I came out of Yad Vashem having a much deeper understanding of Zionism and of Israel as a Jewish State. The experience of the Yad Vashem museum began the moment we passed through the wrought iron gates which evoked barbed wire. But then the space and landscape around the building of the meusum was beautiful, airy, open, and almost verdant. What a contrast with the inside of the actual exhibit.
We were welcomed by our tour guide outside of the building. She oriented us to the museum and the space around it, which I had been admiring. This museum, we were told, is a symbolic cemetery, the mountain it cuts through is a memorial. The structure of the museum, she said, splits the mountain in half. A wound, I thought, akin to the wound inflicted on the Jewish people and our global memory by the Holocaust.
Our tour guide also provided us with a false choice: she proposed that we could choose between life and hope, or darkness. But then we were told that in fact we did not have a choice. We would be going into the darkness.
And we did. We walked into the literal darkness of the museum and back into historical darkness, starting our tour with the history and context of the Holocaust.
By having a tour guide with us – and a tour guide from Yad Vashem, who had spent many years working and researching there – our visit took a very clear and particular narrative of the Holocaust. The facts remain the same, regardless of whether they are presented in a high school history class, or a religious studies course, or by a tour guide at a Holocaust Memorial museum. However, Yad Vashem also intends to tell you the stories of individuals, to put human faces to the horrific and often unimaginable events of the Holocaust. This meant that at Yad Vashem, we were provided with a singular narrative, weaving together the stories from all these people’s lives. Our path was intentionally and explicitly controlled and directed. There was one way through the museum with no shortcuts and no alternate routes. We were all taken along the exact same journey, and that was the journey that was prepared for us by Yad Vashem.
I was struck also by how much our guide controlled our exploration of the museum and the topic of the Holocaust. She was extremely knowledgable but there was little time for us to ask questions. She was also conscious of the emotional challenge that a visit to Yad Vashem could be, but she also had a story she wanted to tell us, and in the face of almost a third of our group sobbing and sniffling our tour always continued on.
As we went through the exhibit at Yad Vashem, we were alternately put in the shoes of every single one of the actors in the Holocaust. Our guide, at various points would say “you would…” and tell us about different elements of the Holocaust – the experience of Jews coming in to the death camps, the work camps, Jews in the ghetto, the guards of the camps, the architects of the Final Solution, anti-Semitic feelings from the wider community before, during, and after, the Holocaust, and many other experiences. It was a powerful and terrifying experience to be placed in these positions – feeling both the effects and a responsibility for such a horrific event, depending on what the guide told us.
This was, I feel, one of the strategies that was used to make the visit to Yad Vashem the most affecting possible. Another tool that was used by our guide was her own intonation. As someone who enjoys watching and participating in drama, I was struck by the well rehearsed presentation she gave us, and especially the dramatic use of intonation. Everything our guide told us was transmitted through powerful and intentional narration, from the stories that she chose to the tone of her voice.
In Rachel Auerbach’s “Yizkor 1943” the diversity of Jewish experiences of the Holocaust is powerfully evoked. The kinds of Jewishness, the range of age, the differences in gender, all of these are captured in her evocative writing. Although I couldn’t quite articulate the difference, the tour we were given at Yad Vashem did not seem to express the Holocaust in quite the range of experiences. Perhaps because everything was individualized, the differences between the dominant, gendered, and quite specific narrative of Holocaust experience and the individual stories could have been attributed to the general commonalities that may not apply to the particular individual. I think that in this way the exploration of individual stories and experiences of the Holocaust at Yad Vashem perhaps even reinforced the dominant narrative we have of the Holocaust: the one provided by male survivors of work camps.
Auerbach’s writing also emphasizes the individual though, in much the same way that Yad Vashem does. She says:
“I have so many names to recall, how can I leave any of them out, since nearly all of them went off to Belzec and Treblinka or were killed on the spot in Lanowce and Ozieran, in Czortkow and in Mielnica. In Kryzwicze and elsewhere.
Absurd! I will utter no more names. They are all mine, all related. All who were killed. Who are no more. Those whom I knew and loved press on my memory, which I compare now to a cemetery. The only cemetery in which there are still indications that they once lived in this world…”
One of the efforts at Yad Vashem is to name all those who lost their lives in the Holocaust. At the end of our tour we went into the Hall of Names, where there is a record of all the names they have been able to find, provided by those who knew them or knew of them. Our guide told us of how this has been a means to reunite siblings who lost their parents and each other in the camps and thought themselves to be the only surviving member of their family. She also, though, turned us around to look at the empty shelves in the room. There is just enough shelf space for one sheet of paper about every individual Jew who lost their life in the Holocaust. However, these shelves will never be full, our guide told us, because the people who remember those who have died are themselves dying.
It was a challenge to think about the tour we were given and the Yad Vashem museum critically. Hearing story after story about individuals who were killed in different ways at different points during the Holocaust was very affecting. However, I found that by thinking about the way our guide was providing us with information and by focusing on what she was emphasizing, I was able to see that there was more to the Yad Vashem experience than simply serving as a memorial to the six million Jews who were killed in the Holocaust.
In our guide’s introduction, she spoke a little bit about the State of Israel, telling us that “the world voted for Israel.” Our exit from the Yad Vashem museum took us up a ramp into the sunlight, where we could take in a view of Jerusalem. At this point, our guide told us that we were able to look out at Jerusalem because in spite of everything “we are still here.” These two bookends on our tour showed me that part of Yad Vashem’s narrative is the one of the Holocaust and Jewishness and a Jewish State – Israel – a narrative that we encountered throughout our time in Israel.