Yad Vashem is the Jewish Holocaust Museum located in Jerusalem. Visiting this museum was one of the more profound and heart-wrenching experiences of the trip, and it went a long way toward explaining some other things going on in Israel that are very hard to understand. We were not allowed to take any photos in the museum, but I did capture a few of the grounds and the children’s memorial. We were able to experience this individually and by ourselves, and that was without a doubt the best way to do it. The museum is massive and there is an awful lot to take in.
Hatred for the Jews was nothing new by the time of the holocaust. Since the rise of Christianity, Jews had been humiliated, tormented and driven from their homes for centuries. They were persecuted mostly for their rejection of Jesus as the messiah, and during the middle ages they were frequently portrayed as being offspring of the devil who murdered Christian children as part of their ritual. By the middle of the nineteenth century, anti-Semitism became a racial standard in Europe, but even more emphatically in Germany. With the rise of Hitler to power in the 1930’s, anti-Semitism became a political instrument which ultimately led to an official policy. Jewishness began to be seen as biological, and where previously a Jew could opt to change faith traditions in order to avoid persecution, the biological stigma now eliminated that possibility. Jews began to be viewed as a “subhuman” race with an agenda to deprive the “supreme race” of its leadership and dominance, and if they weren’t stopped they would ultimately bring about the extermination of the entire human race.
Losing WWI was a bitter pill for Germans to swallow, and much of the blame was placed on the Jews. The pendulum had shifted to the perfect position for radical right wing groups to seem credible and the Nazi party found itself to be the leaders of the pack following the start of the economic crisis in 1930. In 1933, Hitler became the new German Chancellor. There were only about 500,000 Jews in Germany during the 1930’s. Many thought that they were disappearing from the German scene altogether. Yet the Nazi party turned the spotlight on them with the sole intention of either destroying them or driving them out completely. They did not stop there either. Gypsies, homosexuals, the disabled, Catholics and even Jehovah’s Witnesses were rounded up and carted off to the death camps.
The Jews tried to leave the country, but other countries were not willing to absorb them – including the US. Jews from other surrounding countries began to be targeted. In the final analysis, approximately 6 million European Jews were murdered as well as an equal number of people from other groups.
“If we wish to live and to bequeath life to our offspring, if we believe that we are to pave the way to the future, then we must first of all not forget.”
(Prof. Ben Zion Dinur, Yad Vashem, 1956)
After the war, the surviving Jews tried to return to their homes but were met with hostility. They were not met with open arms by other countries, and many wound up in refugee camps. With the establishment of the State of Israel in May 1948, Jewish displaced persons and refugees began streaming into the new sovereign state. Possibly as many as 170,000 immigrated to Israel by 1953.
Yad Vashem is about remembering. Names, dates, stories, possessions, all are gathered and brought to Yad Vashem to remember. When you walk in the door, the first thing you are met with is a giant screen that shows scenes from people’s lives and scenes from Nazi Germany. The intention is to make the people who were killed real. It is easy to not be affected by murder when we don’t know the victim. At that point it is not so much a person who was murdered, but a statistic. We are told of murders all the time on television. When the report is just a short blurb and then they move on to something else, we hardly notice. It is only when the story is covered in depth and loved ones are allowed to speak that we become involved and even angry. Yad Vashem is about making the victims real and keeping their memories alive. Jews have a rallying cry for the Holocaust. It’s written in the blood of millions: Never Again. And as you move through the museum each presentation is a reminder that cries out “Never Again”.
The exhibits are piled one on top of another. One barely has time to absorb one horror before moving on to the next atrocity. It is a never ending stream of humiliation, torture and death. And just as soon as you start to become a little desensitized, there is a display of personal belongings, or letters, or wedding pictures to jog you back to a full heart of emotions. One of the things that got to me the most was a big huge area that was filled with shoes. Men’s, women’s and children’s shoes…all worn by human beings who had walked long distances wearing the shoes. Where had those shoes been? Had they absorbed the fear of their owners?
Over and over as I walked through the museum, the one thing that kept running through my mind was “how could one human being do this to another?” It seems that when we think about the holocaust, here in the US, we tend to think that something like that could never possibly happen in our modern world. We believe that we have evolved past all that nonsense. We are so sheltered, and we are so naive.
While we were at the museum, it was so filled with people that it was difficult to move about. It was not the same type of crowd as at the Garden of Gethsemane where people were stumbling over one another in their eagerness to touch and be touched by holy relics. The museum was full of young people – thousands of them. Most of them were younger than 25 and a lot of them were not even in their twenties yet. At least half of them were soldiers and many of them were there as part of the Birthright Israel program which provides a free trip to Israel for any Jewish young adult, anywhere in the world, between the ages of 18 and 26. “Never Again” is being stamped on the hearts and minds of every young person of Jewish descent…and then they are being handed an M-16 to carry.
To see my photos click on the album cover