Tuesday, December 24, 2002

Karen writes about Yad Vashem

We did go to Yad Vashem. It's not easy to describe. Approaching it from another perspective first: the museums we've visited in Israel are designed very differently than those in the U.S. The "one large building" with or without a garden with sculpture or benches is not really the standard look here. Certainly, the museums are large buildings. But they are more often, connected buildings that have open passageways connecting them, which continually keep the visitor experiencing the outside. The Israel Museum, for instance, brings you through a large visitor center/coat room/gift shop/cafeteria space, and then you leave that building in order to go "to the museum." By doing this, you cross through an open landscaped space filled with both modern and contemporary sculpture, and pieces of ancient mosaics. After about 100 yards of walking, you come upon another building, which is actually three interconnected buildings that have entrances on three different levels (Jerusalem being mountainous, it depends where along the open space you choose to enter the building). The Dead Sea Scrolls and their space was described earlier.

The Bible-Lands Museum (which is much, much better than this hokey name implies) is similar -- a large space, built in a vaguely ziggurat style, but still, there are places where you find yourself walking through an open door into a separate building, with the sky above you.

(a brief digression: the Bible-Lands Museum is well worth the visit for anyone interested in the development of civilization in this part of the world. The exhibits are beautifully laid out, and the overlay of pieces of scripture unexpectedly enhance the presentation: "Rebekah went to the well" is inscribed over a series of ancient pitchers and you suddenly realize -- it's THESE pitchers Rebekah would have carried. Ah.)

The archeological museums we visited in Zippori, Jerusalem, Jaffa, and Ceasarea are even more intriguing. For instance, in Jaffa and Jerusalem, we weren't really in a museum. We were in a cleaned-up archealogical dig that exposed a series of ancient Roman houses and streets, with a roof covering the entire area. The exhibited artifacts had never been moved from their original site -- the museum is literally built around them, the foundation stones bursting out of the floor path that has been put in for us to follow.

And then, Yad Vashem.

Similar in construction to these other Israel museums in that there are several buildings, each surrounded by greenery, trees, pathways. This is more than architecturally beautiful -- it is necessary to the visitor. We first visit a large one-story building. It is dark inside, except for a perpetual flame flickering. As our eyes get used to the darkness, we see that we are standing before a floor in which is inscribed the names of the camps where Jews were murdered. We learn that under the floor is the recovered ashes from the ovens, so that these victims can be buried here in Israel. I say kaddish, my throat already constricting with the difficulty of the experience.

And that is the first place. We leave, returning to sunlight, and a wide expanse, a stunning view of the hills of Jerusalem. The trees planted all around us each have a plaque - they are planted in memory of the Righteous Gentiles, those who helped in any way they could to save the Jews. There are hundreds of trees.

We move into the second building. This is the historical building, two or three stories that begin with the history of anti-semitism, and then the rise of Nazi-ism and modern anti-semitism. It is a static exhibit, in one way (my American eyes are used to the US Holocaust Museum, with its video screens embedded next to posters and photographs), but that's more than enough for me. It is still a brutal exhibit of a brutal history.

We are with a small number of English speakers being led through by a guide. I feel briefly sorry for the Americans with us who are shocked to learn that Roosevelt chose not to increase the Jewish immigration numbers during the war. Our guide is describing bomb raids on factories adjacent to the camps, and prisoners desperately screaming, pleading, writing to the American forces begging to have the camp bombed. We see the letters that inform Roosevelt exactly what the purpose of the camps are, and we see the official American response to refrain from bombing them. One woman in our group quaveringly asks "why didn't Roosevelt stop them?" And the guide turning unblinking sabra eyes to her to say "because they were Jews. And no one wanted the Jews." The documents next to the photographs clearly state this. It is terrible to see, but I am at least better informed about this part of American history than the woman beside me, who is nearly unable to continue to the tour because of her shock.

The Hall of Names. I don't know what I expected to see when we followed that sign. Perhaps an artistic rendering, similar to that in the US Holocaust Museum, of inscribed names on cut glass, names of the Righteous. But no, at Yad Vashem, the Hall of Names is a hall of card catalogues. It's the size of the main card catalogue room in the Israel National Library. The card catalogues cannot be approached, but there are copies of some of the documents that are kept in them, and we look at those. They are 5x7 index cards with photographs. Names. Last known residence. Camp, if known. And a verification signature of someone still living, a relative who traveled to Yad Vashem to find their sister, uncle, grandparent's name, and confirm that yes, they were part of the Jewish people, and should be remembered here. I see signatures from 1987, from residents in Brooklyn, Philadelphia, London, Moscow, who visited this place in order to make sure their relative is recorded at Yad Vashem.

This museum also has art, sculptures and paintings that comprise the largest collection of Holocaust art in the world. It also houses a collection of art previously owned by Jews -- art that was stolen by the Nazis, and later recovered. Of course, many of the owners were murdered. At a recent auction at Christie's, a well known Jewish philanthropist, Ron Lauder, purchased a huge collection of this recovered art, and donated it to Yad Vashem. Some of the art is Jewish, some not -- but its presence in the museum is very appropriate. This is what Jews had in their houses. These are paintings that someone used to own who should have been able to pass it on to their children. So now it's here.

We leave that building, and burst into another large open space. Now I truly understand the need for these spaces. The buildings are beautifully constructed, but what they contain can crush you. We need to breathe. We see a large landscaped construction and head toward it, to find out that it is a monument to those Jewish soldiers who fought and died on the Allied side. We head back through the trees, via the Avenue of the Righteous, and past some of the stunning and famous Holocaust sculptures that are stark against the grey skies.

On our return toward the beginning of this vast campus, we visit the Children's Museum. I cannot describe it adequately. The space is dark, with yarhzeit candles burning through walls and mirrors, until we find ourselves in a dark space punctuated by flickering flames. In one area are faces of children projected onto an invisible wall, but mostly it's candles. And voices. Naming children. Their ages. Three. Seven. Nine. Where they are from. It is a profoundly moving place.

Before I finish this message, I must ask you to think about these spaces now, filled with soldiers. Because it turns out that the Israel Defense Forces are required to visit Yad Vashem as part of their training. The officers are required to lead their units through, acting as tour guides. Everywhere we go, olive uniforms and M-16's surround us. Young faces, but hundreds of them, moving in groups of 20 or so. We are first afraid to push ourselves past these guns (wouldn't you be?), but after watching our tour guide do so, we realize that it's not a problem. The soldiers move aside as we travel through the closed spaces, the open spaces. We pass groups of them on the lawns, standing in large circles, listening to their officers. We are nearly crushed by them as they move into new exhibit spaces, staring at the posters that read "Death to Jews" in all of the modern European languages. Together, we look at the photographs of the leader of the Mosque in Jerusalem meeting with Hitler, shaking hands and agreeing that they have a common enemy. That strikes close to home for these soldiers.

When I first visited the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC, it was during the 1993 March on Washington. The Museum had opened just that month, and thousands of gay men and lesbians were standing in line to visit the space. Together, we traveled through that incredible space, Jews and queers, sometimes together, sometimes even comforting each other. Outside, on the mall, was the AIDS quilt. Our communities know far too much about devastating death and lack of government response. The collective pain was palpable that day.

At Yad Vashem, the pain is not just palpable, it is still alive. I felt that even more, surrounded by soldiers. This place is here so that these young people can see one of the most important reasons why they are in uniform, why they must be called to fight. It is a terrible thing, and yet... what monuments do we have in the US that are REQUIRED as part of our military's education?

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