Religious and secular start to view Holocaust through same lens

By Nathan Jeffay, January 27, 2011
Rabbis examine a burial site containing bones of Nazi victims in Ukraine

Rabbis examine a burial site containing bones of Nazi victims in Ukraine

Israel's Charedi community is embarking on a massive project to document the Holocaust-era experiences of its members.

Ginzach Kidush Hashem, Israel's largest Orthodox Holocaust commemoration organisation, is urging the Charedi public to provide it with contact details for survivors so that its staff and volunteers can get in touch and document their stories.

This campaign, which mimics
survivor testimony projects run
by Yad Vashem since its inception,
underscores how much the Charedi community's attitudes towards Holocaust commemoration have changed in the past 15 years.

It used to be that when it came to Holocaust commemoration, Israel's secular and Charedi populations differed in virtually every respect.

On the issue of when one should commemorate, the secular remembered the Holocaust on Yom HaShoah in the spring; Charedim on the Fast of Av in the summer.

Charedim did not agree with the Yad Vashem narrative

They also differed on the lessons to be learnt. For the secular, the Shoah meant that Jews were weak and vulnerable in the diaspora need to be strong and independent in Israel. For Charedim, it meant that religious life needed to be rebuilt, mimicking what existed before, wherever Jews find themselves.

On the issue of the place for commemoration, the secular focused on Yad Vashem. Charedim, however, turned to anywhere but there. From the moment it opened in 1953, Charedi Jews accused it of telling the Holocaust story from a secular-Zionist viewpoint, that it contrasted the weak religious Jews of the diaspora with the strong secular Jews of Israel, and tried to convince visitors that the Holocaust was the ultimate vindication of Zionism, a movement they oppose.

But the narrative of Yad Vashem was not the only thing that kept Charedim away. The Charedi community has generally shown little interest in history as defined in Western thought, concentrating solely on the Biblical and Talmudic past. But the idea of recording events and facts for the sake of keeping record, as done by Yad Vashem's researchers, was alien.

In recent years, there has been a meeting in the middle. Secular and Charedim still commemorate on different days and relate to the Holocaust differently. But as Israel has become less ideological, Yad Vashem has toned down its secular-Zionist dogmatics and begun to explore Charedi attitudes through exhibitions and publications. Charedim have started to visit, and even sit on the board.

For Charedim, exposure to the commemoration efforts of the secular majority have made them seem less threatening. Internal factors also made them more open to new developments in Holocaust commemoration. After the Holocaust the community was set on building numbers and institutions to recreate some of what was lost; any diversion from this sacred task was seen as an unworthy distraction. Today, the community is strong and self-confident, and feels it can afford to try some practices it has learned from the secular without fear of losing its identity.

Last updated: 11:25am, January 27 2011