Last week's Yom HaShoah observances in Los Angeles demonstrated that as new generations of Jews mark the day with no personal memories of the Holocaust, themes and practices evolve to ensure that 6 million Jews are not forgotten.
The focus of the Yom HaShoah commemorations remains, while it is still possible, on the testimony of survivors.
Highlighting the April 18 "From Darkness to Light" community event at Congregation Beth Jacob was the keynote speech of retired U.S. Army Major General Sidney Shachnow, a survivor from Lithuania.
Shachnow recalled friends and family murdered "the old-fashioned way," shot into a mass grave in the Kovno ghetto. A true hero, Shachnow survived the Nazi destruction of his hometown to serve in the U.S. military -- in an ironic twist, defending Germany against his liberators, the Soviets. As commander of U.S. forces in Berlin, he became a symbol of Jewish survival, with headquarters in a building formerly occupied by Hermann Goering.
The symbolism and ritual that are so necessary for carrying meaning beyond experience came to the forefront in the evening's solemn candlelighting ceremony. Upon the lighting of each of six candles symbolizing the 6 million, the audience responded with "We shall never forget. Zachor." Each candle was said to stand for a group involved in the Shoah, from the infants killed in the camps to the heroes of the resistance and the survivors.
The high school students who participated in the Jay Shalmoni Memorial Holocaust Arts and Writing contest, who had each interviewed a survivor, were invited to light another six candles in a symbolic passing of the torch of memory.
The next day at Wilshire Boulevard Temple, the focus was again on continuing memory. Students from across Los Angeles arrived in busloads to hear and to tell, in poems, songs and sketches, the stories of children like themselves, of some who survived the Holocaust and of many who did not. In telling these stories, modern, American high school students, both Jewish and non-Jewish, took on the personae of those suffering under the Nazis. The feeling of a haggadah reading was inescapable, a "When we were in Europe" appropriated memory of the sort that has made Passover so powerful.
At Sinai Temple on April 22, the memory of the Holocaust was very clearly not just a Jewish priority. Political figures, including Gov. Gray Davis; mayoral candidates James Hahn and Antonio Villaraigosa; Consul General Pieter Launsky-Tieffenthal of Austria and the consuls general of Poland, Lithuania, Estonia and the Czech Republic joined Jewish Angelenos in paying homage to martyrs and survivors.
In impassioned musical performances and speeches, the focus of the Yom HaShoah V'HaGevurah event was on geulah (redemption). Peter Z. Malkin, the man who captured Adolf Eichmann, emphasized this redemption as he spoke of bringing Eichmann to justice, not revenge. As Rabbi Steven Z. Leder of Wilshire Boulevard Temple proclaimed, "Rage is not our way forever." Noting that his grandchildren would be as far removed from the Shoah as we are today from the Civil War, Leder spoke of memory as redemption. "We must turn this darkness forever into light."
In the end, these commemorations make clear that Yom HaShoah as a holiday is not another Passover, for the simple reason that this time we were not spared. Yet the urgent need to remember and pass the story from generation to generation remains the same. When the survivors of the Shoah, with their firsthand accounts, pass on, new generations will carry their stories and the stories of the 6 million dead through the ages, as Jews have always done. As this year's commemorations proved, the generations born after the Holocaust, from middle-school students to the children of survivors, already have begun to internalize those stories.