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Yom HaShoah: How Yellow Candles contextualise Holocaust Remembrance Day

My Yom HaShoah yellow candle
My Yom HaShoah yellow candle   -   Copyright  Jonny Walfisz
By Jonny Walfisz

Today is Yom HaShoah, the annual Jewish rememberence of the Holocaust.

An incredibly meaningful date for Jews around the world, it is an opportunity to reflect on the tragic murder of six million Jews at the hands of the Nazis between 1933 and 1945.

What is Yom HaShoah?

The day lasts from the evening of April 27 to the evening of April 28, as it follows the Jewish tradition of days beginning and ending at sunset. The date also changes every year as Yom HaShoah follows the Hebrew calendar, a lunar calendar, and takes place on the Hebrew date of Nisan 27th.

Shoah is the name for the Holocaust in Hebrew. In English, Yom HaShoah translates to “The Day of the Calamity”.

Across the globe, Jews join together to pray and memorialise the victims. Synagogues hold special ceremonies for Yom HaShoah, and there are also publicly held silences.

The most notable silence is in Israel, where at 10am on the day, an air raid siren sounds to initiate a country-wide two minute silence. It is common to see motorways come to a standstill as people exit their cars to observe the silence.

The Yellow Candles

One of the most common methods of commemorating Yom HaShoah is to light a candle in remembrance of those lost.

In the UK, a tradition has grown of lighting a candle in remembrance of a Jewish victim that was not related to you.

Organised by Jewish non-profit charity Maccabi GB, the Yellow Candle Project gives every Jew who signs up the chance to remember a victim who may have otherwise gone forgotten.

Each candle includes a biographical card that gives information about a person who lost their life during the Holocaust.

“This is a key feature of the campaign, so that the acts of remembrance are communal and also deeply personal, with each candle honouring an individual life cut short,” the Maccabi GB press release explains.

“It’s important because it focuses on the victims and gives a human face to impossibly large numbers. But also, by humanising each individual name, the horrifying scale of the Holocaust becomes clear,” says Andrew Williams, a British Jew involved in the community.

This year, the charity has also included a pack of dwarf sunflower seeds with each candle. “Each flower grown and displayed in participants’ homes, schools and synagogues will symbolise a commitment to remembering the past by planting seeds for the future.”

The names of the victims

This year, my candle came with the details of Arkady Schwab. Looking in Israel’s Holocaust museum, Yad Vashem’s victim database, I could find out some details about Arkady’s life.

Arkady Jacob Aron Schwab was born in Libau, Latvia in 1886. He spent the majority of his life in Libau, where he married a woman named Klara and became a gastroenterologist. He was murdered in the Shoah in 1941 aged 55.

It is encouraged to post photos of your candle to social media to spread the memories of those lost.

Posting on Twitter, Marthe de Ferrer lit two candles. One for Manya Bat, who was from Dalnik in Ukraine (USSR) and was murdered aged 11; and another for Anya Basyuk from Smilovichi who was murdered in 1941 aged just 1 year old.

"When we talk about the Shoah, it’s usually in terms of its scale. We talk about how many people were killed, that two thirds of Europe’s Jewish population were wiped out - but I think these numbers are so hard to process on an emotional level," Marthe says.

"For me it’s important those victims are named. They were people, not statistics."

"This year one of the candles I received was for a little girl from Ukraine who was killed in the 1941 massacre in Dalnyk, Odessa. It feels especially poignant this year to remember her, Manya Bat, in light of the brutal killings in Ukraine right now."

"On a personal level, I know much of the French side of my family were killed in the Shoah. I like that someone else could be lighting candles for each of them, naming them in the process. It feels like it’s part of a wider practice of the Jewish community in Europe continuing to rebuild itself and reconstruct its identity," Marthe concludes.