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June 26, 2022



Czech clergyman proposes the readers themselves choose the names of Holocaust victims to be read on Yom Hashoah this year, whether Jewish or Romani

6.4.2021 9:03
Mikuláš Vymětal (PHOTO:  Personal archive of Mikuláš Vymětal)
Mikuláš Vymětal (PHOTO: Personal archive of Mikuláš Vymětal)

4 April was Easter Sunday for western Christians, as well as the eighth day of Passover, on which we remember the very sad anniversary of the biggest pogrom ever to take place in Prague in 1389, when a fanaticized Christian mob murdered three-quarters of the inhabitants of the Jewish ghetto. This history means that on the very same day, here and now, some of us were celebrating joyously while others were commemorating a tragedy. 

I think this is a good illustration of the complexity and intricacy of different groups coexisting. A similar situation will transpire again here on 8 April. 

For Romani people, this will be an important anniversary, the 50th anniversary of the International Romani Union and the World Roma Congress where representatives from many countries agreed that they want to be referred to as Roma (and rejected the term Cikán/Gypsy), agreed on what the Romani flag should look, and agreed that the international Romani anthem should be Gejľem, gejľem, some of the lyrics of which reflect the Holocaust of the Roma.

This year, the date of 26 Nisan in the Jewish calendar falls on 8 April as well, and that is the day when Jewish people commemorate Yom Hashoah, the anniversary of the beginning of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising (19 April 1943). This day is both tragic and heroic, commemorating the bravery of the Jewish insurgents who resisted the Nazi army in the ruins of the Warsaw ghetto for almost an entire month until 16 May 1943.

Many Romani people also actively defended themselves against the Fascists and the Nazis; here we can mention the Roma uprising in Auschwitz on 16 May 1944 and the work in occupied Czechoslovakia of the "Black Partisan" Josef Serinek, who is remembered to this day by several families living in Vysočina who are evangelicals as well as by the families of Romani partisans in Slovakia. The Jews and the Roma are nations with a great deal in common - a long tradition of being oppressed while living dispersed among other nations and also a viability which has proven that, unlike many other nations which have frequently been much larger, the Jews and Roma survive and are not lost from human history.   

The Jews and Roma are ancient nations whose cultures extend far into the past, while at the same time they are also nations that are viable and young, and frequently their members have families with many children. The Holocaust of the Jews and of the Roma was such a heavy blow that it took a long time for the survivors to find a format for memorializing their deceased relatives.

Some of those ways of remembering the dead are religious and included personal prayers in cemeteries, in synagogues, in churches and at the sites of former concentration camps. Others are secularized, and those include the readings of the names of the deceased.  

These forms of remembrance are frequently interconnected. They also involve encounters among the members of different religions. 

I have attended gatherings on the anniversary of the liberation of the concentration camp at Ravensbrück, where my own grandmother was imprisoned, more than once. At that large assembly it was considered quite natural for Polish women, led by a priest, to pray the "Our Father" in Polish while the Jewish women prayed the Kaddish.

The culture of remembrance for these victims has been developing gradually here in the Czech Republic. I welcomed the public readings of the names of the victims, and I recall attending one many years ago at the Pinkas Synagogue, where the names of several of my own distant relatives are inscribed on the walls.  

Later I also visited the reading of the names of the victims in Prague on Náměstí míru (Square of Peace), where it seemed emotionally quite tense to me when each reader promounced the word "murdered" after each name, as if the main identity of those being remembered were just the fact of their victimhood and not that they had been human beings above all. On the other hand, I was actually glad that the names of Holocaust victims who were Romani also began to be read on that occasion.  

Subsequently, I contributed to organizing such a reading at the "Žižkostel" in the Žižkov neighborhood of Prague on the anniversary of 2 August, which is when one of the biggest events of the Holocaust for Romani people transpired. We began this tradition in 2017, I believe.  

Many Romani children visit the club there, so it was quite natural for them to attend, and it was an easy way to familiarize them with this tragic past, which is customarily quite often not spoken of in families because it is so heavy that those who lived through it do their best to forget it. There were many Jewish figures supporting us with that reading, including the Chief Rabbi Karol Sidon. 

Over time, several different dates for commemorating the Second World War and its victims have made it onto the calendar, coming from many different groups in the population - 27 January is the anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp and is now International Holocaust Remembrance Day. On that occasion it is customary to commemorate all of the victims together. 

As I noted above, 26 Nisan in the Jewish calendar (which usually falls sometime in April on the Gregorian calendar) is the anniversary of the beginning of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. In Israel, the Holocaust and its Jewish victims are traditionally commemorated on that date, and at first that day was used to honor those who fell in battle against the Nazis above all (it would be later that Israeli society would come to realize that those who were simply murdered without fighting also deserved honor). 

Yom Hashoah, or the Day of Catastrophe, as this anniversary is called in Hebrew, is a day of importance for all of Israel. It is associated with three locations there that cultivate the memory of the murdered:  The Yad Vashem memorial in Jerusalem, the Ghetto Fighters' Museum near Akka, and Beit Terezin in the kibbutz of Givat Haim Ihud. 

On Yom Hashoah it is Holocaust victims who are Jewish that are commemorated above all, but there has been a development here as well in which new perspectives on those events are being updated - for example, at the Ghetto Fighters' Museum what is being commemorated is Jewish humanism, specifically, that associated with the name of the educator Janusz Korczak, about whom there is a permanent exhibition in that memorial. As for the Holocaust and its Romani victims, there are two anniversaries now associated with commemorating that fact, Roma Holocaust Memorial Day on 2 August, which is associated with the anniversary of the 1944 murder of the inhabitants of what was called the "Zigeunerlager" at Auschwitz, and 16 May, Romani Resistance Day, which recalls the date on which Romani people successfully resisted the first attempt to bring them to the gas chambers at Auschwitz, also in 1944.

In the Czech Republic, the traditional commemorative ceremony at Lety u Písku is also held around that time. [Translator's Note:  The Committee for the Redress of the Roma Holocaust in the Czech Republic usually holds its annual ceremony on the day that is most appropriately close to 13 May].

I consider it natural that such anniversaries have a personal dimension for the families who are memorializing their deceased members. Even after many years, this can be a very painful, sensitive matter, the trauma of which is transmitted from generation to generation. 

At the same time, it is quite important for society to commemorate the victims of this horrific human behavior in the past in order to avoid it in the future. Therefore, this does not just have to do with the families who have personal memories of these events, but with all of us.

Such commemorations are thus a task for society as a whole. Both forms of commemoration - the memorializing by families who have lost members and by others who want to join them or who should join them - develop over time.

During family memorializations, people recall relatives whom most of them never had the opportunity to personally experience, and naturally they add to such memorializing the memories of those who survived the horrors of the Holocaust, who remembered those events, and who died sometime after the war. In practice, this is being demonstrated, for example, through the laying of memorial cobblestones, and in addition to cobblestones for those who were murdered because of their origin (the Stolpersteine), cobblestones are also being laid for those who survived the Holocaust and then passed away after the war.  

The societal memorialization of these events is also undergoing a transformation. During the 80 years that have passed since the events of the Holocaust, many other genocides have been perpetrated, and so, naturally, recollections of these more recent victims overlap with the older ones and with the question of whether humanity is incapable of learning the lessons of these events.    

I personally have vivid memories of the genocide perpetrated in Rwarnda, where the mostly Christian Hutu majority settled accounts bloodily with the mostly Christian Tutsis; of the war in Bosnia and the genocide in Srebrenica, where the victims were Bosnian Muslims; and of the ongoing war in Syria, which has lasted 10 years, where religion is just one of the components of the intricate complex of historical and political grievances at work. As for commemorating the Holocaust in the Czech Republic now, I comprehend the legitimacy of the opinion of those who want to hold some of these commemorations jointly (such as 27 January) and other commemorations separately (such as 26 Nisan and 2 August).  

Of course, I also comprehend the legitimacy of those who want to commemorate all anniversaries associated with the Holocaust in a way that honors all of the victims at the same time. We should also recall that sometimes this societal commemoration of the victims has involved their memories being abused to publicly espouse intolerance, and sometimes even to unleash other "retaliatory" genocides.

Here in the Czech Republic, a recent example is the xenophobic speech against refugees made by the then-chair of the Czech Freedom Fighters' Association, Jaroslav Vodička, at the Terezín commemoration in 2016, which the then-Chief Rabbi Karol Sidon forcefully rejected in a brave speech of his own. Recalling the painful past is, therefore, a matter that reveals our painful present to us as well.    

To find the correct way forward is complicated, because there are many opinions and stakeholders here, and many of them are legitimate. The lively discussion that has been unleashed by the decision of the board of directors of the Institute of the Terezín Initiative to just read the names of Jewish victims this year, while supporting the reading of the names of Romani victims on Roma Holocaust Memorial Day on 2 August, is comprehensible to me. 

This is a complex, painful equation with many unknown variables to it. However, this discussion is also necessary, because it can lead us to mutual understanding and to an appropriate compromise.

With regard to the reading of the names of the victims this year, I would like to plead for a compromise - let's have the people who will be reading the names aloud choose whether they themselves want to read a Jewish name or a Romani name of a Holocaust victim. For the years to come, we should hold a conversation about which direction each of these commemorative readings should take. 

In conclusion, I would like to thank both the Institute of the Terezín Initiative for dedicating itself for so long to commemorating the victims of Nazi persecution in the Czech lands and in Europe, and I would like to thank all who have contributed to this discussion. I hope that those who are reading these lines will be able to experience all of these anniversaries according to their ideas of how they should be marked, that they stay healthy during the current pandemic, and that they are also able to draw on the good things that our interpersonal relationships and life has to offer. 

Mikuláš Vymětal, translated by Gwendolyn Albert
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