Yad Vashem: a powerful reminder

The visit of friends from abroad was a good excuse to spend some time in what is really a unique and amazing place in Israel: Yad Vashem, which is the Holocaust museum and memorial. My second visit was just as powerful as the first one, few months ago. This is a place you can easily visit several times without even getting close to comprehend its magnitude.

First, a short explanation about the name. Yad means “hand” but also “memorial”, while shem means “name”. The name of the museum derives from a Biblical verse: “And to them will I give in my house and within my walls a memorial and a name (Yad Vashem) that shall not be cut off“.

The museum is located in a quiet hill just outside Jerusalem, whose forest it overlooks. The entrance is free, although there is a small fee for purchasing maps or the (very useful) audio guide. The memorial was established back in 1953, but recently underwent a massive renovation, with the addition of a very informative Holocaust museum, which opened in 2005. Besides the museum, the complex hosts several memorials – for the children of the Holocaust, for the non-Jews who helped Jews avoid persecutions, and many scattered memorials for the vanished Jewish communities  – plus a synagogue, archives, a research institute, a library, an educational center and even a publishing house.

Certainly the most visited among them is the new Holocaust History Museum, which opened in March 2005 to replace the 1960s structure. The museum, designed by Israeli-Canadian architect Moshe Safdie, is made of massive concrete walls, laid out in a triangular structure, most of it sits underground. The shape symbolize the missing point of a star of David, made up by the millions of Jews who perished during the Holocaust. Proceeding through the galleries , one gets to know about the history and the unbelievable human consequences of the greatest tragedy mankind has ever witnessed. Only at the end of this dark but necessary journey, the visitor is given to emerge once again to daylight, to a stunning view of Jerusalem’s hillsides.

What I found most astonishing and emotionally gripping in both visits are undoubtedly the multi-media presentations, which displays personal accounts of the Holocaust. Seeing the faces and hearing the voices of the survivors, one is fully impacted by a tangible sense of anguish and pain. Individual stories are displayed to highlight the historical narrative in a very powerful way. While facing the videos, I kept saying to myself: these people have been through unimaginable suffering, have lived in inhuman conditions, unimaginable situations that most of us will – gladly – never ever have to come close in our lifetime. And these people, who were mostly children at the time of the events, make up part of today’s elders of the state of Israel.

In other words, the same old lady who is irritating me with her slow motions at the supermarket queue in Tel Aviv, might be the same person who has, in her youth, escalated a pile of corpses in a mass execution grave to miraculously walk back to life (her account was for me one of the hardest to bear, together with the one of the man who was appointed, as a 12 years old in the Buchenwald camp, to separate the gold from the flesh of the Jews who had their teeth pulled out before cremation).

I also kept thinking another thing: I wish I could drag over here the many anti-Semitic, mild revisionists and heavy deniers who refuse to acknowledge that the Holocaust tragedy ever took place, or at least did not have the magnitude and systematization which is historically recognized.

In terms of historical documents and individual memories, the Yad Vashem central database has collected so far 3.8 million names of Holocaust victims (all accessible online). So far, it has gathered 130 million pages of Holocaust-related documentation and over 385,000 photographs, as well as some 101,000 audio and video testimonies. At the end of the galleries, the Hall of Names displays part of the photographs of Holocaust victims and fragments of the testimonies collected. The images are reflected in the water at the bottom of the lower cone, thus commemorating the victims whose names are yet unknown. Surrounding the platform is a circular wall of black files who houses the pages of testimony collected up to date, with empty spaces for those yet to be submitted—room for six million Pages in all.




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