Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, is the official Israeli commemoration of the 6 million Jews murdered in Nazi Germany during World War II. Yom Hashoah 2011 takes place on May 2, and is observed throughout the United States.
The memorial day, which is officially known as Yom Hazikaron L'shoah U'l'gevurah (Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day), is observed most emblematically with a national moment of silence. At 10 a.m., a siren is sounded for two minutes throughout Israel, and most people in the country stop what they are doing to stand at contemplative attention. People even break from driving on the highway and get out to pay their respects during the siren.
Among other aspects of the day's observance: Israel's Prime Minister and President give speeches at Yad Vashem, the national Holocaust museum in Jerusalem; Holocaust survivors and others light memorial candles; flags on public buildings are lowered; TV and radio broadcast somber programming; and venues for public entertainment are closed by law.
At Auschwitz, the infamous death camp that is now a walkable museum of the atrocities that occurred there, tens of thousands of high school students from Israel, along with Jews and non-Jews from around the world, gather as part of the "March of the Living," an event that is subsidized by the Israeli government.
Yom Hashoah is observed informally throughout the rest of the Jewish world on this day because there is no institutional or ritual observance of Holocaust remembrance. In 2003, a Conservative attempt to formalize a liturgy for the day resulted in Megillat Hashoah, The Scroll of the Holocaust, which contains six chapters in memory of the 6 million. Jewish communities may gather at synagogues to honor local survivors, screen a Holocaust film, read appropriate Psalms together or establish efforts to protect international human rights now -- but there is no universal formula for memorial. Still, one widely accepted practice is to light a yellow or white yahrtzeit (memorial) candle.
The United States has an official eight-day period of memorial, known as Days of Remembrance of the Victims of the Holocaust, that begins the Sunday before Yom Hashoah. The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum is mandated by Congress to lead the national observance. The Days of Remembrance begin on May 1. (Watch below for a video of the Remembrance ceremony from 2009.)
Many observant Jews are conflicted about Yom Hashoah. While some certainly observe the day, many on the Orthodox end of the spectrum do not. Some choose to commemorate the Shoah, a Hebrew word for "calamity," on Tisha B'Av (the ninth of the Hebrew month of Av), the traditional day of mourning for the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, as well as the numerous calamities the Jewish people have endured throughout history. Others mourn the 6 million on the 10th of Tevet, the date established by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel in 1949. The conflict results from the fact that Nissan, the month of both Passover and, now, Yom Hashoah, is traditionally understood to be a time of religious and national joy. This is a point of contention in Israel between non-Haredi and Haredi Jews, the latter's blatant non-observance viewed as an act of gross disrespect to both the victims and living survivors.
Yom Hashoah cannot be observed on or around the Sabbath, which is also understood to be a time of joyousness. As a result, if the the 27th of Nissan falls on a Friday or Sunday, as it does this year, the day is pushed to a Thursday or Monday.
While Yom Hashoah, the 10th and Tevet and Tisha B'Av are specifically Jewish memorial days, the rest of the world remembers those who perished at the hands of Hitler and his forces at various times throughout the year. The United Nations established International Holocaust Remembrance Day in 2005 around the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. It is observed annually on January 27.