I think a person could easily spend a whole day in Jerusalem’s Yad Veshem Holocaust History Museum, Israel’s national memorial to the victims and the heroes of that horrible time in history, and not have time to take in every detail. We had an hour and a half! While some of us would probably have liked longer, I don’t know how much more we could have handled. After awhile, I think the horror would have been too much.
From beginning to end, the museum tells the story of those terrible years from a uniquely Jewish perspective. As visitors move from one gallery to the next, the displays, filled with artifacts, documents, survivor testimonies, diaries, letters, personal possessions and works of art, emphasize the experiences of individual victims. Beginning with Nazi Germany and its anti-Jewish policies prior to the outbreak of World War II and carrying through to post-war days when survivors sought to return to some sort of normal life again, it is a dramatic reminder of man’s inhumanity to man.
The circular Hall of Names at Yad Vashem is the Jewish people’s memorial to each and every Jew who perished in the Holocaust, a place where they may be commemorated for generations to come. Shelves around the outer edge of the cavernous hall hold the Pages of Testimony containing short biographies of each Holocaust victim. Over two million Pages are stored in the repository and there is room for six million in all, the number of men, women and children who were murdered by the Nazis and their accomplices.
Photo taking is not allowed inside the galleries, but I will seek to share a few of my strongest impressions:
- Reading some of the details and quotations expressing anti-Jewish sentiment from the years prior to the Holocaust was especially disturbing because they sounded so familiar, so reminiscent of anti-Muslim and anti-refugee sentiments that we’ve been hearing in recent days. Is our world not ripe for something this evil to happen again?
- Learning that at least one ship full of Jewish refugees headed to Cuba was turned away angered me. Refused refuge by both Canada and the US, it was forced to return to Europe. While some passengers were allowed to stay in Britain, others were forced to return to the mainland. I’ve seldom felt ashamed to be Canadian, but in the moment when I read that, I did.
- Being reminded that in a situation like the Holocaust, everyone is involved either as victim, perpetrator, hero or part of the apathetic masses who fail to get involved or who follow corrupt leaders out of fear, I had to ask myself, which category I would fall into. Would I have the courage to stand by my convictions against such forces of evil?
- Watching numerous video clips of survivors bravely telling their stories had a powerful impact on me. How thankful I am that these recordings were made. As the number of victims rapidly dwindles due to the passage of time, their stories will continue to be heard.
Our guide, Shimon, didn’t go into the museum with us. We assumed that he had probably been many times before, but he told us afterward that he has never been inside. He doesn’t need a museum to remind him of the effects of the Holocaust. Leaving their families behind, his parents came to Israel from eastern Europe as teenagers prior to World War II. It wasn’t until after the war that they learned that their entire families had perished. Shimon grew up with no extended family; no grandparents, aunts, uncles or cousins. Apparently this wasn’t uncommon for his generation in Israel. He also told us the story of his father-in-law who lost his first wife and their two children in the Holocaust, a secret that he told no one until moments before his death.
Outside the museum is the Garden of the Righteous. Trees, a symbol of the renewal of life, were planted here in honour of those non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the war.