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Yom HaShoa at Yad VaShem

Today’s participant blog post comes from Emily Sherrill, a participant in the Yahel Social Change Program. This group is living, learning and volunteering in the Ramat Eliyahu neighborhood of Rishon LeZion for 9 months this year.

Having grown up in the States, I had a perception of what should be done on Yom HaShoah that was relatively limited. Spending my first Yom HaShoah in Israel broadened my scope and was incredibly moving. Having the opportunity to be in the Jewish homeland, which was filled with so much energy, on the day of the Holocaust memorial, was an opportunity that I was lucky enough to have.

We spent the day at Yad VaShem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial museum, watching a film and engaging in discussion. This was stark in comparison to what I’ve always spent this day doing in the States, which usually involved a Tekes (ceremony) that appealed to our emotions, rather than the more academic experience had during our Yahel experience this year. We began the day by watching a film, “The Matchmaker.” The film, a coming of age story about Eric, a teenager who works as a spy for a matchmaker in late 1960’s Haifa, at first seemed a strange choice for Yom HaShoah. But the world of “The Matchmaker” was a world permeated by the legacy of the Holocaust. Almost all of the film’s adults are survivors of the Shoah and Eric’s coming of age is simultaneously a reckoning with the world of his parents and their friends, during an era when Israeli attitudes towards the Holocaust were changing. The film depicts the difficult encounter between survivors and Sabras (native-born Israelis). The film’s Sabras are suspicious of and revolted by the port area of Haifa where survivors live, in order that they may be the first to board a boat if need be. This is the area in which the matchmaker plies his trade and in which 7 Romanian dwarves (based off real life people), run a movie theatre.

While the film is tragic, it is in some ways hopeful, as the matchmaker’s life mission of finding ways to put people together can be read as a metaphor for the work of putting families and lives back together after the Holocaust. As filmmaker Avi Nesher explained, the film shows how survivors, such as the character based on his mother, try to put their lives back together and depicts the everyday heroism of continuing to live after surviving the Shoah.

We continued the day with a discussion of a poster contest, entitled “Keeping the Memory Alive.” The poster contest entries and quotes about the Holocaust served as a lens into discussion of different narratives to the Holocaust. The discussion centered on questions of what would constitute a healthy societal relationship to the event. How can we remember in a way that is healthy and life giving? How can we ensure Holocaust narratives foster justice? How can we respect the memories of the victims while ensuring that our identification with past trauma is not pathological and paralysing? These questions were particularly refracted in an ambiguous poster, in which a man, whose body is made of ashes, holds a child. Did the poster intend to depict the girl about to fall because of the man’s decay, thus depicting the intergenerational effects of the Holocaust’s trauma? Or did the poster depict the girl being buoyed up by her father’s ashes, a moving and inspirational image of the younger generation rising out of the proverbial (and literal) ashes.

Likely not all Yom HaShoah experiences in Israel are as pointed as mine was on the Yahel program, but the combination of being physically in the land of the Jews and in a place that offered such engaging material (and unique experiences, such as the siren that blasts for one minute in the morning to initiate a moment of reflection), made it incredibly noticeable what a difference location can make, especially in the land of Israel.

“Some people like the Jews, and some do not. But no thoughtful man can deny the fact that they are, beyond any question, the most formidable and most remarkable race which has appeared in the world.”

— Winston S. Churchill.

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