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Jewish Social Studies 6.2 (2000) 24-55

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The Strength of Remembrance: Commemorating the Holocaust During the First Decade of Israel

Dalia Ofer

Even more than 50 years after the founding of the State of Israel, it is evident that the Holocaust refuses to fade at all. Israeli newspapers and radio stations contemplate the fate of the Jews during the Holocaust almost daily. For example, some headlines that appeared in late 1999 and early 2000 were: "Holocaust Survivors Are Waiting (to Get the Money Israel Received from the Swiss Banks)"; "This Is How Germany's Children Are Told About the Holocaust"; "How Should We React to the Rise of the Extreme Right in Europe?"; "76% of Young French and 65% of German Teenagers Do Not Know About the Holocaust"; "In Germany Today Moral Indifference to Forced Labor During the Nazi Era"; "There Was a Genocide"; and "He Will Not Become a Saint in the Year 2000: Pius the 12th and the Holocaust." On January 26-28, 2000, the Stockholm International Forum on the Holocaust convened a conference on Education, Remembrance, and Research. It was the initiative of the Swedish prime minister Göran Persson and received extensive radio and television coverage. Heads of state who participated in the conference stressed the importance of Holocaust education in view of renewed ethnic tension in Europe and the rise of the extreme right. Conference leaders called for the establishment of a universal memorial day for the victims of the Holocaust and Nazi persecuted.

Diaries from the Holocaust and memoirs written many years afterward are still being published and generating much excitement. In the field of historical research, Daniel Goldhagen's book Hitler's Willing Executioners (1996) 1 has caused wide public discussion and, whereas the [End Page 24] public enthusiastically received the book, most professional historians sharply criticized it.

Discussion in the media, as well as interviews with Holocaust survivors who tell their personal stories, often follow such events. Israeli schools organize trips to Poland for teenagers and prepare a variety of educational programs on the Holocaust. In the domain of culture, one can point to plays, films, and numerous books in which the Holocaust is portrayed in diverse ways. Steven Spielberg's film Schindler's List and Roberto Benigni's Life Is Beautiful caused great sensations, and the number of documentary films and oral history interviews is growing steadily.

Such a turn of events would have been considered inconceivable, it is often asserted, during the first decade of the State of Israel. The current centrality of the Holocaust in contemporary Israeli discourse creates the impression that, during the first years of the state, the Holocaust was ignored and there was a lack of public interest in the processing of this difficult memory. 2

I would like to take issue with this opinion and maintain that the Holocaust and its meaning did capture the attention of Israelis--including the political leadership and the intellectual elite. From the end of World War II, the Holocaust was a major topic in the discourse of the Yishuv and Israel, revealing both mourning and the difficulty of comprehending its devastation. Discussion concerning the (proper) commemoration of the Holocaust displayed its significance in the minds of individuals and leaders. It also revealed the contention between religious and nonreligious, between survivors such as ghetto fighters and partisans, as well as between political leaders from the right and the left over the issues of how to remember the Holocaust and who should be responsible for shaping its memory. Yizkor books and Pinkas Kehilot(community records) appeared in Hebrew and Yiddish, prepared with the financial support of members of survivors' organizations. People gave testimony and donated photographs and various documents to be included in these books, which became a source of pride and longing.

Patterns of commemoration were shaped both by individuals and by the public as a whole. Well before the Eichmann Trial (1961-62)--generally considered a milestone in the changing Israeli attitude--the Holocaust emerged as a moral yardstick in the self-understanding of...


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