I recently had the opportunity to visit the Holocaust Museum of Porto, which opened to the public in April 2021. It is the first Holocaust museum in Portugal, supervised by the Jewish community of Porto whose relatives were victims of the Holocaust. I was in Porto for a conference and had been told to try and visit the museum. I knew the address and went looking for a building that looked like a museum. After walking up and down a street filled with stores, cafes and businesses, I finally noticed a frosted window with one word printed twice in Hebrew: Yizkor.
“There it is,” I said to my friend and colleague, who is not Jewish, cannot read Hebrew and would not otherwise have been able to identify the museum.
“How do you know?” she asked me.
“Yizkor means remember,” I told her. “This is the place.”
When we speak about the Holocaust, the word “remember” is referenced quite often. Whether it’s inscribed on the front of a building in Hebrew or on a memorial candle we light in memory of the six million who died, the idea of remembrance has always been central to Yom HaShoah. This seems logical considering that Yom HaShoah is commonly referred to in English as Holocaust Remembrance Day.
However, if we look a little more closely at the origins of Yom HaShoah we see that remembrance, while certainly important, is not the sole purpose of this day. The word “Shoah” is Hebrew for “catastrophe” or “utter destruction.” The world “Yom” translates to “Day.” Thus, it is fitting that the phrase “Yom HaShoah” was chosen to commemorate the mass murder of more than six million men, women and children who were killed for no reason other than being Jewish.
To be Jewish in Europe before World War II was to be part of a vibrant community able to celebrate their traditions and heritage largely without fear of hatred and violence. But when the Nazis rose to power and began their reign of terror based on a system of ethnic cleansing that deemed Jews as a threat to society, everything changed. By the end of World War II, these previously lively Jewish villages were left in ruins, their residents sent to concentration camps where they were tortured and murdered. The Jewish community was catastrophically destroyed. Yom HaShoah.
However, while we often refer to the day as Yom HaShoah, that name isn’t entirely correct. In 1951, the Israeli Parliament designated this day, the 27th of Nisan on the Hebrew calendar, as an official day of remembrance. The day’s legal name was formalized in a law passed on August 19, 1953, as Yom HaShoah V’HaG’Vurah, A Day of Remembrance of the Holocaust and Heroism.
The Holocaust went on for years, and during that time there were many dates of significance. Why choose the 27th of Nisan? There seems to be a lot of disagreement when it comes to this question, and while I certainly cannot profess to know the exact answer, here is what I do know.
The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, the largest single revolt by Jews during WWII, began on the 14th of Nisan. Passover, a holiday that commemorates the Jews’ exodus from slavery in Egypt, starts on the 15th day of Nisan. And Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israeli Independence Day, is celebrated on the fifth day of the month of Iyar, which is one week after the 27th day of Nisan.
So what, exactly, does that mean? It means that Yom HaShoah V’HaG’Vurah falls right in the middle of several important dates in the history of Judaism. Two of these dates represent times when the Jewish people were enslaved and almost destroyed solely due to their religious beliefs. But the stories of Passover and the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising teach us that there are heroes among us who fought back against this type of hatred and intolerance. And ultimately, these people, these survivors sought solace in the land of Israel, whose independence is celebrated one week after Yom HaShoah V’HaG’Vurah.
So, it seems, at least to me, that Yom HaShoah V’ HaG’Vurah is about more than just catastrophic destruction. It is about hope and rebuilding and the belief in tikkun olam, that together we can work to make this broken world whole again.
The Holocaust Museum of Porto has the word “Yizkor” emblazoned on its entrance. However, once you walk inside, the first exhibit is dedicated to the vibrancy of Jewish life in Porto before World War II. In conversation with those working on the day I was visiting, it was very clear that the purpose of the museum was not only remembrance, but also education. Remembering the past, but also protecting the future.
This year, on Yom HaShoah V’HaG’Vurah, we must ask ourselves: What does remembrance actually mean and what is our responsibility—as Jews and as members of humankind—when it comes to this concept? We are at a crucial moment in history. Soon, there will be no survivors left to tell their stories. We have a responsibility to honor their memory, but not only through words.
Yom HaShoah is not enough. We must go one step further. We must use the lessons of the Holocaust to create a new generation of leaders—of heroes—dedicated to fighting hatred and antisemitism, to promoting education and dignity for all people, to fostering hope in our broken world. Only when we appreciate the true meaning of this day can we fulfill our obligation to remember and promise, “Never Again.”
Dr. Stacy Gallin is the founding director of the Maimonides Institute for Medicine, Ethics and the Holocaust (MIMEH), a senior fellow at the Center for the Study of Law and Religion at Emory University School of Law, and the co-chair of the Department of Bioethics and the Holocaust of the International Chair of Bioethics.