Preserving Memory at Yad Vashem
Max Coleman was a participant on the East Bay Community’s Birthright Israel trip this summer. He is sharing reflections, stories, and photos of what he experienced on Birthright in Israel for ten days with us.
“It is not enough just to remember. Their lives will in a sense continue as they are fulfilled through you.” —World War II memorial address, 1946
Yad Vashem is not a standard museum. Unlike most museums, including Holocaust museums, its goal is not to objectively portray a historical event. Its focus lies emphatically and unapologetically on the side of the victims—it is their memory that Yad Vashem seeks to preserve, not the memory of the perpetrators, despite their important contribution to atrocity. Others have already dedicated their energies to studying the perpetrators and their unique (or perhaps, all-too-common) psychologies: the Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt did so in her classic work Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, and even my own relatives did so in their lesser-known Hitler’s Hangups. Yad Vashem takes a different tack, focusing exclusively on the lives of the victims—not only the lives that were tragically cut short, but the lives that might have been lived had someone intervened.
Given this mission, it is perhaps unsurprising that the memorial begins not with tragedy but with hope: the courtyard facing the entrance to the museum is filled with sunlight, birdsong, and hundreds of trees. These trees are not planted for beauty alone: each one honors a specific individual who risked her life to save a potential victim of the Holocaust. Many, in fact, saved hundreds or thousands of lives—one young woman in her early twenties smuggled hundreds of children out of Jewish ghettos over the course of many months, finding safe haven for them at orphanages and carefully recording their parents’ addresses so they could be reunited with their families after the war.
Walking into the museum itself, one begins by crossing a narrow bridge and entering a darkened room where an old film is playing. One assumes the footage is from the Holocaust, but instead one finds images of happy families, children playing in the snow, and other joyful scenes that contradict the images of the Shoah. These, we are told, are images taken just before the Holocaust began—lives cut short during the war, but lives whose joy could have continued if circumstances were different. The moral outrage is clear, but so is the sense of moral responsibility—the viewer is not merely witnessing the past, but being warned about their own potential future (a future that, it must be added, feels all the more perilous in the era of Donald Trump, when calls for a Muslim registry and the denaturalization of American citizens are met with sighs of resignation). To begin with these pre-Holocaust images is to center the story on the lives of real people in whom we can see a reflection of our own lives, rather than on those whose bodies are, by the time of the Final Solution, already marked for death.
Visitors to Yad Vashem will notice that the architecture of the building reflects the very history it contains. Moving farther and farther from the entrance, our Birthright group found ourselves immured in foreboding concrete walls that sloped inward, creating a tunneling sensation and a feeling of claustrophobia. Unlike other museum spaces, Yad Vashem forces the viewer along a narrow path; there is no way to traverse the museum except through this walkway. As a consequence, the visitor is forced to see every part of the museum, to confront every moment of history in sequence, rather than to choose areas of particular interest. The lighting is dim and uninviting, and as one finishes exploring one of the many side-rooms of the museum, one is forced to step back to the center of the hallway and stare down the ever-narrowing walls of the museum. The sensation, our guide explained, is to convey the narrowing noose around which the Jewish people were progressively constricted, beginning with anti-Semitic rhetoric and legislation, then expulsion and internment in ghettos, and ending with the Final Solution.
Yad Vashem closes with an installation that is among the most moving and upsetting I have ever encountered: The Hall of Names. The hall is a large, circular room, toward the middle of which one walks by crossing a bridge onto a concrete platform. Above one’s head is a giant arc that narrows toward the top like a cone; the arc holds images of thousands of Holocaust victims: young and old, straight and gay, fresh-faced and wizened, alone and in the company of others. Moving to the center of the room, one approaches a guardrail. The eyes are drawn downward to a haunting image: an enormous pit, like a collective grave, filled partway with water. Reflected in the water are the thousands of victims, a mere stand-in for the millions who perished, many of whom lie even today in unmarked graves, their names unknown except to the families who lost them. And surrounding all this, forming the walls of this Hall of Names, are thousands of books, filled with the name of every known victim of the Holocaust—and even more sorrowfully, row upon row of empty space, a placeholder for those whose names are not yet known but may one day be discovered and added to the catalogue.
Yet this somber chamber is not the last of Yad Vashem. While the Hall of Names is the final room of the museum, the concrete walls in which the visitor is imprisoned soon end, and the claustrophobic quarters open onto a sun-filled terrace. The architecture has a voice of its own, and seem to say: “Your place is not here. You are not the victims I memorialize.” And through the glass doors at which the museum ends, the sunlight pours forth, a light at the end of the tunnel. As you step out into the dazzling sunlight, the concrete walls of the building continue just a bit further—no longer so somber as they are dancing with light—and end in the shape of a triangle that frames the entire city. Suddenly you remember where you are: this is Jerusalem, this is Eretz Yisrael; this is the place for which so many were yearning when they sang Hatikva in the ghettos and concentration camps; this itself—where your feet are now standing, where you look out across the shimmering turrets and towers of Jerusalem—is the place that Jews have dreamt of for centuries. It is a heaven and a reality all at once, and I cannot quite express the sentiment of being there, in that overwhelming moment of collective memory.
One leaves Yad Vashem with a feeling of gratitude—for being alive, for being Jewish, for being Jewish yet also alive. And from this gratitude grows a sense of somber resolve. If “never again” means anything, and is not just empty words, then the responsibility to act is not awaiting us at some distant moment. It has already arrived.