Yom Hashoah began last night and spans into this evening. Its date of commemoration is slightly different from International Holocaust Remembrance Day, which is a fixed date on the Gregorian calendar and takes place on January 27th every year. Yom Hashoah, on the other hand, follows the Hebrew calendar and aligns itself with anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. This uprising, the biggest armed Jewish resistance of the Holocaust, is the reason why this day is titled Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Day within Israel; this year’s theme is ‘Jews “On the Edge”: 1944: Between Annihilation and Liberation’.
While I was in attendance at Millserville University’s conference on the Holocaust and genocide earlier this month, I sat in on a presentation by a professor from Penn State which detailed how he conducts his ‘Introduction to the Holocaust’ course. He explained that, because the majority of his students in this course weren’t Jewish, the incorporation of Jewish holidays, traditions and cultures were an important aspect of the syllabus. I thought this was brilliant, because in my courses at UCL, my professor really emphasized that to comprehend the scope of loss that was the Holocaust, it was important to understand the traditions, occupations, cultures, and possibilities that perished alongside the victims. I think that this is a vitally important endeavor, and is something that doesn’t get emphasized enough.
“I think most people when they hear the word “Holocaust” see only two things: gas chambers and the number of 6 million and nothing in between. But it was everything in between.”
I chose to acknowledge this day by watching this year’s Academy Award Winner ‘The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life’. The above quote came from a friend of Alice Herz-Sommer, the woman which this documentary centered itself around. I tend to agree with her words, and so I’d like to branch out from them today. Alice, this incredibly inspirational woman, has a message for the world: ‘Every day in life is beautiful.’ Her face is continually lit up with a smile throughout this 38 minute film, especially as she sits at her piano in her Converse sneakers and pearls and details her life before, during, and after the Holocaust. I won’t go into much detail about the film, because this is me trying to bribe you to watch it; it’s now available on Netflix, and left me in tears. Tears, because in that short 38 minutes, this woman made me remember that life is pretty good, and I really don’t have a single thing to complain about. At the time of filming, Alice was 109 years young, lived alone, and was described as the the oldest known Holocaust survivor. She played her piano every day, and was a ray of positivity that can only come from someone who has seen the worst in humanity. She passed away only one week before she could see ‘The Lady in Number 6’ win this year’s Academy Award for Best Documentary Short Subject. She was 110. (110!) I remember the acceptance speech for this win, and was moved by how much she touched everyone involved in that film. I’ve copied the NYT’s obituary for her in the next line, as it’s a small testament to the strength and positivity of Mrs. Herz-Sommer.
So today’s post is a request of sorts; it’s easy to have the focus of the Holocaust center on the unexplainable personalities of its biggest perpetrators and the largest extermination camp ever created, but let’s also remember that it was so much than Nazis and Auschwitz. By attempting to delve into the details of the traditions and cultures that were almost lost, the commemorative spectrum could be widened; this way we not only have a better understanding of loss, but we have a better understanding of people who are just as equal, even though they don’t hold the same set of beliefs as the majority. Exposing ourselves to such detail could help us to see that, even though we profess ‘never again’, hatred and genocide of others who are deemed different or inferior are still taking place in our world today. So let us today celebrate each other’s differences, and remember that life is a gift that shouldn’t be wasted on negativity. Let’s embrace Alice’s outlook on life, and live up to our potential.