By ALAN SMASON
In my two previous visits to Jerusalem, I never allowed myself the time to visit Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center. I intuitively knew that a one- or two-hour tour of the facility would not be possible. Furthermore, I surmised it would also be insulting to the memory of the six million victims of the Shoah remembered there to not pay the proper amount of attention and respect.
So I waited until my most recent trip in November to make certain that I allow myself the necessary four to five hours minimal time needed to take in the exhibits and to gird myself for the experience.
Yad Vashem is unlike any other Holocaust memorial I have ever seen. It is expansive and incorporates many outside vistas overlooking Jerusalem. Small and larger, more impressive monuments are strewn about the grounds. No photos are allowed indoors. The pictures that are impressed are visually stamped upon one’s grey matter, but are, nevertheless, as enduring.
I took the Mt. Herzl light rail from the center of Jerusalem to Yad Vashem. The train lets out a half mile or so with a slightly inclined walk to the facility. Along the way, I met an Israeli soldier named Daniel. I knew I needed to take my mind off the weight of what I would be seeing and experiencing, so I had a light conversation with him.
Daniel told me right away that he was born in the United States in Dallas. “Dallas,” I asked as we walked up the hill. Were you a Tzofim…a Scout?”
“No,” he answered.
“But that’s where the headquarters for the Boy Scouts of the USA is…in Irving, Texas,” I shot back.
“My parents moved to London when I was young,” he explained.
“But that’s the birthplace of Scouting,” I continued, straining slightly to keep up with the 20-year old.
“No,” he shook his head. “I never did join and we’ve now moved to Israel.”
“I find that amazing,” I told him and wished him well as we finished our five-minute walk. Just as we were ready to take off in different directions, I suggested: ” Let’s take a picture.”
He stopped and I snapped a candid shot of the two of us.
As Daniel and I parted, I considered what an impressive lad and soldier he was. How young he was to have his whole life ahead of him and to have such promise.
I then considered the 1.5 million children killed during the Holocaust, who never lived to see their full potential. I pressed onward to the reception desk, where I was directed to check my bag in downstairs.
Once outfitted with an English language audio guide, I was ready to start my self-guided tour. There was an option to pay for a guide to conduct me about the exhibits, but I really wanted the time to be by myself and reflect rather than be told where to go and for how long to stay in one particular area.
The Yad Vashem main exhibit hall was located a short walk from the reception hall and accessed via a walkway. The outside is stark stone. The interior of the exhibit is dark with some natural light coming in from above.
The first images are of a typical European apartment building whose windows are filled with images of people living normal lives in the Jewish world prior to the Nazis. Some tenants are singing. Others are preparing meals. This original footage of a mosaic of individuals is titled “Living Landscape” and credited to Michel Yugenir. I marvel at the time this one piece must have taken to assemble.
The hallway becomes more crowded as more people, some Israeli soldiers led by a female lieutenant and others from a tour group from Brazil, enter with their guide.
Photos are shown from Klooga Camp in Estonia, where 2,000 Jews, mostly from the Vilno Ghetto, were slaughtered and then set afire as human logs in a mass funeral pyre. Photos show their human remains as indistinguishable from the planks of wood upon which they were torched.
A number of personal possessions – pictures, papers and the like – are displayed and all of them are heavily singed. These were found inside the coats and clenched fists of the victims of the fire, the description in the audio guide informs me.
Moving into the next room, the next image is of yet another fire. This one is of a Nazi-led book burning, where dozens of their minions gleefully toss banned books onto the burning heap. The curators have placed hundreds of banned books from Jewish intellectuals like Freud, Marx and Remarque as well as Jewish religious books beneath in a deep well. A sign bears a quotation from the poet Heinrich Heine.
“Where books are burned, human beings are destined to be burned,” it reads.
The next hour of the exhibit takes in the historical beginnings of the Holocaust with the rejection of Judaism by the Christian Church and violence perpetrated against Jews for blood libel in which the blood of innocent Christian children is alleged to be used in the making of Passover matzoh.
The roots of anti-Semitism found in the Nazi movement go back far and the 1879 quote by Heinrich von Treitschke becomes a mantra for them: “The Jews are our misfortune.” The Russian-authored “Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” one of the greatest lies perpetrated against the Jewish people, is shown.
The story of Adolf Hitler and his recruitment into the Nazi Party is revealed. I learn, much to my chagrin, that Hitler was first the editor of the Nazi newspaper.
What clearly is established is a link between existing anti-Semitism and how it evolved into becoming the official policy of the state, which saw itself as a natural order of elites that depicted Jews as sub-human.
The next two hours are spent examining the rise of the Nazis, the programs that took away the rights of Jews and others living in areas they controlled. I see detailed accounts of Kristallnacht on the day that corresponds to roughly two weeks past the 80th anniversary of the date that scholars consider the beginning of the Holocaust.
Next come secret plans towards “the final solution” and the institution of the Eastern European Ghettos coupled with discrimination and criminalization in Western Europe. The Warsaw Ghetto is sealed. Hunger and starvation set in. I learn of the term muscleman, the ironic term employed to describe those whose bodies are wasting away from starvation.
Then I learn of the death camps and the Einsatzgruppen death squads who roamed Eastern Europe killing myriads with pistols and rifles. The numbers of dead become higher and higher as the war moves on and countries are occupied. Greece. Yugoslavia. The Netherlands.
Herman Goring is quoted:
“I would not like to be a Jew in Germany,” he says.
Deportations to death camps like Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka and others inspire some Jews to fight back. The death toll rises. The backs of the resistance are broken. There are lists of the numbers killed at Auschwitz-Birkenau that stagger the mind.
Then as I feel at my bleakest and most discordant, there are new numbers. Jews who were saved by Gentiles who would not stand idly by. There are numbers like in Denmark (7,200 saved) and in Bulgaria (50,000 saved) that give some consolation.
Several of the more prominent Righteous Among the Nations recognized by Yad Vashem are listed with their photos and stories. Among these are Raoul Wallenberg and Oskar Schindler.
There are beautiful vistas that bring me back to my present location in the hills outside Jerusalem. I walk towards the Hall of Remembrance, where world leaders come to pay their respect.
It is devoid of people. The hall is seen from a raised wooden platform that extends around half of the structure. When a dignitary comes to lay a wreath near the eternal flame that burns there, he is ushered down a set of stairs that is locked for all others. The darkness of the stone on the floor reflects back against the dimly-lit interior as the flame flickers.
By this time, I am ready to exit the main exhibit hall and check out several of the other smaller exhibits in other buildings on the site. Some revolve about the use of film as a propaganda device by the Nazis. Portions of Leni Riefenstahl’s “Triumph of the Will,” which depicts Hitler as an almost divine figure, and her documentary on the 1936 Olympics, “Olympia,” are shown with commentaries from her cameramen and assistant directors.
There is time for further reflection as I begin to move towards the exit. Just before the exit, I am upon the Children’s Memorial, a gift from a Los Angeles family in honor of their son. Inside the darkened exhibit is a number of memorial lights that are reflected by hundreds of mirrors that create the illusion of a million and a half lights as memorials for the childen who were lost.
It is so dark that it takes consummate skill to negotiate the thin pathway to the interior. Once there, I am taken by the exquisite beauty of what a few simple mirrors and candles can achieve in a proper setting. But the thought of so many dead haunts me. I am compelled to move forward.
There is a dampness on the ground and the air is full of a light spray of rain. It is threatening to pour as I move from the outside into the reception area again. I reclaim my bag and drop off the audio guide. I thank the staff for their hospitality, but in my rush I fail to pick up a packet of information promised to me by the public relations department.
I am deep in thought as I catch the light rail train back to the center of Jerusalem, where my conference is getting ready to start. I must register, I think to myself, but the heaviness of the past four hours plays in my head.
I find a seat next to an observant man in his 30s as the train continues down the track. At the next stop, several young ladies get on the train. Instinctively, I get up so as to offer them my seat. No one moves. Once the train gets moving again, it takes me about another minute looking at the ladies while standing there rocking to the rhythm of the rail as it barrels toward the city’s center.
None of the women will sit next to an observant man.
I’m not sure if it’s because they know he will complain or they have been trained not to sit next to a haredi man to prevent outbursts. I am struck by this dichotomy in Israeli society. There are secular Jews and there are observant Jews. They respect each other’s boundaries, it would seem.
I take my seat again, recognizing that only a man can sit where I am sitting.
As the train continued down the track, I reflected on the solemnity of having been to Yad Vashem and being witness again to the terrors of the Shoah. The Nazis carried out the most horrific campaign against the Jewish people and Yad Vashem exists to remind us all that we need to be vigilant against another attempted genocide.
Since the end of World War II, some 73 years ago, the State of Israel has been founded and Jews have established a homeland again, the first time in 2,000 years. More Jews live in Israel today than any other place in the world, including the United States. But even with all of the opportunities for Jews to live unmolested, there is still anti-Semitism in the world today.
It may surprise some to learn that we have still not recovered back to our pre-World War II numbers. Six million Jews is a number larger than the entire Jewish population in the United States today.
I think how wonderful it is for Jews to stand in solidarity with one another and to say “Never again!” Yad Vashem is to be respected for its leadership in the world and its designating righteous gentiles, but as the seat incident demonstrates to me, Israel’s society is complicated too. In many ways, it is still a book being written.
The good news is that the book that was written by Hitler, “Mein Kampf” (“My Struggle”), never realized its goal of a world without Jews. But, as its exhibits clearly show, it wasn’t for lack of trying.
As I got off the train, I had very little time to reflect, because the conference was getting ready to start. I needed to change into a suit, what Israelis call formal attire. As I did so, I thought about two traditional Jewish prayers, the Shema and the Shehecheyanu. The first prayer establishes the domain of the Almighty and the second one thanks the Lord for sustaining us from season to season.
In many cases, the Shema was the last prayer uttered by the six million Jews who were slain. How wonderful we can recite the Shehecheyanu today as an indication that they who would have obliterated us did not succeed. It is important that Yad Vashem and remembrances like World Holocaust Day and Yom Ha’Shoah exist for that very reason.
I am glad I had the opportunity to visit Yad Vashem this trip and would encourage anyone who has not gone before to take the time out to visit this important site. It’s as important today as it ever has been.