Candles are burning in the homes of Rabbi Bruce Kadden’s congregation today, in honor of those killed in the Holocaust. Kadden said members lit the candles Sunday night in honor of the Jewish remembrance day for the genocide, called Yom Hashoah, and will burn them for 24 hours as part of the annual observance.
Kadden, the rabbi at Temple Beth El in Tacoma for almost 10 years, helped develop the Holocaust and genocide studies minor that was offered at Pacific Lutheran University starting last fall. He’s traveled to see the sites of several concentration camps where millions of people were killed under the Nazi regime in 1930s and 1940s Europe.
He explained the significance of Yom Hashoah and how it was observed Sunday at the Tacoma temple.
Q: What is Yom Hashoah?
A: Yom Hashoah is the day set aside in the Jewish calendar for reflecting on the Holocaust, particularly for remembering those who were murdered and to appropriately honor their memory. We do that by having a service where we traditionally will light six memorial candles (in addition to the candles members burn in their homes), each candle representing one of the 6 million Jews who were murdered, and also join together in various prayers, some appropriate songs, opportunity for reflection. In addition, we usually do some type of education program about the Holocaust.
Q: What’s the history of the observance?
A: A number of years after the war, there was recognition that it was important to set aside a day to remember those who died during the Holocaust. There was a lot of debate and discussion about when that should be. For a variety of reasons some wanted to connect it to the Warsaw ghetto uprising, which is one of the times when the Jewish community showed significant resistance against the Nazis. But part of that time period was during the holiday of Passover, and it felt inappropriate to conflict with another holiday. It ended up being part of that time period, but between the end of Passover and Israel Independence Day, which is a week later. It’s usually sometime in April each year.
People want to try to holistically remember what happened, not just the fact that 6 million Jews were murdered. In that regard, each year we focus on something different educationally.
Q: You’ve visited the sites of concentration camps during recent travels to Europe?
A: My wife and I spent a few months in Poland when I had a sabbatical in 2012. We were able to visit a number of important Jewish sites — remnants of the Warsaw ghetto and the memorials that have been created to remember that, as well as Auschwitz. Majdanek, which was a concentration camp in the city of Lublin. Terezin, which is near Prague.
Q: What should people who haven’t visited those places know?
A: It’s pretty overwhelming. Each site is unique in terms of how it’s laid out. Even in terms of Auschwitz, where there are basically two main separate camps, the first one has really been turned into a museum to show what happened there. Whereas the second camp has pretty much been left as it was at the end of the war. Where a lot of the buildings were burned down. You can walk through it.
Q: Are there prayers and songs that are part of the Yom Hashoah service each year?
A: There’s a memorial prayer that is commonly recited for those who have passed away, and there’s a version that has been adapted for Yom Hashoah that we do almost every year. There is a song called “Ani Ma’amin,” which means “I Believe,” which was a mantra sometimes recited by Jews, really on their way to the gas chambers as an affirmation of their belief, despite what was happening. This year, (we did) a song called “The Last Butterfly,” based on a poem that was written in one of the camps, (published as part of an anthology) called “I Never Saw Another Butterfly.”
Q: Holocaust Remembrance Day this year coincides with Pope John Paul II being recognized as a saint. Do you find that significant?
A: Being in Poland, another thing we really learned is just how venerated John Paul is in that country. He did play an important role in assuring that the Catholic Church did continue to address the Holocaust. It is, I think, meaningful that that’s being done at this particular time.
Q: Why is the observance of Yom Hashoah important?
A: It’s becoming, as time goes on, there are fewer survivors to tell the story of their experience. To remember, to learn about what happened. To remind ourselves that human beings are capable of great evil, and that we are responsible for preventing that from happening.
Alexis Krell: 253-597-8268