In dvarisrael

Gil’s D’var Israel

I’d like to talk today about a story I’ve heard lately from my host family.

My host sister Rachel was an excellent figure skater when she was younger, and when she was about 15 she joined a known skating club in Toronto that trained figure skaters to an olympic level. However this club was known for it’s anti semitic history, and even though the club abandoned it’s anti semitic approach long ago, Rachel’s grandfather was still worried about it and warned her away from this club.

One of the most distinguished coaches in there was Ellen Burka. She was about 80 back then, and had a tough attitude towards the skaters.

One day Mrs. Burka asked Rachel to speak with her privately. Rachel was nervous, and especially when the first question Mrs. Burka asked her was – “are you Jewish?”

With lots of fear, and courage too, Rachel answered – “yes”. Surprisingly Mrs. Burka then answered – “well, so am I!”

Apparently Mrs. Burka was a dutch Holocaust survivor. Before the war she was one of the top figure skaters in Netherlands and she survived the Holocaust by skating and performing in front of Nazi officers. After the war she went to Canada, and got involved with some of the top figure skating clubs in the country. However she kept her Jewish identity because she knew she couldn’t skate in Canada back then, due to the anti semitism in the Canadian clubs. She raised her daughters without any connection to Judaism and even hid her own Judaism from them.

Ellen’s daughters were told about their mom’s Judaism only in their late teens.

On September 12, just a few weeks ago, Ellen Burka passed away.

As Ellen Burka passed away, she left us with some important questions regarding the way we commemorate the Holocaust, and the way we embed it into our memory.
I would like to read a poem by Wladyslaw Szlengel, a Jewish poet who died in 1943 in the Warsaw Ghetto. The poem was written in 1943 in the Ghetto.


New Holiday

Jews must have holidays,

Jews must remember

what Passover and what Purim mean;

that hamantash is because of Haman,

matzo because of Egypt,

colorful flags because of Torah;

lulav and sukkah and Hanukkah candles

remind of a deed, a miracle, a period.

This horrible war, that rends the Jews asunder,

to lumps, to tatters, to quarters, will pass.

Jews will survive.

One morning they will somehow resurface

and transmit greetings from Death.


Jews must have holidays,

Jews must remember

that miracle saved them again.

New holiday, similar to Sukkot,

though no booths, but cellars and garrets.

On Deliverance Day all will descend

to creep-holes, dark hiding places.


There, they will feast on prayers,

their hearts will fill with joy and with faith.

Spade, pickaxe, and sledgehammer

will become symbols of cult.

They will fast, as in shelters,

the old one will weep and the young listen

how it was when an Action…

how it was when a blockade…

The old one will recount

how they lived in their hovels

without air and for months…

In pitch dark they waited and waited

for the first breeze of wind,

for freedom, for sun…


The old ones will assent and applaud.

The young ones will scoff, saying

that the old grandpa embroiders.

…let him tell what he wants, but

it must be enlarged as the story

of the Red Sea and Moses.

They will leave their hideouts at dusk

to where all is peace and calm,

to the world prettier, better, and new.

In the safety of light, for the holiday dinner

they will serve swastikas with honey.


This poem is criticizing the way the Jewish people chose to remember only their tragedies and make them into holidays. Also, it presents a future in which the memory of the Holocaust will become into one of those holidays like Sukkot or Passover.

So let’s ask ourselves – “how do we choose to remember the Holocaust?” especially now, in a time when there are fewer and fewer Holocaust survivors like Ellen Burka.

In my opinion, it is important to remember not only the tragedy, but also the miracles and the bravery.

For this reason, when we commemorate the Holocaust in Israel, the memorial day is called – “the memorial day to the Holocaust and the bravery”, unlike the international memorial day. And the date of it is not the one of the liberation of the concentration camps by the Soviet Union , it is the date of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.

By setting this date and that memorial day, Israeli leaders made a bold statement regarding the memory of the Holocaust. In my opinion, that statement should lead us too, when we remember the Holocaust.

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