Warsaw Ghetto uprising or Auschwitz liberation, which day to choose?

There are two days to memorialize the Holocaust, representing two fundamentally different world-views.

Daniel Pinner

Judaism עצרת יום השואה ביד ושם
עצרת יום השואה ביד ושם

Back in 1951, when the Holocaust was still a horribly fresh memory from the immediate past which the majority of Israel’s population had personally experienced, the Knesset decided on 27 Nisan as the date to commemorate the Holocaust.

This day has twin significance: first, this was the date of one of the fiercest battles of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising – the battle of 2nd May 1942, commanded by Marek Edelman, the commander of the bunker at Franciszkanska 30. Second, it is a week before the Memorial Day for fallen Israeli soldiers, which is itself the day before Israel Independence Day.

For decades, this was the only day set aside to commemorate the Holocaust.

And then, in November 2005, the United Nations General Assembly adopted Resolution A/RES/60/7, designating 27 January as the annual International Day of Commemoration in memory of the victims of the Holocaust (www.un.org/en/holocaustremembrance/docs/res607.shtml).

The UNGA website (www.un.org/en/holocaustremembrance/index.shtml) explains that 27 January was chosen because it is “the anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp”.

The Resolution “reaffirm[s] that the Holocaust, which resulted in the murder of one third of the Jewish people, along with countless members of other minorities, will forever be a warning to all people of the dangers of hatred, bigotry, racism and prejudice”.

Today Israel is saturated with ceremonies, memorials, testimonies, documentaries, and interviews commemorating the Holocaust. (The memorial day has been postponed for a day in order to avoid clashing with Shabbat.) The rest of the world will commemorate the Holocaust on the 27th of January.
And so, two days to memorialize the Holocaust, representing two fundamentally different world-views. The UN marks 27 January, commemorating the day that Auschwitz was liberated; and Israel marks 27 Nisan (this year postponed to 28 Nissan), commemorating the Warsaw Ghetto uprising and (indirectly) connecting to Israeli independence.

While secular humanism has long since replaced Christian theology as the dominant ideology of Western society, the teachings and culture of two millennia of Christianity still have enormous influence over Western relationship to Jews. And since Western civilisation is the dominant force among the intelligentsia (even if not among the masses) in much of the world, the UN Resolution is indicative of the way in which Christian (or post-Christian) civilisation relates to Jews.

Christian (or post-Christian) civilisation chose the day that Auschwitz was liberated, reflecting this Christian (and post-Christian) attitude to Jews. Because Christianity has its paradigm of the “perfect Jew”, arguably the most famous Jew in history, the Jew whom most Europeans for most of Europe’s history have worshipped.

The “perfect Jew” in Christian (and post-Christian) theology is the Jew who walks calmly and unresistingly to his own death; the Jew who is pre-destined to be crucified (or shot, or gassed), because that is his mission in life; the Jew who, by his death, expiates the sins of mankind.

In Christian (and post-Christian) theology, the perfect Jew is the Jew who, as the Roman executioners nail him to the cross, raises his eyes in mute prayer: “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do”. The perfect Jew is the one who, in his death-agony, declaims: “My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?”

What the perfect Jew must never do is raise a sword (or a gun) and fight back. The fighting Jew is definitely not in the script of Christian (and post-Christian) theology.

The perfect Jew is the one who raises his hands in meek surrender. The Jew in the Warsaw Ghetto who raised a knife, a pistol, a rifle, a hand-grenade, who fought the Nazis, who killed the murderers, is an aberration for Christian (and post-Christian) theology.

So Christian (and post-Christian) civilisation cannot memorialise the Jew who fights, cannot honour the memory of the Jews who died fighting in the Warsaw Ghetto.

The Jewish State and Jewish communities the world over commemorate the Holocaust as a time when Jews were murdered, but also as a time when Jews fought back, killed their oppressors and died with weapons in their hands.

Christian (and post-Christian) civilization memorialises Jews who died passively in the gas chambers and were shot in mass graves, unresisting and unprotesting, and whose sole salvation lay in the Gentile armies which defeated the Nazis – epitomised by the Red Army which rolled into Auschwitz on 27 January 1945. The deaths of those Jews – the “good” Jews, even the “perfect” Jews – “will forever be a warning to all people of the dangers of hatred, bigotry, racism and prejudice”, and thereby expiate the sins of humanity.

Just as a Jew, crucified by the Romans as a Jew, was taken over by Christianity for universal salvation, so too the Holocaust directed primarily against the Jews has been taken over by Western civilisation as a universal “warning to all people of the dangers of hatred, bigotry, racism and prejudice”.

And this applies, mutatis mutandis, to the Jewish state – the only state in the world which is expected to risk its citizens’ lives, indeed its very existence, for the sake of peace. Israel is expected to play the rôle of the perfect Jew: to go calmly and unresistingly to its own death, and thus to appease its enemies – to die in order to expiate the sins of mankind.

And without a doubt, if Israel were to be destroyed, it would assuage the conscience of Christian (and post-Christian) civilisation. The annihilation of Israel, and the resultant massacre of its six million-plus Jewish citizens, would at last vindicate Christian (and post-Christian) civilisation: Look, we are not unique in slaughtering Jews! It’s a normal part of the universal human condition!

And Israel, by juxtaposing Holocaust Memorial Day with the Memorial Day for fallen Israeli soldiers and Israel Independence Day, responds inexorably: “That which arises in your thoughts – it will never happen!” (Ezekiel 20:32).

The resurrected State of Israel, which after 2,000 years of Jewish homelessness and physical weakness and vulnerability has become a world-class super-power within a generation of independence, is the single greatest challenge to the Christian (and post-Christian) civilisation’s idealised view of the perfect Jew.