Yesterday, was a national holiday here in Israel: Holocaust Remembrance day. There is a national time of silence at 10am where everything in the country stops and people stand still to commemorate those lost in the Shoah. It was eery experiencing the act of an entire country stopping for one minute. The only silence deeper than that of an entire country taking a collective breath, is that of death.
This year, I was in Jerusalem for Easter. I decided to make that the day that I would go to the Israeli museum devoted to the Holocaust, Yad Vashem. Normally, I go out of my way to avoid all things related to the Holocaust but I felt that this museum was important for my understanding of Israel.
I went into my experience in Yad Vashem with memories of the Washington DC Holocaust Museum. The DC museum is an architectural work of art. It is beautifully designed and inspired the redesign of Yad Vashem 5 years ago.
The content, however, is a different story. The Holocaust is depressing and there is no way around it. But there are ways of presenting the narrative that end with a measured amount of optimism and hope that humanity has learned something. The museum in DC does not do this. In fact, one of the last rooms you into in that museum describes genocides and ethnic cleansing that have happened since (Rwanda, Darfur, Cambodia, etc.).
Also, it is worth begging the question: why is there a Holocaust Museum in the capital of the United States? The answer lays in America’s powerful Jewish lobbies vested interest in perpetuating the narrative of Jewish victimhood. Their interest is in keeping the attention and thoughts on what will happen to Israel should America withdraw its support.
Yad Vashem’s purpose is different. It has a three-pronged purpose. The first, is to research the victims and keep their memories and stories by collecting interviews with survivors, documents (birth certificates, passports, etc.), memoirs, photographs, and personal items belonging to victims (clothes, toys, etc.). The archive of Holocaust items in Yad Vashem is the largest and most thorough one of its kind in the world.
The second purpose, is to tell the story of the Holocaust and its victims. They do this through the Museum. The narrative presented is surprisingly balanced and detailed. As one walks through the exhibits there is special care to explain how ordinary people are swept up by extraordinary events. As I walked through the museum I found myself wondering if it had been me in Nazi Germany what would I have done? Like most people, I would like to hope that I would have fought in the resistance or helped hide a Jewish family but who knows? The propaganda of the time was so insidious and Hitler was so charismatic.
Yad Vashem’s final purpose is trying to interpret the impact and cultural significance of the Holocaust while it happened and since it ended. The museum has a huge collection of art and literature having to do with that time. While I was there, there was an exhibit of art from the ghettos.
As the people who were alive during WWII pass on, I feel that this is the most important thing that Yad Vashem does. As the years go by the legacy of the Shoah will be less asking how it happened and more how do we interpret it.