April 7-8 marks Yom Hashoah or Holocaust Memorial Day in Israel. Yom Hashoah was established in Israel in 1953 by David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first Prime Minister, as a day to commemorate the six million Jews who were murdered in the Holocaust. According to the U.S. Holocaust Museum, the American Jewish Yearbook placed the total Jewish population of Europe at about 9.5 million in 1933. This number represented more than 60 percent of the world’s Jewish population, which was estimated at 15.3 million. Most European Jews resided in eastern Europe, with about 5 1/2 million Jews living in Poland and the Soviet Union. Before the Nazi takeover of power in 1933, Europe had a dynamic and highly developed Jewish culture. In little more than a decade, most of Europe would be conquered, occupied, or annexed by Nazi Germany and most European Jews–two out of every three–would be dead. A large segment Israel’s population are the survivors of the Holocaust or children of survivors.
Yom Hashoah is a solemn day in Israel which is inaugurated the evening before the actual day, since the Jewish calendar follows the moon rather than the sun. Yom Hashoah begins with a special ceremony at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, where the Israeli flag is lowered to half-mast, the Prime Minister gives a speech, and Holocaust survivors light torches symbolizing the six million Jews who were murdered in the Holocaust. Yad Vashem is Israel’s national Holocaust Museum and a common destination for foreign visitors upon arrival in Israel. It is one of the most comprehensive Holocaust museums in the entire world.
On the eve of Yom Hashoah, places of entertainment, such as theaters, pubs, and cinemas, are shut down. Additionally, throughout Yom Hashoah, documentaries and films about the Holocaust are shown on Israeli television. Sad solemn songs are usually plaid on the radio. One won’t hear people blasting lively music on this day in Israel. The news media will also discuss the Holocaust and remind readers and viewers of that dark chapter in Jewish history.
At 10am the following morning, sirens are heard throughout Israel for two minutes. Israelis every where stop what they are doing and stand up out of respect. It does not matter if one is driving ones car, taking a train or bus, walking to the grocery store, working, studying, sleeping, etc. Every one drops what they are doing in order to commemorate the six million Jews who were murdered in the Holocaust within Israel and show their respect to the Holocaust victims and survivors.
After that, ceremonies are usually held at schools, military bases, and by various organizations within Israel. Ben-Gurion University, for example, usually invites a Holocaust survivor to come in and speak in front of the students, as the studying ceases for about an hour to remember the fate of the six million Jews who were murdered in the Holocaust. The President of Ben-Gurion University, Rivka Carmi, also usually speaks on this occasion and students who are descended from Holocaust survivors are called up to light torches. Poetry related to the Holocaust is also recited and the ceremony concludes with the singing of Hatikva, Israel’s national anthem. Other ceremonies held throughout the country are quite similar to that at Ben-Gurion University. Indeed, it is a powerful experience to commemorate Yom Ha-Shoah within the Holy Land.
To view a video of the Holocaust Memorial Day siren in Israel, see below!