Last year, at the Yom Ha’Atzma’ut ceremony on Mount Herzl, Dalia Yitzhik, the then speaker of the Knesset, lit the first of 12 torches symbolizing the 12 tribes of Israel. The 60th-anniversary ceremony commemorated the contribution of children in the establishment and building of the State of Israel. Yitzhik highlighted in particular the actions and contributions of Nissim Ginny (z”l), a symbol of 1948 and at 10 years old the youngest Israeli soldier to die defending the State.
Since the establishment of the State of Israel, Israeli society has struggled with the correct days and ways to commemorate the Jews murdered in the Holocaust and the soldiers who fell defending Israel. Every year since 1951, Israel – and almost the whole Jewish world – has during just one week commemorated the victims of the Shoah, Israel’s fallen soldiers and its victims of terror, and the state’s independence.
What is the rationale behind placing these three national Jewish days of commemoration and celebration so close together?
Holocaust Remembrance Day is one week before Yom HaZicharon (Israel’s Fallen Soldiers and Victims of Terrorism Remembrance Day) paralleling the week of mourning – shiva. For seven days mourners sit in their house and are paid respects and enveloped by friends and family. The State of Israel established the same ritual for Israeli society and the Jewish people. We are also enveloped by a week of mourning and remembrance.
The placement of this week of remembrance before Yom Ha’Atzma’ut (Israel Independence Day) on the fifth of Iyar is intentional. It is claimed that the victims of the Holocaust and the soldiers who gave their lives for the new homeland were directly responsible for the existence of Israel as an independent state. In this way, solemn commemoration can be followed by joyous celebration and song. The transition from a week of seriousness and sobriety, culminating in Yom HaZicharon, to the happiness and celebration of Israel’s sovereignty is problematic for the Israeli people. A day of sadness ends with the ceremony marking Yom Ha’Atzma’ut and another year of the Jewish people’s independence in Zion.
Each day of memorial and celebration has developed its own character and symbolism. Yom HaZicharon laShoah ve-laGvura (“Remembrance Day for the Holocaust and Heroism”), on the 27th of Nissan is observed as a day of remembrance for the 6 million Jews who perished in the wikipedia.org/wiki/Holocaust. In Israel, it is a national memorial day. The day immortalizes the Jews murdered at the hands of the Nazis, but also commemorates the heroic Warsaw Ghetto uprising of 1943. The actual date proposed for Yom HaShoah was 14th of Nissan – the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising on April 19. 1943. This Hebrew day is the eve of Passover and instead was to eight days before Yom Ha’Azma’ut (Independence Day).
Yom HaShoah was inaugurated in 1951 in a law signed by Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion and Israel’s second president, Yitzchak Ben-Zvi. Parts of the Orthodox religious community commemorate Holocaust Remembrance Day on instituted days of mourning (such as Tisha B’Av), as the rabbis state that we do not have the power to establish new days of mourning and do not recognize the Nissan date of Yom HaShoah.>
Yom HaZikaron begins at sundown on the fourth of Iyar. Israel commemorates the soldiers who have fallen fighting for its independence and defending its borders, as well as victims of terror. In Israel, a siren sounds at 11 a.m. and the country observes two minutes of silence; people stand, cars stop in the middle of the street, and there is an eerie, enveloping silence in honor of those who died. Restaurants and malls are closed and there are memorial ceremonies at all the military cemeteries. The country waits in hushed anticipation for the day to end and the celebrations of Yom Ha’Atzma’ut to begin in the evening. At last year’s opening Yom Ha’Atzma’ut ceremony, Yitzhik spoke about Nissim Ginny.
Nissim was born in 1938 in the Jewish quarter in the Old City of Jerusalem, the third of four children. The battle for the Old City began immediately after the U.N. decision of Nov. 29, 1947. At this time, there were approximately 2,500 Jews scattered throughout the Old City, most of them poor and old, educated in Jewish study but uneducated in warfare. Beginning Jan. 1, 1948, the Jewish quarter was cut off from the rest of the Yishuv (the Jewish settlement) and blockaded by the Arabs. Trucks, escorted by the British, brought in supplies twice a week. It was in the blockaded Old City that 9 1/2-year-old Nissim served as a look-out and scout for the newly formed Israel Defense Forces. His 12-year-old sister and 14-year-old old brother were also IDF scouts. On May 27, Nissim was at his post when he noticed a suspicious movement below, leaned out to warn his comrades and was severely injured by a sniper’s bullet. He died on May 28, 1948, the day the Old City fell to the Jordanian Arab Legion.
Nissim was buried in a communal grave with eight other IDF soldiers on the Mount of Olives by a local Arab. In 1967, when Jerusalem was reunited, the grave was found and the soldiers given a military burial on Mount Herzl. Only Nissim’s remains were positively identified because, at the time of his death, he still had some of his baby teeth.
This year, as the fireworks display gathers momentum over Mount Herzl in Jerusalem, we can remember Nissim and the more than 6,000 families who have lost brothers, fathers, mothers and sisters in Israel’s wars. Nissim symbolizes this unending and selfless contribution to Israel’s existence. All Am Yisrael, the people of Israel, can remember – and celebrate – together.
Stuart Levy is community shaliach and Israel Programs Center Director at UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey.