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What was the Holocaust?

Today we mark the Israeli national day we remember the Holocaust, or Shoah in Hebrew, which unfolded in during World War II (WWII). In Hebrew, it is called Yom HaShoah. It is commemorated on the 27th of the Hebrew month of Nissan. Due to Israel’s observance of the Sabbath, it is push back or forward to avoid it falling on Shabbat, or the Jewish day of rest. It is an important day within Israel society. What was the Holocaust?

While WWII was fought from 1939 to 1945, abuses against European Jews began as early as 1933. It began as a stripping of Jewish citizens’ rights, such as going to schools with non-Jews, and ended with labor, concentration, and death camps.

By 1945, six million Jews were killed in the Shoah. More Jewish refugees would die in the time to follow for lack of nutrition, mental depression, and more.

As a Jewish state, as a Jewish people, we must remember that dark part of our history, just as much as we must remember the happy chapters of our long and beautiful history. Once a year we dedicate a day to remembering what was the holocaust, to trying to make sense of it all, and to honor the victims of such horrible crimes.

Why do Israelis, and many Jews, call the Holocaust the Shoah?

The word holocaust is a Greek word for ‘a sacrifice consumed by fire.’ During the years of 1939 to 1945, while Jews, and others, were burned, there was no sacrifice of any human being. It served no higher purpose.

The word shoah is the Hebrew word, meaning “catastrophe.” That is what happened during World War II. It was a complete catastrophe. As Israelis do not believe Jews were a sacrifice, they find the word shoah much more appropriate.

Childrens-Memorial What was the Holocaust?
Yaush Korchak and Children’s Memorial (צילום:דר אבישי טייכר. מתוך אתר פיקיוויקי).

What happens on Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day)?

On Yom HaShoah, there are events throughout the country commemorating the Shoah. Yom HaShoah is Hebrew for Remembrance Day of the Holocaust. The day was inaugurated in 1953, and is anchored in law signed by Prime Minister David Ben Gurion, and President Yitzhak Ben- Zvi.

Yom HaShoah is held on the 27th of the Hebrew month of Nissan.

Commemorations begin the night before with a national memorial at the Warsaw Ghetto Square at Yad Vashem, the Israel Holocaust Museum and Memorial.

The flag is lowered to half-mast, the President and the Prime Minister deliver speeches and thoughts reflecting on the Shoah. Holocaust survivors light six torches symbolizing the six million Jews who perished in the Shoah. Both the Ashkenazi and Sephardic Chief Rabbis concluded the ceremonies with prayers.

During the day, places of entertainment closed down, schools, military bases, and other community centers hold memorials. The memorials address the question, what was the Holocaust? Television channels air Shoah- related documentaries, and interviews. Radios broadcast low- key songs.

At 10:00 a siren is sounded throughout Israel. Israelis stop everything they are doing to stand in silent reflection for the two minutes of the siren.

Yom HaShoah outside of mainstream Israel and around the world

Reform and Conservative Jewish communities around the world on Yom HaShoah included specific prayers on the day while Orthodox community say special psalms throughout the day.

Synagogues, community centers, and other institutions hold commemorations, as well.

However, some Orthodox communities, even in Israel, do not observe Yom HaShoah. They don’t observe Yom HaShoah based on the belief that

  • The 10th of the Hebrew month of Tevet as the national Remembrance Day for all tragedies in Jewish history, including the Shoah.
  • And, the mourning cannot occur in the month of Nissan.
  • Haredi Rabbi Avraham Yeshayeh Karelitz said that we cannot institute new days of mourning for future generations.


While many Modern Orthodox Jews in Israel do commemorate Yom HaShoah, most ultra- Orthodox Jews do not. Stores in Haredi neighborhoods throughout Israel are open, while Haredi schools operate as usual.

But it is important to remember that they commemorate and honor the Holocaust victims, they just commemorate on a different day.

hall_of_names_in_yad_vashem What was the Holocaust?
Yad Vashem Hall of Names. (צילום:דר אבישי טייכר. מתוך אתר פיקיוויקי).

How does the Shoah and Yom HaShoah fit into Israeli consciousness?

The Shoah holds a very specific role in Israel consciousness. For a long time, Israelis felt that they must prove the Jewish stereotype wrong. Israelis wanted to prove that Jews could be strong, active, tanned, not the weak, passive Jews.

And so confronting what the Shoah meant for the Jewish nation was difficult. Israel inaugurated Yom HaShoah as an act to ‘Never Forget.’ Israelis cannot forget what had happened to Jews across Europe.

Therefore, this affected how Yad Vashem, Israel’s National Holocaust Museum. There was a strong focus on Jewish heroism during the war. Yom HaShoah is also called the National Remembrance of the Holocaust and Heroism.

In the end, it took into the 1980’s and 1990’s for Israel as a society to understand the ‘strong Israeli’ no longer proved the stereotype wrong; that Diaspora Jews were not necessarily weak, and passive. Not every Israeli needs to be tan, strong, and active.

Now the Shoah has a different part of the Israeli consciousness. Israelis understand that heroism doesn’t have just one standard kind. Surviving was a kind of heroism; celebrating Shabbat in a concentration camp was a kind of heroism.

With that kind of understanding, Yad Vashem was reformatted. As a result, today we see the Yad Vashem remembering all aspects of the War and the Shoah.

Some sites you will see in tours with Samantha Israel Tours

First of all, we must see Yad Vashem. Yad Vashem is Israel’s National Holocaust Museum and Memorial. Consequently we can visit:

  • There is a museum that chronologies the history of the Shoah. It explains how things happened and unfolded.
  • Then there is a forest remembering the Righteous Gentiles who saved thousands of Jews during World War II.
  • After a Children’s Memorial remembers the 1.5 million Jewish children killed in the shoah.
  • The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising Memorial remembering the uprising led by Mordechai Anielewicz.
  • In addition, there are many more memorials we can see during our visit at Yad Vashem. They address the question “what was the Holocaust?” for many different groups of people.
Scrolls-of-Fire What was the Holocaust?
Scrolls of Fire Monument. (אלה פאוסט . מתוך אתר פיקיוויקי).

Nathan Rapoport sculpted and inaugurated The Scrolls of Fire in 1971. It depicts Jewish history from the Shoah to the independence of the State of Israel. Therefore, we learn a lot from such a piece of art.

Members of the Kibbutz built Yad Mordecha in southern Israel, in order to remember Mordechai Anielewicz, leader of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. We will visit of the memorial remembering Mordechai Anielewicz and his uprising, as well as the museum located on the kibbutz.

Lastly, we will visit the Ghetto Fighters’ House Museum. The Ghetto Fighters’ House Museum remembers Jews who actively fought during World War II. What was the Holocaust for fighters in the Ghetto? Probably something a little different than many of us know.

In conclusion…

  • One point I would like readers to remember: many Israelis will wear white on this day like on Israeli Memorial Day and Israeli Independence Day the following week. Remember that these days are close together. I will address it in future blogs.

Finally, today we say “Never Again” quite often. But, what does that mean? Massacres are occurring around the world from Sudan and Eritrea to Syria and Iraq to Tibet. What are we doing to stop those massacres? We must all sit with ourselves and decide what “never again” means to us; what we will to ensure that something like the Shoah never happens again.

For ideas on how to make sure something like the shoah never happens again, comment below. In conclusion, how do you answer the question, “What was the Holocaust?”


Furthermore contact Samantha to plan a journey to witness how Israel remembers the Holocaust.





Samantha Ben Avraham
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Samantha is a private tour guide in Israel. Her passion is to bring Israel to you on a personal and interesting level. From guiding University groups to Birthright trips to private family tours, Samantha brings Israel to you!

Samantha Ben Avraham
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