Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day

by M-Gillies

Yom HaShoah is Israel's Remembrance Day of the Holocaust and Heroism.

A week after the end of the Passover holiday and a week before Yom Hazikaron (Memorial Day for Israel’s fallen soldiers), highways and roads become inactive. Vehicles come to a stop as drivers and passengers abandon their vehicles and stand on the streets, flanking their cars. Pedestrians freeze on the spot as a siren echos through the air at ten in the morning. The people of Israel don’t move. They stand silently, staring forward. For two minutes everything in the city comes to a standstill. For two minutes, everyone quietly reflects to themselves in silent devotion. When the siren stops, everyone enters their vehicles and begins driving away. Pedestrians continue to their destinations and the city once again is filled with the bustle of life.

It’s the 27th day in the month of Nisan and all public entertainment has ceased. Theatres and cinemas, pubs and public venues are closed throughout Israel. The radio and television programs don’t show their usual programming. Instead, they are replaced with programs that are in one way or another, connected to the Jewish history of World War II. Interviews with survivors and historical documentaries are aired, liturgies are performed and ceremonies are held in schools, military bases and public locations. This is Yom HaShoah, Israel’s Remembrance Day of the Holocaust and Heroism, and since 1959 it has been commemorated as a national public holiday.

First inaugurated in 1953 by Prime Minister of Israel David Ben-Gurion and President of Israel Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, Yom HaShoah, the 27th of April was chosen to mark the largest single revolt by Jewish residence during World War II, and the first mass uprising in Nazi occupied Europe, the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in German occupied Poland in 1943.

It was back in 1939 when German soldiers occupied Poland. German troops had annexed Poland, and despite British ultimatums for German troops to be withdrawn from the country, war was consequently declared. Australia, India and New Zealand soon allied with Britain’s declaration, ultimately leading to the beginning of World War II.

By the following year, German auxiliary forces had fully occupied Poland and soon began the segregation of the Jewish community into extremely crowded ghettos. It was here where Germans concentrated approximately 300,000-400,000 people into a densely packed central area within Warsaw as part of their Grossaktion Warschau operation, which would see the deportation of the Jewish population to what at first was believed to be worker camps. However, by 1943, intel soon revealed that this was part of an extermination process, which led to the remaining inhabitants to form a Jewish resistance movement in order to revolt against German forces.

With the Polish government in exile, support from outside the Ghetto was limited, however Polish Resistance units from the mainstream Home Army diligently attacked German units near the Ghetto walls in numerous attempts to smuggle weapons, ammunition, supplies and instructions into the Ghetto. Through this, the Home Army worked with those incarcerated in the Ghettos in building a Jewish resistance fighters.

Meanwhile, German forces had implemented an operation which would see the deportation of Warsaw’s Jewish community within the span of three days. On the eve of Passover on April 19, 1943, SS auxiliary forces entered the Ghetto only to find the streets deserted and residents hiding in bunkers. But as the troops made their way further, they were stunned by an ambush of Jewish insurgents, led by members of the Jewish Combat Organization known as ZOB. Men, women and children had been sparsely armed with handguns, gasoline bottles, Molotov cocktails and hand grenades, and began their revolt from alleyways, sewers and windows.

On the first day, German forces were forced to retreat outside of the ghetto wall. Many had been killed and wounded. However, by the third day, the German auxiliary fought back, systematically burning houses block by block and soon ending the poorly armed and supplied resistance. While the German forces may have ended the resistance within days of the beginning of its uprising, individuals and small groups hid or fought the Germans for nearly a month.

While the finality of the uprising was not victorious for the Jewish resistance, it did mark, symbolically, the most important Jewish uprising in German-occupied Europe, inspiring other uprisings in ghettos such as Bialystok and Minsk. While days of Remembrance and Commemoration are held for those survivors and those whose lives were sacrificed during WWII, it was the Warsaw Ghetto uprising for which many of these days of remembrances are marked.

Since the early 1960s, the State of Israel has sounded the siren on Yom Hashoah, blowing once at sundown and once at 10am to announce the two minutes of silent devotion to the Jewish Resistance of Warsaw’s Ghetto uprising.

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