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Survey of the month

Yad Vashem

Yad Vashem
12.04.2007

I want to mark the upcoming Holocaust Remembrance Day (Sunday night April 15- Monday April 16) with a column about Yad Vashem, Israel's "National Authority for the Remembrance of the Martyrs and Heroes of the Holocaust."
Let me begin by saying that if you haven't already visited it, Yad Vashem's new Holocaust history museum (which opened in March of 2005) needs to be on your itinerary the next time you travel to Israel.  The new museum is four times the size of the old museum, is graced by the stunning architectural design of Moshe Safdie, and uses original physical materials and videos to create an extremely powerful, emotional experience.  Simply put, you have not been to Yad Vashem if you have not seen the new museum. 
It is easy to become emotionally drained after one's visit to the history museum, and thus many people's experience of Yad Vashem essentially begins and ends with the museum.  But Yad Vashem spreads out over 45-acres and includes such other sites as the Hall of Remembrance, the Valley of the Communities, the Children's Memorial, and the Garden of the Righteous Among the Nations.  I would like to highlight 2 of these sites, one because of its extraordinary emotional import and a second because it is emblematic of a certain troubling perspective on the Holocaust.  It should be noted that one does not have to enter the history museum in order to access Yad Vashem's other sites, and also: admission to the entire Yad Vashem campus is free. 
About a 10 minute walk from the history museum is an absolutely breathtaking installation entitled "The Cattle Car: Memorial to the Deportees" (Moshe Safdie, 1995).  On its website Yad Vashem says about this memorial:  "An original cattle-car, appropriated by the German Railway authorities and given to Yad Vashem by the Polish authorities, stands at the center of the memorial site. It stands on an iron track which juts out from the slopes of Yad Vashem into the Judean hillside. The cattle-car is perched on the edge of the severed track, paused on the brink of the abyss."  What makes this installation so viscerally shaking is that one feels the abyss that is the Holocaust as one looks upon the cattle car perched over nothingness. (I once heard Elie Wiesel speak of the Holocaust as a nightmarish abyss, which if looked upon directly can cause insanity.  This was why, according to Wiesel, he only stared directly at the Holocaust in "Night," his first book, whereas his many other works since then have circled around the abyss.)  
Between the new history museum and "The Cattle Car" is the "Memorial to the Jewish Soldiers and Partisans" (Bernie Fink, 1985).  This monument "consists of six oblong granite blocks arranged in two groups and set in such a way that their inner edges form a window in the shape of the Star of David.  The window, in turn, is dissected by the giant stainless steel blade of a sword" (from Yad Vadhem’s website). The Memorial bears the following inscription in Hebrew, English, Russian, French, and Yiddish: "Glory be to the Jewish Soldiers and Partisans who fought against Nazi Germany." Here we come to a perspective on the Holocaust that I had hoped would have disappeared by now.  I ask you: why separate out the Jewish soldiers of the Allies who fought against the Nazis from the non-Jewish ones?  This question is all the more pertinent when one realizes that Jewish partisans and allied soldiers are (with others) already memorialized in Buky Schwartz's towering "Pillar of Heroism” (1970), located elsewhere on the Yad Vashem campus.  Why then was a separate huge memorial needed to specifically highlight Jewish fighters?  There is one obvious reason: To show that Jews can fight.  Why is this important?  Because apparently Yad Vashem still feels that it is its duty to counter the "sheep to the slaughter" image of the Jew in the Holocaust.  And though this Memorial was made in 1985, the new history museum tacitly continues this approach. 
It is hard to imagine that there is a single instance of armed Jewish resistance in the Holocaust that is not highlighted in the new history museum.  A surprisingly large number of the survivors, who speak from the many video screens throughout the museum, seem to have been selected precisely for their acts of violent resistance.  One emerges from the museum thinking that there was a significant statistical connection in the Holocaust between violent resistance and survival.  I wish that the designers of the new museum had studied The Survivor by Terrence Des Pres, for after one reads this book (and others like it) one cannot help but accord all those who survived the Holocaust with basic respect and dignity.  Yad Vashem continues to create a hierarchy of survival by privileging armed resistance.  Perhaps one day Yad Vashem will learn that surviving the Holocaust is and was good enough. 
 Copyright 2007, Teddy Weinberger