Honouring this week the six million Jews murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators, the writer reflects on a visit to “Yad Vashem” embedded in the hills of bustling Jerusalem
By David E. Kaplan
Let’s begin at the end. What has always fascinated this writer was the reactions of visitors when exiting the main museum and stepping out into the high balcony with the majestic view of the city of Jerusalem.
Looking through the trees and imagining the bustle below of people going about their daily business and contrasting it with the New Holocaust History Museum’s chronicle of death left behind, seldom fails to evoke a visceral response of raw emotion. My non-Jewish friend from London, who had never visited Israel before, simply burst into tears.
“You won; they lost,” he uttered tearfully.
He did not have to say more!
The name “Yad Vashem” is taken from a verse in the Book of Isaiah:
“And to them will I give, in My house and within My walls, a Memorial and a Name (yad vashem) … an everlasting name that shall not be cut off.” (Isaiah 56:5).
Symbolic in its naming, “Yad Vashem” conveys the idea of a national depository eternally imbedded into the rock of Israel’s ancestral capital, remembering and honouring the names of Jewish victims who have no one to carry their name after death. The magnitude of human loss was for this writer, best grasped stepping inside the Hall of Names and later the Children’s Memorial.
Hall of Names
Near the end of the ‘journey’ through the museum, one steps onto a platform midway within a sphere. One’s attention is immediately drawn skyward where the ten-meter high ceiling – an upper cone – displays hauntingly 600 photographs of Holocaust victims.
“Who were they? What lives did the live?” visitors will silently ask themselves. The questions are rhetorical as the names of too many remain unknown. And then, as if believing some clues to this madness might lie below, one’s eyes are drawn downward where those same victims’ portraits are reflected in water at the base of the lower cone carved out of the mountain’s bedrock. Their faces naturally blurry in the reflection, one engages the collective image of all six million Jewish victims crying out from the watery depths below:
“Forget us not”.
Although the exhibit represents only a fraction of Europe’s six million Jewish victims, the monumental horror of the Shoah (Holocaust) is evident by two simple movements of the head – above and then below. Visitors are speechless; the most audible sounds are sighs……
Surrounding the platform is the circular repository, housing approximately 2.2 million Pages of Testimony collected to date, with empty spaces for those yet to be submitted. The task ahead of ‘unearthing’ those names still unknown is open-ended…..
If the world failed to save their lives, future generations can at least try save their identities…..
No less gut-wrenching in conveying the sheer magnitude of human loss is the visit to the Children’s Memorial, designed by architect Moshe Safdie, who also designed the museum.
Hollowed out from an underground cavern, this unique memorial is a tribute to the approximately 1.5 million Jewish children who were murdered in the Shoah.
Entering, one is engulfed by darkness until one turns a corner and then suddenly one is overwhelmed by tiny flames from candles that appear to reach out to eternity. Apparently, it might be one candle that through clever reflection, appears endless. This is the point of the exhibition – that the murder of one child is unbearable to bear and so the candles help try apply the mind to the unthinkable – one and a half million children snuffed out in cold blood!
The names of murdered children, their ages and countries of origin can be heard in the background. The recording takes some three months to list all the murdered children!
One is speechless, the only common outward body expression – tears running down cheeks…
Like Cattle to the Slaughter
As it hanging in the air, the track and an actual German cattle truck used to transport Jews to their death greets the viewer. Looking at this mechanism for murder, one can imagine how the Jews were ordered to gather like livestock, and to bring with them only a few possessions and then ‘herded’ into these crowded cattle cars without ventilation, water or food. Sealed for days until arriving at the death camps, many perished.
On ‘track’ to the ‘final solution’, we move to the memorial museum, designed to explore the unthinkable!
Approaching the grey façade of the Museum projects the image of a colossal factory – a factory of death, designed for processing death – a human abattoir. I thought:
“Well, I came by car and I will leave later.”
There were no such thoughts for the millions who walked along earlier paths, with dogs barking and wondering what that smoke was coming out distant chimneys ahead.
Before one begins the walk along the central 180-meter walkway with exhibition galleries on either side of the prism, the journey begins at the Museum’s entrance, a kaleidoscope of changing visual images on a 13-meter high triangular wall portraying the Jewish world before the Holocaust. Viewers peer through open windows and doors into the lives of Jewish households, synagogues and places of work in cities, towns and shtetls across Europe. With little thought of the brewing storm, they look happy, innocent and unprepared for the cataclysmic crunch when all these windows and doors will close on their lives forever.
Each step forward, is a step into impending doom. The next gallery follows the invasion of Poland and the outbreak of World War II.
The anti-Jewish policies are now played out with harsh violence and a campaign of abuse and restrictive measures intended to undermine the foundations of Polish Jewry. Jews are ordered to wear the yellow Star of David on their clothes. The badge was not only a symbol of absolute separation from the general population but also a means by which Jews were immediately identified for humiliation and eventual deportation.
Selections from the diary of Dawid Sierakowiak, a youth from Lodz, accompany visitors through this gallery, providing the human perspective of a young person facing personal upheaval. The gallery ends with the uprooting of Jews from the general population and herding them like cattle into Ghettos.
The ‘Between Walls and Fences’ gallery opens with an area dedicated to the fate of Jews in Western Europe. Personal stories of families from France and Holland are chosen to illustrate German policies in the conquered lands of Western Europe.
The largest part of this gallery is devoted to providing visitors with a true sense of the Jewish experience in the Ghettos of Eastern Europe. Four Ghettos are selected – Lodz, Warsaw, Kovno and Theresienstadt.
A Monopoly board, made in Theresienstadt in 1943 forms the center of this Ghetto’s exhibition. The stations in the game were named after the streets and main buildings in the Ghetto. Using the game board as a base for exploring the Ghetto, visitors can see how the children and the elderly were treated and cared for by their fellow Jews, and how people expressed their feelings through works of art, music, and poetry.
The “Final Solution”
The next gallery starts with the German offensive into the USSR, marking the start of the implementation of the plan for the mass-murder of the Jews. Visitors track the activities of one killing unit, Einsatzgruppe C that served in Eastern Galicia and the Ukraine where during its first four months of operations, 800 SS soldiers of this unit murdered 75,000 Jews from villages, towns, and cities. What does this tell you – only 800 soldiers murdered 75,000 Jews? The participation of the local population in mass murder was enormous – not only as passive bystanders but eager voluntary participants.
This gallery too emphasizes the victims’ perspective – the voices of the few escapees are heard and seen on screens, alongside rare photographs of the slaughter of Vilna’s Jewish community at Ponary.
In a meeting with members of the Hashomer Hatzair youth movement, Abba Kovner shows them a poster in which he urges Jew to resist. It was the first time that Jews were urged to defend themselves against the Nazis with arms.
The exhibit exposes visitors to the Wannsee Conference, which was convened to discuss the measures and inter-ministerial coordination needed to implement the “Final Solution” to the “Jewish Problem”. The purpose of the meeting was not to discuss murdering European Jewry – only to consider the means of murder.
Jewish fate was sealed and final!
Resistance and Rescue
The authentic Schindler’s List is presented in this gallery, which deals with Jewish resistance, rescue attempts, and the Righteous Among the Nations.
This gallery opens with an attempt to answer the requisite question of what the world knew and when. It describes how the world was silent in 1942 when the Struma, a decrepit ship carrying 769 refugees on route to Palestine was turned back from the coast of Turkey, towed out to sea without fuel, food or water and torpedoed within hours. All but one refugee drowned.
Throughout the Holocaust, there were expressions of Jewish defiance and this gallery depicts life in the Jewish partisan camps whose members combined fighting the Germans with the rescue of Jewish men, women, and children.
“What would someone who had no knowledge of the Holocaust feel following a visit to Yad Vashem,” was a thought that had intrigued me for many years. An opportunity to answer this thought arose in 2010, when the Chilean miners who had been rescued after spending 69 days trapped in a collapsed Chilean mine were hosted in Israel by the Ministry of Tourism. The writer caught up with the shift manager, 54-year-oldLuis Urzúa – the last miner to be rescued – as he exited the Hall of Names.
Emotionally distraught, he said, “There is one big difference. While we may have shared with the Jews in the concentration camps that feeling of always being close to death, we at least enjoyed one luxury – hope. We knew there were people rooting for us all over the world and working non-stop to save us. The Jews in the Holocaust had no hope. No-one was coming to rescue them.”
This insight is testimony why Jews around the world need a secure State of Israel, so visually reassuring as one exists the death factory of a museum and step onto the balcony and feasts ones eyes through the foliage of forests over undulating Jerusalem hills with Israel’s eternal capital in the background.
One leaves with the message reverberating:
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