Friday, January 29, 2010

Yad Vashem

First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out - because I was not a communist;
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out — because I was not a trade unionist;
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out — because I was not a Jew;
Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak out. – Martin Niemoller

January 27 th marked the sixty fifth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the Nazi death camp. In 2005, the United Nations General Assembly designated this day as International Holocaust Remembrance Day, an annual day of commemoration to honor the victims of the Nazi era. That same year, the newly rebuilt Holocaust History Museum at Yad Vashem (the national Authority for the Remembrance of the Martyrs and Heroes of the Holocaust) was opened at the 50-acre site on the Mount of Remembrance in Jerusalem.

I come to Yad Vashem on a cold and rainy winter’s day. The first thing I notice on entering the Visitors’ Centre are these words, engraved on a pillar:

“Has the like of this happened in your days or in the days of your fathers? Tell your children about it, and let your children tell theirs, and their children the next generation.” - Joel 1: 2-3

The purpose of this memorial is to ensure that we remember each and every one of the six million victims, including the one and a half million children, who perished in the Holocaust; lest this happen again. It is, in particular, the latter part of this chilling statistic that shocks me, not only as a Gentile member of the human race; but as the proud new aunt of two precious little Jewish girls – the impetus for this, my first visit to Israel.

The Visitors’ Centre is a welcome refuge from the storm, but the feeling of comfort is short-lived once we cross the courtyard and enter the Holocaust History Museum. Designed by the internationally renowned architect, Moshe Safdie, the Museum is a triangular structure ingeniously built to cut right through the hillside like a spike, topped with a narrow strip of glass where the triangle peaks, jutting out above the edge of the hill, forming a skylight that lets the natural light in. Contrary to the conventional image that I hold – that of evil flourishing in dark places - the systematic, sustained genocide of the Jewish people took place in broad daylight while the world went about its business. The building, much of it underground, is designed to reflect this dichotomy, as well as the larger tensions between victimhood and heroism; collective and individual; past and present; exile and homeland, all within the complexity that is and always has been Israel, thereby facilitating the dialogue between the internal and the external. The cold bare concrete of the walls and floor, the very dagger-like thrust of the structure through the Mount of Remembrance, the underground location, provide a fitting home for the memories that are housed within. Tales of hardship, horror and suffering are played out here, interspersed with glimpses of the courage, valor and heroism displayed by victims and survivors alike, as well as by the Righteous Among the Nations, the non-Jews who are honored for risking their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust. The enduring hope of humanity is symbolised by the way the structure rises gloriously out of the ground at its exit.

The Museum follows a chronological progression - with sometimes gut-wrenching interactive video and sound displays, including testimonies of survivors, and with relevant artwork and music as well as personal artifacts - depicting variously the history of Anti-Semitism; the build-up of Hitler’s Third Reich; the ghetto-isation of the European Jews; the deportations to the death camps; and the ultimate liberation of the camps by the Allies. The segments housing these displays branch off on either side of the main passageway down the length of the triangular structure, gradually sloping upward toward the exit.

Certain sights stand out in my mind – victims’ shoes poignantly arranged on a platform below the floor, covered with glass; the collection of partially burned contents of the pockets of those who were hastily executed and clumsily disposed of when the Allies were approaching to liberate the camps; the framed copy of Hitler’s death plan, Mein Kampf; the piles of books stacked in readiness for the bonfire, and the words accompanying them:

“Wherever books are burned, human beings are destined to be burned too.” – Heinrich Heine.

Finally, the last segment of the Museum houses The Hall of Names, a testament not only to each and every one of the murdered, but also to those who are painstakingly building, through interviews with family, friends, neighbors, colleagues and acquaintances, a biography of each of those victims. The stated intention is to reduce the cold intangibility of the term “The Six Million” to its individual human component, to make the world aware that it was not that six million Jews died, but that six million murders took place - each of them a Jew. That goal is realised here. The central hall is made up of two cones: one reaches all the way up to the ceiling, covered with photographs of six hundred Holocaust victims and fragments of testimony, while a second reciprocal cone is excavated into the underground rock, its base filled with water. The display on the upper cone is reflected in the water at the bottom of the lower cone, in memory of those victims whose names remain unknown. Surrounding the platform is a circular wall painted black and lined with shelves filled with boxes housing the testimony representing three million people to date, with empty spaces for those yet to be submitted – room for six million in all.

I am struck by the photographs of these people – they look so much like the people in the photos I grew up seeing in my parents’ albums. It must be that they were alive in the same era.

I wonder that anybody can look at all of this, really see it, and still deny the Holocaust.

Yad Vashem will continue to strive to collect the names and biographical data for each of the six million, until all are acknowledged - a tangible memorial. There are forms at hand for friends and relatives of victims to complete and hand over to the museum in aid of this ongoing quest.

I exit the Museum out of the hillside onto the balcony flanked by giant concrete wings, to a glorious sight - a dramatic panoramic view of Jerusalem set in the valley below. It’s a scene etched in my memory - the beautiful city laid out below me in its white Jerusalem stone, the stunning architecture of this place, the scent of freshly washed landscape wafting up from the wooded slopes. The storm has passed.

There is one more stop on my agenda here - for me, the most haunting part of the Yad Vashem complex - the Children's’ Memorial, also designed by Moshe Safdie and built with a donation in memory of a son who died in Auschwitz. The building is nestled in a hollowed-out underground cavern surrounded by trees. Inside, it’s a darkened maze centered around a cosmos of tiny flickering lights, each representing a young life that was dimmed far too soon. A voice calls out the names, ages and countries of origin of the children who were killed. I find the circuit disorienting and difficult to navigate, despite the hand rails. It is necessary to stop and absorb the surroundings, to orient myself, but I cannot; I feel slightly claustrophobic and I rush through it, seeking the exit. It’s a relief to leave the building, to see the sun breaking through the clouds, to breathe deeply.

I left that building, but last night I recognised it in a fragment of a dream.

Kurt Tucholsky said, “A country is not just what it does, it is also what it tolerates.”

His statement posed a question that remains unanswered. Ultimately, that is why we should still visit Holocaust Museums, we should still feel uncomfortable when we do so, we should always be confounded when confronted with such evil, and we should stand up against it when we are. We dare not allow the wound to heal and become a barely visible scar. As time passes and fewer witnesses remain, it is of great importance to create a personal link between the Jewish people today - as well as their fellow human beings worldwide - and those who perished under the Nazi genocidal regime. It is clear to me that the people who make Yad Vashem possible, and their heirs, will ensure that we will always remember this.

Remember only that I was innocent
and, just like you, mortal on that day,
I, too, had had a face marked by rage, by pity and joy,
quite simply, a human face!”

Benjamin Fondane, Exodus
Murdered at Auschwitz, 1944


  1. I offer this comment to honor what you have written and what you write about, though I would rather remain silent and let your words speak unencumbered. Thank you for bringing this back to us from your first visit to Israel, and for reminding us, once again, that we are each charged never to forget.

  2. This is a most moving and memorable post. Thank-you. And yes "...we should still feel uncomfortable... we should always be confounded...."
    - Josie

  3. A powerful post with the display of confiscated books, for me, the most touching statement of all. For it is with books and words that history will not be forgotten.

  4. This is quite a compelling post. Like Josie and cybersr mention, the quotes you included add enormously to your piece. Years ago I visited Dachau, and although you may think you can prepare yourself for visiting such a place, there is no substitute for actually seeing and hearing and touching the remnants of that awful experience.

    The photographs posted add so much to the piece as well.


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