A visitor to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum walks past a mural of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in Washington, January 26, 2007.
(photo credit: REUTERS/JIM YOUNG)
On November 11, the UK and other nations will observe Remembrance Day to pay tribute to the members of their armed forces who died in the line of duty during World War I. The day is also known as “Poppy Day” because of the almost century-long tradition of wearing a poppy as a symbol of this day.
British author Margot Asquith once said: “Symbols are the imaginative signposts of life.” We need symbols to make sense of everything, to bind us to something and to guide us to somewhere.
The Jewish tradition is replete with symbolism. Every festival and life cycle event has its symbols that guide us to a greater meaning and sense of unity around the event. These symbols have been a way of Jews from all different backgrounds, cultures and traditions to unify around a single theme which has helped preserve us throughout the millennia around the world.
Throughout the year, the modern State of Israel has symbols for various national days of the year. One example is the flower known as “Blood of the Maccabees,” which has become the symbol for Yom Hazikaron, the Memorial Day for Israel’s fallen soldiers and victims of terrorism. The Israeli flag, its colors and elements are symbols for Israel’s Independence Day.
However, one national day does not have a symbol – Yom HaShoah, Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day, held on the 27th Nisan in Israel and among Jewish communities around the world.
While many in Israel associate the ceremonies at Yad Vashem, the lighting of a memorial candle and the stories of survivors with the day, it does not have an official symbol that binds all events surrounding it.
The numbers of survivors are rapidly dwindling 73 years after the end of the Holocaust, and the stories they tell are moving from first- to second-hand, or being lost to the passage of time. Some were rescued by projects like the Steven Spielberg Film and Video Archives.
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The importance of this moment in the grander scheme of Holocaust memory cannot be overstated. Whether in schools, synagogues, at concentration camp visits or other events, many of us have heard multiple but unique stories of destruction and survival. The next generation will not have the honor of sitting in the same room and listening to a person who has experienced some of the greatest inhumanity ever inflicted, yet remained human themselves, despite it all. They will not see the moistness in the eyes of a person recollecting how their families, communities and lives were destroyed, as if it all happened yesterday.
In addition, and perhaps partially as a result, Holocaust denial and distortion is growing apace in many parts of the world, especially within Europe, even at high levels. The Holocaust and the Nazi genocide are becoming more frequently used and abused for all manner of political commentary or slurs that are grossly inappropriate and inaccurate.
For these and many other reasons, Yom Hashoah needs a unifying symbol. It needs something that future generations can relate to and rally around to ensure that this day receives its requisite solemnity and meaning.
Yom Hashoah has many elements, whether it is the number six million, the minute of silence or the more modern Israel Air Force planes flying over Auschwitz concentration camp as motifs associated with the day.
Perhaps the closest thing we have to a recognizable symbol of the Holocaust is the yellow star. This is a symbol of oppression, the badge forced on Jews under Nazi occupation and influence. While it should remain a vital part of the story and lesson of the Holocaust, it doesn’t capture what the day should be about for us as Jews, in Israel and around the world.
We need a symbol that captures both the horrors of these tragic events but also the Jewish testament to survival, struggle and renewal. It needs to capture the uniqueness and distinctiveness of the Holocaust and its aftermath.
In the UK, it is customary to buy poppy badges or paper poppy flowers in the days leading up to Armistice Day on November 11, originally chosen to commemorate the fallen soldiers of World War I. The poppy has thus become one of the most recognizable symbols in the UK and rallies the British people to think about the sacrifice of those soldiers who fell in defense of the nation.
Additionally, the money raised from the sale of these poppies funds charity work for British soldiers who have been injured or need help in other ways
Perhaps something similar can be done to raise money for Holocaust survivors in need and to help fund memorization projects.
The Ministerial Committee for Symbols and Ceremonies, to which the Minister of Culture and Sports currently chairs, should set about creating an official state symbol for Yom Hashoah. Perhaps a competition can be initiated, to which I would be happy to contribute. This can then become a unifying symbol to ensure that even in future generations the day can receive the proper care and attention.
As Margot Asquith so correctly put it, symbols like these become signposts of life that fuel our imagination, focus our energies and put meaning into national or personal events.The writer is a British businessman and philanthropist who supports many educational and scientific programs in Israel, the UK and elsewhere. In 2017, he was awarded an honorary doctorate by Israel’s Bar-Ilan University, for his efforts to further education and culture in the UK and Israel.
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