In Edward Rothstein’s New York Times article “Holocaust Museums in Israel Evolve,” he argues that Yad Vashem is a “stunning counterexample” of Holocaust museums in Israel that “attempt to seduce us into shock” because it “scrupulously avoids moralizing or posturing.” Based on my experience of Yad Vashem (with a guide who gave a performance that deliberately set out to induce tears), I completely disagree with Rothstein’s observations. Although he does not specify whether he toured the museum on his own or with a guide, I would expect that either way the experience would certainly have been much different for the two of us (and for the thousands who visit the museum on a weekly basis). Nonetheless, the museum itself presents a clear chronology of many historical, sociological, and cultural events that not only increased the severity of anti-semitism in Europe, but also influenced the creation and execution of the “Final Solution” during WWII. Along with this are hundreds of images, posters, articles of clothing, survivor testimonies, and video footage that account for the Jewish experience during that time. Together, these pieces certainly indicate that Yad Vashem is more than a piece of history, but also a memory with a moralizing tale to share with the world.
According to the museum’s website, it serves “as the Jewish people’s living memorial to the Holocaust, [which] safeguards the memory of the past and imparts its meaning for future generations.” In this short description, Yad Vashem clearly expresses that it’s purpose is to impart meaning. So, does this immediately invalidate Rothstein’s observations? Not necessarily.
I went to Yad Vashem expecting to put a name to a face, to understand the story behind the lives lost, and to hear the testimonies of those who survived. Essentially, to understand this moment in history from the Jewish perspective. Through old photographs and drawings, we were told about individuals, European Jewry, and their lives before the war. As time wore on, the tensions in Germany escalated and the collective humiliation of the Jews was taken to the streets, into their businesses, and indicated by a yellow star of David attached to their clothes. Yad Vashem “a memorial and a name,” serves as a reminder of these events, how they developed, and how the Jews were treated, particularly by the architects of the final solution and the outcome of this bleak endeavour.
Despite this historically sound and informative narrative presented by each exhibit, the experience at Yad Vashem was uncomfortable. This was not because I had never been exposed to the reality and atrocities of the Holocaust, but because our guide forcefully imposed empathy and guilt—a confusing pair of emotions for any person to experience in one sitting. That said, the guide knew exactly which details to emphasize to make us cry, to put us in the shoes of the victims and survivors, and, if you didn’t cry, you couldn’t help but feel guilty, as if you were one of the “killers.” To clarify, this term was consistently used by our guide to describe the Germans and those who claimed they knew nothing about what was happening to the Jews. By criticizing this aspect of the guided tour, I do not wish to downplay the severity of these events and the emotions that play into telling this part of Jewish history, which has greatly affected Jewish identity. I do wish to highlight, however, that this play on our emotions as Jews and non-Jews made it difficult to analyze and be critical of Yad Vashem’s representation of the Holocaust. During my visit, I was expecting to engage in an intellectual and educational experience, which the museum itself does offer, but it was overshadowed by a guide who had the intention of evoking an emotional response from our group.
If we reconsider Rothstein’s argument that “temptations are strong to replace historical analysis with sentiment” (at Holocaust museums in Israel), it is hard not to say that this is also true of Yad Vashem, especially when it’s own promotional video, “Yad Vashem: Remembering the Past, Shaping the Future” (2009), states that the “goal is to infuse Holocaust memory with content and meaning.” This appeals to the museum’s mission to inspire the remaining survivors and their families to tell their stories and to donate information about their experiences and the names of those lost to the archive. It also imparts a general message that all people, whether or not they are Jewish, can identify with (i.e. the “promotion of peace, tolerance, [and] coexistence”). Lohamei Haghetaot, the “Ghetto Fighters’ House” Museum and Kibbutz, has a similar mission. Rothstein’s article discusses how when the museum was founded in 1949, “an element of shame was associated with the seeming passivity of Jews who were murdered in Europe. So the emphasis…was at first placed not on survival, but rather on rebellion.” It therefore valorizes the human spirit and its ability to resist destruction. The guide argued that the historical narrative of the Holocaust at Lohamei Haghetaot is much different than the typical “academic” and historical approach to this topic. It focuses on how Jews resisted in Europe and the desire to keep their community flourishing, even today. That said, it is not about victims, the public silencing of their stories, nor a focus on the perpetrator. Instead, the narrative of the museum is about spiritual resistance and about individuals, not just the Nazis vs. the Allies.
In a video posted by Lohamei Haghetaot, called “The Moral Imperative” (2009), it states that its purpose is to tell “the story of the Holocaust but [to focus] on the fight for life, the triumph of the human spirit, and the wonderful ability of Holocaust survivors and resistance fighters to rebuild their lives and educate for a just and moral society.” To further emphasize this vision, the Center for Humanistic Education was established by the Ghetto Fighters’ House in 1995, which focuses on the “universal lessons” of the Holocaust, rather than “national” ones. The idea is to promote tolerance in Israel today between Arabs and Jews by using the Holocaust as a moral and ethical lesson that validates a movement toward improving intercultural relations. According to Rothstein, this “search for broad relevance…leaves Holocaust museums intellectually orphaned.” Furthermore, “the impulse has been to generalize, to say that a Holocaust museum can’t be “just” about the murder of Jews during World War II.” So, if that is the case, then what “lessons” are we supposed to take away?
To elaborate on this, Rothstein asks these pointed questions: Why should Holocaust museums deal with notions of tolerance or racism in general, or even genocide in general? Why do we think that the proper lesson comes from generalizing rather than comprehending the particular?
In response, he argues that “the moment we generalize, we strip away details: we lose information and create equivalences that may be fallacious.” Although this is a valid criticism, Rothstein fails to note how Holocaust testimonies themselves are subject to generalizations, lost information, and conflations, which speaks to the frailty of human memory, especially in relation to trauma. As a result, does this then offer some credence to the emerging “moral imperative” of Israel’s Holocaust museums? In all of this, I think the better question to ask is addressed in Dalia Ofer’s review article on the memory and representation of the Holocaust in Israel: how does one shape both individual and collective memory regarding the Holocaust on a cultural and national level, when there are various accounts and representations that are often contradictory?
According to Ofer, the Holocaust is: 1. a personal experience, 2. a family memory, and 3. a cultural memory (based on testimonies, history classes, films, art, etc.). That said, the Holocaust is “a pivotal event that shapes…Jewish-Israeli identity” and the centrality of Holocaust memory is a “testament to its impact on the lives of Israelis and their sincere, ceaseless effort to understand the key event for themselves as human beings, Jews, and Israelis.” This is validated in 1979, when the ministry of education announced that the Holocaust would be a mandatory subject in high schools and that it would take a multidisciplinary approach (e.g. literature, art, film, poems, diaries). The “memory of survivors became the key element in Holocaust instruction at the primary and upper levels, and the survivors themselves the personification of Jewish history of the Holocaust.” For subsequent generations, the Holocaust and survivor testimonies remain a key part of constructing and defining Jewish identity.
This holocaust memory is kept mainly through literature, which Ofer argues is “the epitome of social and cultural trends in Israeli society, dealing with the psychological dilemmas of the survivors and the second generation.” Based on the course readings, it seems that there are reoccurring themes and images that are central to Holocaust education, particularly in art, film, and literature. The most powerful example is Rachel Auerbach’s poem Yizkor, which describes memory as a cemetery, the only one where “there are still indications that they [the victims] once lived in this world.” It’s more than a stone on a grave, but a living memory that brings life to those who were lost—a notion that is also reflected in Israel’s Holocaust museums. The outer garden of Yad Vashem, for example, is the “avenue of the righteous among the nations,” which commemorates the non-Jews who saved their Jewish neighbours during the Holocaust. This memory is kept by planting trees, a symbol of life and growth, in the name of those who risked their lives to save others. More specifically, the museum is built on what is called a “mount of remembrance,” a symbolic cemetery for those lost in the Holocaust, which becomes more evident as you walk underground into darkness. Like Yad Vashem, Lohamei Haghetaot is also a museum for the living memory of the Holocaust, not merely a grave or memorial, but a kibbutz—a symbol of life and growth—and an archive that holds the documents of Jewish resistance in WWII.
Light is also an important element, symbolically. For the guide at Lohamei Haghetaot, it expresses how everything must be out in the open in order to encourage dialogue between generations. The purpose is to educate and discuss the Holocaust and to invite Israelis to talk about humanism and democracy. To add to that experience, we watched a film that addresses the relationship between the kibbutz and the Holocaust memory, which is an attempt to connect two worlds: the living and the dead, to create a dialogue between generations and to emphasize the significance of Jewish continuity. For the members of the kibbutz, the presence of “Holocaust consciousness” in their day to day reality adds to life, because it is part of their everyday experience—for survivors, their children, and grandchildren alike. The symbolism of light is also present in the room where Holocaust and kibbutz testimonies are set up. There are desks and benches put together in a square, which echoes how young children would sit to study Talmud and Torah. This also emphasizes the importance of learning and educating the younger generations and the sky light above the seating area represents a search for knowledge and spirituality through an ascension into something greater. Interestingly enough, the guide calls the museum “a secular holy place of memory,” therefore suggesting that this ascension is intellectual, rather than religious.
This memory, however, takes many forms. Rachel Auerbach’s poem, Yizkor “may god remember,” serves as a eulogy for the Jewish people. The poem details the life and vitality that existed before the war among the young and the old, the men and the women, the religious and the secular, the intellectuals, the working class, and the craftsmen—all of whom were systematically put to a violent death for simply being Jewish. The poem mourns their loss, but, more importantly, it evokes a memory that humanizes the Jews, despite the dehumanization of the Holocaust. It also acknowledges Jewish diversity in its many shapes and sizes, highlighting what it means to be Jewish in light of trauma and the importance of maintaining a sense of unity despite cultural differences. That said, the poem is about commemorating individuals, victims and survivors alike, and recognizing that the surviving collective has a responsibility to keep the memory of the Holocaust alive. The poem speaks of the importance of memory as reaching beyond an individual’s immediate or biological family, but as a means of connecting all Jews, emphasizing that all those who were killed are related to all those who survived, as they are each part of the same Jewish family.
I want to draw particular attention to a metaphor used by Rachel Auerbach and Primo Levi in their Holocaust literature. For both writers, to remember loss is a painful experience deeply connected to the physical and psychological responses of the body. For Auerbach, remembering the victims of the Holocaust hurts “the way one feels pain when parts of the body have been surgically removed. When the nerves surviving in the nervous system signal the presence of every finger on amputated hands or feet.” This memory is like a ghost limb, the feeling of presence remains and it does not pass. Despite the pain, however, memory is a necessary part of the healing process. Auerbach expresses “the need to say Yizkor four times a day,” not four times a year, as is the tradition. It is a solemn moment of remembering those “who are no longer with us,” which is a part of Jewish life and, therefore, a necessary ritual. Levi, on the other hand, asks the reader to “consider what value, what meaning is enclosed even in the smallest of our daily habits, in the hundred possessions which even the poorest beggar owns: a handkerchief, an old letter, the photo of a cherished person” (most of which were lost in the Holocaust). He argues that “these things are part of us, almost like limbs of our body; nor is it conceivable that we can be deprived of them in our world, for we immediately find others to substitute the old ones, other objects which are ours in their personification and evocation of our memories.” These objects serve as a necessary part of one’s identity and memory, a memory of people and things that is attached to physical items that are deeply connected to an individual. Like a limb, it is a necessary piece of who they are and when lost, it is essential to replace them.
Considering the atrocities faced by Jews, Levi asks whether it is “necessary or good” to keep this memory of the Holocaust alive. He argues that all human experience has meaning, is worthy, and therefore deserves analysis. This is especially true of the Holocaust. Even though human memory is frail, it serves as a powerful means for survivors to preserve and share their stories. Despite the trouble with memory and the conflation of certain details, this does not discount survivor testimonies. Instead, it offers a means for continued discourse and analysis between survivors and subsequent generations that is multifaceted and multidirectional. According to Dalia Ofer, this discourse “commenced with the Eichmann Trial (1961) and afterwards permeated university and educational institutions.” This event therefore initiated a national discussion and popularization of the memory and experience of the Holocaust in Israel—one that museums like Yad Vashem and Lohamei Haghetaot also brought to light through the central narrative of either the victimization or rebellion of the Jewish people in Europe. This progression toward increased Holocaust education has held the state of Israel accountable for keeping this memory of Jewish history alive and relevant, rather than ignoring it or silencing the survivors by only focusing on the victorious foundation of the state. For survivors it is part of daily life and the second generation is the key to actively maintaining public discourse and Holocaust memory in Israel—an effort that is truly visible at both museums from a local, national, and a global perspective.
Auerbach, Rachel. “Yizkor 1943”. The Literature of Destruction: Jewish Responses to Catastrophe, edited by David G. Roskies, 459-464. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1989.
Levi, Primo. “Survival in Auschwitz.” In A Holocaust Reader: Responses to the Nazi Extermination, edited by Michael L. Morgan, 19-27. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.
Ofer, Dalia. “The Past That Does Not Pass: Israelis and Holocaust Memory.” Israel Studies 14 (2009): 1-35.
Beit Lohamei Haghetaot, Ghetto Fighters’ House Museum:
Holocaust Museums in Israel Evolve by Edward Rothstein
Yad Vashem, World Center for Holocaust Research, Education, Documentation and Commemoration: