family had to hide in a forest to escape from the Nazis. Her brother starved to death, and Landau said her father realized that the only hope for his little girl was to send her away, hoping that she would find a kind family to take her in. Landau remembered her father telling her, “’You’ll go, you will survive, and you will establish our family again.’ I fulfilled my father’s wish — I started a family. I have three children and seven grandchildren,” Landau told Bennett. “This is my personal victory over the Nazis.”
Despite being almost wiped out as a people (by the Holocaust and more than 50 other attempted genocides throughout the last two thousand years), a recent census of the worldwide population of the Jewish people shows there are 15.2 million people who identify as Jewish. That’s good news! But that is still not up to pre-WWII levels (16.6 million). While 6.9 million Jewish people now call Israel home, the Jewish populations among the nations, especially in Europe, have never rebounded. No matter how you look at the math, the Holocaust is a tragedy the Jewish people have still not recovered from, emotionally or statistically.
By all accounts, we, the Jewish people, should not be here, much less be a thriving first-world nation full of innovation and resiliency, making the desert bloom. But God!