Can You Link Yom HaShoah, Pandemic?

Zoom screenshot with small photo of a man and a map.
Daniel Goldsmith delivers his Holocaust testimony at a HAMEC event for Yom HaShoah.
Screenshot by
Jesse Bernstein

As synagogue congregations, Holocaust remembrance groups and educational institutions gathered last week via Zoom to mark the second Yom HaShoah observed during the pandemic, speakers for those events considered the thematic confluence of two very different, era-defining events.

What they found, mostly, was that the pandemic had its own say in how it would be worked into the commemoration ceremonies. After all, no one was unaware of why the speeches, presentations and testimonies that they heard were delivered via Zoom. The pandemic gave shape to Yom HaShoah, according to those same speakers, but that was about it.

“It was more like adapting to how we had previously presented presentations,” said Geoffrey Quinn, education director at the Holocaust Awareness Museum and Education Center.

HAMEC provides “anywhere between 200-300” programs for Holocaust education in the region and beyond throughout the year, bringing survivor testimony to classrooms, synagogues and other groups. Yom HaShoah has always been, not surprisingly, the busiest time of year for HAMEC, and this year was no different.

HAMEC was part of programming for the entire week, hosting and sponsoring events with partners in Philadelphia and beyond. Its largest public program, held in conjunction with the Anti-Defamation League and the Jewish community of Wilkes-Barre, featured testimony from well-known Holocaust survivor Danny Goldsmith.

Prior to the pandemic, Quinn said, he’d have been at the public program and relied on volunteers and HAMEC’s one other staff member to ensure that things were running smoothly elsewhere. Because everything was moved to Zoom, Quinn was able to toggle between several different events at once from home, overseeing multiple programs.

What he heard from speakers, Quinn said, was certainly molded by the pandemic — survivors and educators, speaking safely from home, more fluent in Zoom than they were a year ago — but it did not seem to figure in to the content of their speeches. If anything, Quinn said, speaking out against recent violence toward Asian Americans was a more consistent theme.

Similar dynamics were at play at other local and statewide events.

Marc Zucker, chair of the Pennsylvania Jewish Coalition, was the introductory speaker for the 37th annual Commonwealth of Pennsylvania Civic Commemoration of the Holocaust on April 8. Gov. Tom Wolf, state Rep. Bryan Cutler — Pennsylvania’s Speaker of the House — and state Rep. Joanna McClinton all spoke at the event. Zucker’s focus was exclusively on Yom HaShoah and not any perceived link to the pandemic.

“I don’t really think of them together in any meaningful way,” Zucker said.

That doesn’t mean it went unmentioned. More than 25,000 Pennsylvanians have died of the virus since the pandemic began, and “to not mention that would make no sense,” Zucker said. But that’s more or less where the overlap ends, he believes.

“I mentioned it also because so many of our attendees are state legislators, who have worked tirelessly to try and address the many implications of the pandemic,” Zucker said. “But really, the Holocaust is a singular, horrific event in world history involving a systematic and coordinated genocide. So, there’s really no link that I could see between a devastating pandemic, devastating as it is, and an unimaginable tragedy, like the Holocaust genocide.”

Sarita Gocial, the daughter of survivors who is married to another child of survivors, feels similarly. Gocial has been involved the with the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia’s Holocaust commemoration efforts for years, and looks forward to presenting her family’s story annually.

Like Zucker and Quinn, Gocial knows that the shapes of the 2020 and 2021 Yom HaShoah commemorations were determined by the pandemic, but did not see that as a reason to dwell on it.

“We do touch on the anti-Semitism growing in this country once again, and those types of things, but really, COVID was not a big focus of the program,” Gocial said.

Congregation Beth Am Israel’s programming, delivered virtually, was an approximation of its pre-pandemic traditions. Working with other local synagogues, cantors joined with singers, participants lit yellow candles at home and testimony was delivered from survivors and their children.

Even with all of those Zoom-specific element underlining the omnipresence of the pandemic, the content itself was largely devoid of its influence, Rabbi David Ackerman said.

“I wouldn’t say it came up especially strongly in this year’s presentations,” he said.

If there was a thematic linkage that came through, he said, it was the sense of isolation referred to by many survivors.

“We’ve actually all come to know a little bit of what it feels like to be completely separated from people you know, and love and care about,” Ackerman said. “That’s as far as it got.”


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