On a guided tour through Yad Vashem.
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The Einsatzgruppen did their best to kill promiscuously. But it was not enough for a regime bent on mass murder. Thus the ever-efficient Germans organized deportations to assembly-line death camps. The largest gallery in the history museum covers this period. The Nazis emphasized quantity. Heinrich Himmler explained in July 1942: “The existing extermination places in the East are unsuited to a large scale, long-term action. I have designated Auschwitz for this purpose.”
The museum presents the entire horrid saga — the forced deportations, the ruses to defuse suspicion, the suffocating rail trips, the humiliating arrivals, and the extermination of millions. Again, the story is not new, but the photos, relics, and testimonies remind us that real people lived and died. The numbers constantly threaten to overwhelm, but we see individual victims. Of course, not all Jews went willingly. The Warsaw Ghetto uprising was followed by resistance in other Jewish ghettos. Still the Nazis continued with the killings.
Perhaps the most poignant exhibit, which comes next, details “The World’s Silence.” We will never know how many Jews could have been saved had the allies targeted the extermination camps and accepted Jewish refugees early and often. But it is a moral stain that will never be washed away. At least there were “Righteous Among the Nations,” as the museum terms them, who acted, often at great personal risk, to save individuals and families. Their stories continue to inspire decades later. Raoul Wallenberg is well known. There were many others who are less famous but who were equally brave.
The next hall explores life in the camps, forced labor as well as extermination. Photos, artifacts, models, art, and testimony all detail a regimen of cruelty and death. Even the imminent end of war did not end the horror. For some liberation remained just out of reach, with death marches and execution. The purposes of the brutal evacuations were many: preserve needed labor, eliminate potential witnesses, and continue killing Jews. But others did survive, and soon the world knew everything.
The last exhibit covers the plight of the survivors. They managed to stay alive. But at what cost? They had been ravaged physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Their families had been killed, their communities had been destroyed, their nations had been wrecked. Survivor Herta Goldmann observed: “Slowly they told me they’re all gone, you’ve got no one left. I had survived alone. All the hope that I had a family, someone to return to, all of life, all those years, I prayed that I wouldn’t remain alone in the world. That’s that, the hope disappeared and then came the despair.”
How to move forward? Even liberation was only partial for many former inmates, who ended up in displaced persons camps, or victims of renewed pogroms in the east. How to rebuild an old life or build a new one? The desire to do the latter was, of course, a driving impulse in the creation of Israel.
But it was not just other Jews who lost so much from the Shoah. It was the rest of us. The Hall of Names brilliantly illustrates this point. The circular room is ringed with notebooks containing names and biographies of and testimonies about millions of victims. Explained my guide, one of Yad Vashem’s “primary objectives was to give victims back their names. We are not talking about six million numbers, but six million people.” After she found a page of testimony about her grandmother’s half-brother, who died at Auschwitz, “I was so excited. It meant he existed. All of a sudden the number had a name.”
The ceiling, essentially a cone rising skyward, contains more than 600 photos of the Nazis’ victims — men and women, young and old. A cross section of humanity that happened to be Jewish. My guide — a wonderfully expressive lady who hailed from Brooklyn — pointed at the pictures and said, there was the cure for cancer. And maybe it was, along with a new symphony, an improved source of energy, and a better computer — not to mention a richer and more diverse human community.
The hallway ends with a balcony overlooking Jerusalem. It is a stunning end to a powerful trip through one of the worst, if not the worst, period of human history. There’s more to the complex, including the Avenue of the Righteous Among the Nations, which acknowledges gentiles who saved Jews, as well as the Children’s Memorial, to the 1.5 million children who died in the Holocaust. And Yad Vashem’s mission is not just to display but to research and educate.
Human history is filled with much tragedy, war, and mass murder. But there’s nothing quite like the attempt by the Nazis to wipe out Europe’s Jews. It is an experience that should never be forgotten. And Yad Vashem will help ensure that it never is forgotten. Especially by Israelis.
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