Israel Travel Log, Part #2: The Observance of Tragedy and Triumph – Yom HaShoah, Yom HaZikaron, and Yom Ha’atzmout

Israel is a country of tragedy and triumph; optimism and pessimism. This duality is a theme that seem

By George L. Anesi

Israel is a country of tragedy and triumph; optimism and pessimism. This duality is a theme that seems to permeate every aspect of the country’s existence. It was founded after centuries and centuries of exile and anti-Semitism endured by the Jewish people and on the heals of the Holocaust, the darkest of times in which 6,000,000 Jews were exterminated. Out of that darkness came the realization of a dream: a homeland and safe haven for the Jewish people. The debate regarding the actual connection between the Holocaust and the founding of the State of Israel will rage forever but it is almost a certainty that 1945 was the darkest period in Jewish history and 1948 was one of the brightest. That extreme swing—from the end of World War II and the Holocaust to the establishment of Israel—manifests itself throughout Israel’s history and in its present state by way of the levels of optimism and pessimism, happiness and despair, that Israelis bring to everyday life. By way of easy example, today the economy grows while a majority of Israelis believe there will be another war with Hezbollah in Lebanon and sooner rather than later.Perhaps the most striking example of this emotional duality arises every year in Israel around this time during Yom HaShoah, Yom HaZikaron, and Yom Ha’atzmout. My experience observing these days and learning the powerful lessons was far different this year actually in Israel than anything I had experienced before in the Diaspora. The very naming and scheduling of the days is the first occurrence of Israel’s simultaneous effusion of both optimism and pessimism. Yom HaShoah, translated to “day of the Holocaust”, is the popular, not the official name for the memorial day. The official name is Yom HaZikaron LaShoah V’LaGvura, meaning literally “day for remembering the Holocaust and heroism.” The day’s name itself embodies the need to remember both the crime and the resistance. In contrast to the United Nations-declared International Holocaust Remembrance Day—only two years old and set on January 25, the day that the Allies liberated Auschwitz—Yom HaShoah marks the date of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising during which starved and imprisoned Jews attacked Nazi guards. Even in the midst of remembering a tragedy, the day marks a story of heroic resistance.I had been to Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial and museum, on previous trips but this time was different. After the emotion of being actually in Israel for Yom HaShoah, Yom HaZikaron and Yom Ha’atzmout for the first time, Yad Vashem simply hit me far harder than I expected. Now benefiting from an immense renovation and redesign that only finished recently, Yad Vashem is one of the finest historical museums of any kind in the world. The exhibits are comprehensive, beautiful, and terrifying, and beyond that almost indescribable. The physical structure of the museum defies the local law stating that all buildings must be constructed of the special Jerusalem Stone to maintain the aesthetics of the golden city. Instead, the museum is built of poured concrete; gray, cold, and ugly. It is a scar on the city, jutting into mid-air on one end and stabbing into a hillside, actually going underground on the other. I entered and wound through the exhibits, each darker and more claustrophobic than the last as the tunnel literally dug further into the ground. I was touched a thousand times during the walk. To pick out just one by way of example, the records room contains towering bookshelves holding Yad Vashem’s information collected on those who perished. The shelves, just over half full, were built for 6,000,000 binders. They will never be filled; who can possibly tell the stories for those who died alongside everyone whom they had ever known and who ever knew them? Towards the end of the seemingly endless tunnel, the ground starts slopping upwards and finally opens outdoors into an immense panoramic view of Israel’s landscape. The museum cuts flush through the hillside and the final exhibit is nothing less than the land of Israel as it stands today.I spent Yom HaShoah itself on the ulpan campus. Teachers and students shared stories of their families; others clearly had stories but not the will to tell them. My teacher spoke of her parents who were shuffled between half a dozen labor camps and met in a “relocation camp” in Cyprus after the war while being told by the British they couldn’t enter Israel and had to go back to Europe. The sirens sounded and the entire ulpan—the entire country—stopped. During those two minutes every year, everyone stops what they are doing: telephone conversations stop, cups of coffee are put down, cigarettes are put out. Even cars on the highway come to a stop. I looked up when the sirens finally ended to see tears streaming down the faces of teachers and students alike.One week after Yom HaShoah, Yom HaZikaron and Yom Ha’atzmout fall on back to back days. Israelis spend one day mourning the 22,305 fallen soldiers and the day immediately following celebrating the founding of their state and their independence. Unlike in the United States—and I presume in many other countries—all of Israel’s 7 million citizens have been touched in some very tangible way by the daily hazards, the intifadas, and the state’s wars in 1947-49, 1956, 1967, 1969-70, 1973, 1982, and 2006 that have taken the lives of soldiers, young and old. Memorial Day in the United States is sadly observed for the most part only by those who have been personally touched by war; in Israel the same is true but for that everyone has been touched. Immediately after a painful day remembering family and friends, Israelis turn out in remarkable numbers to celebrate their independence with staggering zeal. The most symbolic moment embodying Israel’s ups and downs occurs at the cusp of sunset when Yom HaZikaron ends and Yom Ha’atzmout begins. Just as is done on memorial days in other countries, Israel’s flags are lowered on Yom HaZikaron. But in a scene unlike anything I have ever seen elsewhere, the transition from Yom HaZikaron to Yom Ha’atzmout—from sad remembrance to exuberant celebration—is marked by the raising of the flag back to full-mast.I spent Yom HaZikaron on campus listening to teachers tell stories of family and friends who fell defending the Jewish state and watching an Israeli soldier, formerly a student at the ulpan when making aliyah, lowering the flag to half-mast. As on Yom HaShoah, the sirens sounded across the country for two deafening minutes of tearful reflection by millions and millions of Israelis dressed in all white. A visit to the military cemetery on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem revealed the graves of soldiers who had fallen since the fight for the state began including those who died during last summer’s war with Hezbollah and a soldier who died only three weeks ago. We attended an evening ceremony at Netanya’s city memorial which, like those in cities across Israel, catalogues the history of those born in Netanya who later fell in combat. Uniformed soldiers turned out in full force to say kaddish and sing HaTikvah. After watching the powerful national ceremony during which the flag was brought back up to its top, proud height, I went to the main square in Netanya—appropriately named Ha’atzmout Square—and celebrated with thousands of Israelis signing and dancing to live music. The crowd wiped away the tears from the day’s earlier mourning and cheered as the musicians on stage wished Chag Sameach L’Kulam (“Happy Holiday to Everyone”). Little kids ran around spraying shaving cream on each other and unsuspecting passersby. There was even a live orthodox band with dancing areas separated by sex. Flags waved, including at least a few portraying various interesting political views such as those of the settlers, and the expressions of those dancing easily conveyed an incredibly emotional sense of rejoice in the existence of the state. Afterwards I went with friends to a private party at which young Israelis ate falafel and danced deep into the night to thumping music; I left before the party even started to slow down.Israel will always be a nation with extreme optimism and pessimism, deep celebration and mourning. The concept of the Jewish state itself makes this a certainty: the state is a sad necessity based on the reality of anti-Semitism and Holocaust, and a dream realized after centuries and centuries in Diaspora. It is a state where wars have ended and where there will be more. It is a state where two intifadas have come and gone and yet where more will no doubt arrive. It is a state that finally provides a safe haven for Jews but yet where conflict still threatens. And it is a state where every ceremony—remembering the bad and celebrating the good—ends with a song called HaTikvah: The Hope.(See the Introduction here and Part #1 here.)