Editor’s note: the last time I visited Yad Vashem was in 1998, and the memory is still vivid. As Sam writes so eloquently, it is a place that will change you. For more of Sam’s articles here on The Royal Tour, click here to visit his index.
Today is Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Memorial Day as marked by the Jewish world. Much of my travel has been to places to see firsthand the places where the worst atrocities against my people and humankind took place. In the past, I have written about some of these places, such as Auschwitz and Theresienstadt, and visited places that I have yet to write about, such as my travels throughout Germany. However, places that are also fascinating and document the horrors of the Holocaust are the many memorials and museums in the places where the Holocaust did not take place, but where it is still remembered. There are many Holocaust memorials and museums throughout the world; I recently went past one in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and visited the one prominently displayed in central Boston. Denver has a memorial and park dedicated specifically to the memory of the victims of the massacre at the Babi Yar ravine in Ukraine, and even my city of Salt Lake City has a beautiful Holocaust memorial garden at the Jewish Community Center. In my previous home of Los Angeles, there was not one, but two museums dedicated to the memory of the Holocaust, The Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Museum of Tolerance and the Holocaust Museum LA; and near the National Mall, the nation’s government established the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. People have wondered why there should be museums and memorials in the places where the Holocaust did not happen; it is because it is essential that people in places everywhere remember and learn from the inhumanity demonstrated during the Holocaust, and also to give the Jewish people a place for solace due to the pain permanently instilled in the collective narrative of the Jewish people that we will endure for as long as we exist. However, the most important and impressive Holocaust Museum, I believe, is Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, Israel.
Yad Vashem literally means “a memory and a name,” coming from the biblical quote of Isaiah 56:5, which says that God gave to every person a memory and a name. With the over 6 million Jews killed in the Holocaust, it is important to remember that each of these individuals was a unique person, with a name and memories of who they were in this world, which can be forgotten due to the magnitude of the Holocaust. Yad Vashem is a free museum and is considered a must for any visitor to Israel (though small children are not allowed to visit); in fact when foreign dignitaries visit Israel, it is protocol for them to lay a wreath in the Hall of Remembrance there, a dark room with an eternal flame and a floor showing the names of the major death camps of the Holocaust. When visiting Yad Vashem, you will often notice groups of young Israeli soldiers touring the museum; this is part of their training so that they realize the importance of their service in defending the Jewish people and ensuring the survival of a Jewish state for the Jewish people to seek refuge when necessary.
I unfortunately do not have many pictures of Yad Vashem, as understandably pictures are not allowed inside the museum or other indoor memorials on the site. The main museum begins with a giant screen and videos put inside windows of homes from still pictures of streets of shtetls, Jewish villages from Eastern Europe, of Jewish life before the Holocaust. As a lover of Jewish history, where I experience frustration and resentment towards Holocaust studies is that the Jewish people have a rich history dating back over 3000 years. Yet, there is more written about the dark seven-year-period of 1938 to 1945 than any other time frame – by far – in Jewish history. The opening exhibit at Yad Vashem shows the vibrant Jewish life that took place in these areas prior to the Holocaust. From there, you will go down to an exhibit showing items found in the pockets of victims from massacres in Latvia and Lithuania. In the next room, there is a display showing the history of anti-Semitism and the beginning of Nazism and their anti-Semitic rhetoric. As you go through the museum, visitors will zigzag through exhibits that chronologically go through the Holocaust, showing the progression of the genocide and how it was carried out. The exhibits show the graphic brutality of the Holocaust and video footage of children literally starving to death; there are video exhibits showing testimonies of survivors and clips from Nazi documentation of their crimes. There are areas that show models of gas chambers, a glass floor with shoes of victims underneath, the original cobblestone streets of a ghetto, and the rebuilt bunks of a concentration camp. At each exhibit the visitor will continue to zigzag downwards. However, abruptly, there are exhibits on Righteous Gentiles, non-Jewish people who, at risk to their own lives, saved Jewish people, including the entire nation of Denmark. There are then exhibits on liberation and the creation of the State of Israel, and as these more positive stories are told, the zigzagging begins to move on an upward slope. Right before the exit of the museum is a deep reflecting pool below the floor and into the earth, with the reflections of pictures of victims being shown to those who look below. In the circular room there are hundreds of binders, each filled with paper, with each paper being the name and story of a Holocaust victim. Yad Vashem has been able to create a database of over 5 million Holocaust victims. There are computers there where individuals can do their own research on their family history. Being from Ukraine, my family did not go to concentration camps; rather, they were shot in the forests into mass graves by the Nazis. As a result, there are few records on what happened to them. My relatives in America at the time knew something bad had happened to them as they had continued correspondence in letters until the letters stopped arriving. Through the Yad Vashem database, I have been able to find answers to the many unanswered questions that my family had had. When you exit the museum, you are treated to a view of the hillside of Jerusalem.
The Yad Vashem Museum was designed in a thoughtful and strategic way. Initially, they had planned to create a museum shaped as a flower, and from the middle of the flower, you could go to various petals that told the story of different groups of people who went through the Holocaust. However, they decided against this model, because the victims of the Holocaust did not get to choose their own adventure. Instead, they built a museum that forces the visitor to go through the totality of the Holocaust with a descent as the situation gets worse, and then an ascent to the modern State of Israel. It is as moving as it is clearly reinforcing a narrative of the Zionist movement and the Israeli government. The grounds of Yad Vashem are also worth spending a significant amount of time exploring; there is the previously mentioned Hall of Remembrance, a memorial to those who went through gas chambers, and a sculpture featuring malnourished contorted bodies that had thrown themselves onto electric barbed wire, choosing death as opposed to suffering further in concentration camps. There is a replica of Warsaw’s memorial to Mordechai Anielewicz, the leader of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, in front of which there is the annual Yom HaShoah state ceremony. Throughout the grounds are trees with plaques dedicated in front of them, each in honor of a Righteous Gentile, and there is a pathway to a little visited place beneath the museum called the Valley of the Communities. There, you will see a cattle car actually used for deportations suspended on a track above the ground; it is unclear which direction it is going, symbolic of how those being transported in the Holocaust did not know where they were going. At the bottom is a rock garden with massive rock walls, creating a confusing and imposing maze that has inscribed on the walls the names of thousands of communities that had been so rich in Jewish history that were decimated during the Holocaust.
However, perhaps the most touching memorial at Yad Vashem is the Children’s Memorial. It was paid for by a couple who survived the Holocaust and later amassed a great fortune, but sadly, their infant son, Uziel, whose smiling face is sculpted outside of the entrance to the memorial was one of the 1.5 million Jewish children killed in the Holocaust. Though the Holocaust occurred less than 80 years ago, it is becoming rare to meet Holocaust survivors; young children typically either starved or were automatically killed by the Nazis as they could not work. The memorial is built to replicate a gas chamber that you have to walk down to go inside. Inside, the room is completely dark at first, except for the images of the faces of child victims of the Holocaust lighting up before fading away. Overhead, you hear a voice reading the name, age, and place of death of child after child, and then upon stepping into the main room, visitors see millions of candle-lit flames. However, after a moment, you will realize that there are only a handful of actual lights, the rest of the lights are all mirrors displaying the reflection of those few candles, which is to demonstrate not only the children who died in the Holocaust, but all of the potential and future generations that were extinguished as a result of hate. I have been to Yad Vashem more times than I can count, and yet, going to this memorial always touches me profoundly; however, on my most recent visit, being now the father of an infant Jewish daughter, it affected me far more personally. When you exit the children’s memorial, there is a beautiful statue tribute to Janusz Korczak, the Polish educator and children’s author who ran an orphanage during World War II, and the children for whom he cared. Korczak had plenty of opportunities to escape the Holocaust, but refused to leave these children behind. When the children were being sent to the Treblinka gas chamber, he chose to go with them, sealing his own fate, so that the children he loved would not perish alone without him.
Often coupled with Yad Vashem – and right next door to the museum – is Mount Herzl, often described as Israel’s equivalent of Arlington National Cemetery, where the Zionist leaders, former presidents, prime ministers, national leaders, and those who were killed in combat are buried. It is a peaceful place for the thousands who are interred there who largely met such violent ends. To walk through Mount Herzl is to walk through the history and sacrifice of the Israeli people and is a solemn and touching experience. The two sites, Yad Vashem and Mount Herzl, next to each other, are helpful to visit together as a reminder that we must not only never forget the Holocaust, but sacrifice whatever is necessary to prevent such occurrences from happening again.
No matter your story, Yad Vashem will change you. While other places that I have written about are great to visit for a fun adventure, Yad Vashem is a place that every person should visit in their lifetime not only for their own growth, but to be given thought on the necessity to forward the causes of kindness and humanity in our world. Yad Vashem will change you, but if history has shown us anything, it is incumbent on us to change the world to ensure that bigotry, xenophobia, and genocide are not a part of our future.
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