What is Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) and how is it commemorated?

Yom HaShoah is the Jewish memorial day for the Shoah, commemorated by Jewish communities worldwide.
(Photo: Noam Chen via Flickr)

Yom HaShoah Ve-Hagevurah (Remembrance Day of the Holocaust and Heroism) is the Jewish memorial day for the Shoah (which is the Hebrew word for “catastrophe,” referring to the Holocaust). It is marked on the 27th of the Hebrew month of Nisan, a week before Yom Hazikaron (Israel’s memorial day for fallen soldiers and victims of terrorism).

In 2023, Yom Hashoah begins the evening of Monday, April 17 and ends in the evening of Tuesday, April 18.

How is Yom Hashoah commemorated?

The day is commemorated across the Jewish world with services, ceremonies, educational programs, testimonials from survivors and with the lighting of yahrzeit (memorial) candles. In Israel, TV and radio stations air Holocaust programming, and the entire country comes to a standstill as a nationwide siren blares:

The organization Our 6 Million (Shem Vener) started a custom of lighting a personal memorial candle in memory of one of the 6 million who perished. You choose who to remember — a relative, a hero or a person by chance — and reflect on and discuss the life of the person you are remembering.

Why was the 27th of Nisan chosen as the date?

The date for Yom Hashoah was chosen based on the start of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, due to the fact that it represented resistance, strength and heroism.

The uprising actually began on the 15th of Nisan, the first day of Passover — Rabbi Shlomo Brody notes that “27 Nisan was chosen as a date comfortably between the end of the holiday [Passover] and Israel Independence Day (5 Iyar).”

Many religious leaders, including the founding father of Israeli haredim, Rabbi Avraham Karelitz (known as the Chazon Ish), were firmly against Yom Hashoah being held during the month of Nisan since it is a month of happiness, and it is forbidden according to Jewish law (halakha) to disrupt the joy of the month with public mourning.

Originally, in 1951, the Israeli government declared the 27th of Nisan as “Holocaust and Ghetto Uprising Day.” But it was not until 1959 that commemoration of the Holocaust started to become more widespread, and the day was renamed “Holocaust and Heroism Day,” or “Yom HaShoah ve-Hagevurah.

What is the difference between Yom HaShoah and International Holocaust Remembrance Day?

International Holocaust Remembrance Day has been commemorated annually on January 27th since it was instituted by the U.N. in 2005. The day is intended to be an international memorial day, on which countries around the world are urged to teach the lessons of the Shoah to young people in order to prevent future acts of genocide. 

Meanwhile, Yom Hashoah is the Jewish memorial day for the Shoah, commemorated by Jewish communities worldwide.

Israel’s early struggles with the Holocaust

In the early days of the new State of Israel, it wasn’t easy for Israeli Holocaust survivors to speak about their experiences. To many Israelis, hearing about the suffering faced in the Diaspora represented the concept of the “old Jew” and not the “new Jew,” which represented strength and heroism.

In Israel, after the war, many survivors did not speak about their experiences — even with close family and friends — because people simply didn’t believe them. Controversial Israeli historian Tom Segev and many others write that it wasn’t until 1960, when Adolf Eichmann was brought to trial in Israel, that the taboo around the Shoah ended and survivors began to tell their stories. 

Due largely to the Eichmann trial, the Shoah went from an abstract issue to an essential aspect of the historical, cultural, and educational discourse of the Jewish state. Today, thousands of Israeli high school students from all over the country travel to Poland to visit the camps and ghettos each year, and the Shoah is an integral part of Israeli (and Jewish) identity.

In 2022, Israel’s Education Ministry announced it was canceling the high school trips because of the Polish government’s interference in the program’s content. In March 2023, the Israeli and Polish governments signed an agreement to resume the trips (read about the ongoing conflict between the two countries over narratives of the Holocaust here).

Diversity of perspectives: When should the Holocaust be commemorated?

Before Yom Hashoah was established, there was fierce debate within the Jewish community about how and when the Shoah should be memorialized. One of the major questions was if the Shoah was a separate and distinct tragedy within Jewish history, or if it should be subsumed under the many atrocities that the Jewish people have faced.

In fact, when Menachem Begin became Prime Minister in 1977, he attempted to abolish Yom Hashoah, preferring to commemorate the Shoah on the fast day of Tisha B’Av. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein and Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik also endorsed this idea.

Tisha B’Av is considered the saddest day in the Jewish calendar, the day on which the destruction of both holy temples and many other atrocities in Jewish history took place and are remembered.

Soloveitchik preferred Tisha B’Av for Holocaust commemoration because “the scenes described and the words of despair, mourning, and grief are the same.”

However, Rabbi Soloveitchik’s son-in-law, Rabbi Aaron Lichtenstein, preferred to keep the day of Yom Hashoah on the 27th of Nisan for “pragmatic reasons,” as students were in school then, as opposed to Tisha B’Av which occurs in the summer.

Some religious leaders even suggested that the Shoah be commemorated on the fast day of Asara B’Tevet (the 10th of Tevet). The idea was to incorporate this new atrocity into Jewish tradition without needing to disrupt any preexisting halakha. Since Asara B’Tevet was thought of as the least-honored fast day, combining the two would accomplish both goals at once. The Shoah would have a special place in the calendar, and more Jews would observe the fast day.

Rabbi Shlomo Brody notes that the 10th of Tevet was chosen as the day to “recite kaddish for loved ones killed on unknown dates,” and the Israeli Chief Rabbinate has designated it as a general Day of Kaddish.

Learn about the Holocaust on Yom HaShoah

Our “Faces of the Holocaust” video series provides a groundbreaking approach that adds a human context to the quintessential crime against humanity.

Beyond names and numbers, and transcending the sheer enormity of the horror, this Holocaust series introduces viewers to the four main human paradigms of the period: the victim, perpetrator, upstander and bystander. Watch the “Faces of the Holocaust” series.

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