Monday, October 25, 2010
A Visit To Yad Vashem
Yad Vashem was already crowded by 10 AM. Soldiers are required to make a visit and there was troop after troop taking docent-led tours. But mostly there were busloads of Christian European tourists. There were hardly any people that came on their own. The museum was actually so crowded near the entryway that I decided to go through the exhibits backwards. I got about halfway through before I ran into the wave of 10 AM tourists and stopped. I already knew the story. I didn't have to see the whole thing. What I saw was well done, serious and emotional without being affected.
I watched as an old man stood and looked around with his son, who was about my age, and talked in Yiddish. "This is how it was," the old man said, his head scanning the visuals and looking a little overwhelmed.
Part of me wondered who needs to see this? Not me. I lived these experiences just about every day of my childhood. The European visitors? It's the ones who have no wish to see such things that should visit, not the kind-hearted souls that I saw that day. The soldiers, all fresh faced and so young? I can understand the wish of the Israeli Army to have its troops be aware of the Holocaust, although Israeli students already study it in school.
If you read the British press or writings on Israel by the American left, there are two twisted strains of thought concerning the Holocaust that come up not infrequently. One is that Israel plays the "Holocaust card" to generate sympathy and justify its misdeeds. Israel has supposedly turned the Holocaust into a political tool. This idea is both idiotic and callous. Yes, the Israeli state would never have been created without the Holocaust. Yes, there is the fervent belief that mass murder of Jews will never be allowed to happen again. But there is no trivialization of the Holocaust for political reasons.
I think what the left and the British press are saying is that they wish the Holocaust wouldn't be so powerful an event. They don't like the Israeli state, but they can't get rid of it. If only the Holocaust weren't so tragic a symbol, I think is what they are saying.
I heard this same sentiment once while having a conversation with a Palestinian from Gaza. "Don't you think the Jews overemphasize the Holocaust?" He asked me. I was driving a van when he asked me this question. I nearly pulled over and thought about slugging him. "There are 15 people in this van," I said. "Imagine 200,000 vans like this. Those are the Jews of Poland, including all of my grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. Now imagine the people in 180,000 of those vans being pulled over and systematically murdered. That's what happened in Poland. You want me to trivialize this mass murder?"
This brings me to the second twisted strain of thought that I have read in the British press: that the Holocaust has made the Jewish people and the state of Israel too paranoid and too sensitive to slight and insult. The idea is that we Jews are psychologically damaged, so much so that we can't be trusted to govern a nation responsibly. This strain of thought is anti-Semitic plain and simple. It's bad enough that Europe - suffused with centuries of anti-Semitism - at best turned a blind eye to mass murder. Now some of those same anti-Semites are saying that because of the "scars" of mass murder, Jews continue to be suspect. It's not only anti-Semitic to express such a view, it's also horribly cruel.
As I noted earlier, I went to Yad Vashem not to visit the museum, but to see what resources were available for research in its library. There wasn't much there. There are testimonies of people who bore witness - some direct witnesses, most from friends and relatives who simply knew what happened - to the millions who died. There are some four million testimonies like this so far. The picture above comes from the physical collection of those testimonies, binder upon binder of pages in Yad Vashem's Hall of Names.
I looked online on one of Yad Vashem's computers and noticed that there were no pages for any of my family who died. My parents I know visited Yad Vashem. So had some of my relatives in Israel. But somehow no one filled out any forms in memory of their lost loved ones. I wanted to make up for that omission.
I could have filled out the witness forms online. But there was something about taking a piece of paper and filling out the forms physically at Yad Vashem. I took two sheets of paper, one for my grandfather and one for my great grandfather. I filled in the names and their backgrounds. I could have filled out several more forms for other relatives as well, but I wanted to make sure I had the details right before I did so.
It felt both satisfying and terribly sad to write down, ever so briefly, what I knew of these two people. I handed a clerk the forms. He took them without looking at me, and put them in a file drawer at his feet.
Am I psychologically scarred by the Holocaust? Certainly. I lived with and loved two people who would never and could never forget what happened to them during WWII. But my parents loved me dearly and I've known many who have suffered far worse during their childhoods than I did because of all those dark WWII stories. I happen to think those stories and the mood of my childhood home - aware of the past and defiantly trying to be joyous and productive despite that past - gave me strength.
You go on regardless. After visiting Yad Vashem, I went to Herzliyah, a coastal town named after the father of Zionism. I lived there at my great aunt and uncle's flat when I was a teen. I barely recognized the city, it had become so gentrified. When I was there as a kid, there was an older man, a Holocaust survivor who would hang out on the street near our flat day after day and just stare off into space. I asked my aunt about him once - the man was disturbing and scary - and she said he'd lost his wife and children in the War. That's how he was. He wasn't ever going to get better.
That man died I don't know when. My great aunt and uncle died several years ago. There are no daily reminders of the Holocaust in Herzliyah anymore. There are no daily reminders of the Holocaust anywhere in Israel or the US for that matter. All we have are places like Yad Vashem. Is that enough to keep the world from losing its humanity again? I thoroughly doubt it. Be that as it may, I'm thankful that Yad Vashem is there for those that wish and need to be reminded.