To this day I still remember Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) at my elementary school in Jerusalem. School principal Eliezer Turkel wore a short-sleeved white shirt, even when it was cold and raining.
In the school there were many stands with memorial candles and plaques with the pictures and stories of Holocaust survivors. The school bell was turned off that day, and any type of games were prohibited. You weren’t allowed to laugh, either. All of the children were dressed in white. It was a very somber day at our school.
At 10:30 am, all students left the classroom and met in the large school yard. Around 1,000 pupils stood in rows, sorted by class and age, and there was total silence. Again and again there was a “Shhh, Shhh” from the teachers to their classes so that it remained calm.
Then the ceremony started. First a song, then a few short speeches. At 11 am all was quiet again. Headmaster Tirkel and the other teachers stood on the stage, their sleeves rolled up so we could see the tattoos on their arms. At 11 o’clock sharp, the two-minute siren sounded. All the teachers stood on the stage and cried. It was a heartbreaking cry, shattering, unbelievable. We children reacted differently. Some laughed with embarrassment, unsure of how else to react, while others panicked. I remember that some even fainted.
Number on a survivor’s arm
It is not a normal situation for a school principal to stand in front of his students and weep. When the siren ended, Mr. Tirkel told us the story of his family in a trembling voice. All of them were murdered by the Nazis. He was a little boy who came to Mandatory Palestine with his sister.
Our craftsmanship teacher also had a shocking story. Remembrance Day was the only day I could feel affection for her and understand why she was so agitated all year round. Impatience, bitterness, anger, these are the memories that I have of her class, which I never enjoyed. And then suddenly, on Holocaust Remembrance Day, as she was standing there and telling her story, I could see in my head the lonely little girl standing amidst the devastation in Poland, how completely helpless and alone and surrounded by evil.
Back in those days, it was not uncommon to have many teachers who were Holocaust survivors. Of course, as children who had grown up in the safety of the Jewish state, we could not fathom the horror they had endured. We were just fascinated by the tattooed numbers on their arms. A number that they, the survivors, did their best to conceal, except on Holocaust Remembrance Day.
These are memories of Holocaust Remembrance Day that have stayed with me my entire life, and now in adulthood have taken on much deeper meaning.
The intensity of the day changes as you become older. As a young girl, it was unclear and even confusing. In adolescence, you begin to feel a part of these people. As a young mother, you grieve for what these survivors went through as children. And now, as a mature woman, it becomes clear that one can never find reason in this senseless act of brutality.
I cherish these memories. They help me to connect to the reality of what we are remembering, and must never forget.