JERUSALEM (Oct. 13)
For 10 years, architects, historians and builders have toiled to create a Holocaust monument that would both commemorate the dead and educate the living.
On Thursday, the Yad Vashem memorial and museum will inaugurate the result of their labor: the Valley of the Destroyed Communities.
Situated in a rocky wooded area on Yad Vashem’s Mount of Remembrance, the huge monument commemorates the Jewish communities of Europe and North Africa destroyed or damaged by the Nazis.
“Some 20,000 Jewish communities in Europe alone were destroyed alongside the 6 million,” explained Yitzhak Arad, chairman of Yad Vashem.
“This valley will commemorate all the communities in which at least 100 Jews celebrated Jewish life, religion and culture. The valley symbolizes a lost world that has been buried forever, leaving only ruins in place of their greatness,” he said.
Built out of giant blocks of Jerusalem stone 20 feet tall, the 4-acre site is overwhelming in its size and scope, yet somehow familiar.
Viewed from above, the monument resembles the map of pre-World War II Europe. On ground level, the towering walls form a series of courtyards, one for each country in which Jews were persecuted.
Just a few steps into the labyrinthine structure, the visitor is drawn into a stark world of stone and rock, with just a touch of greenery 20 feet above. The eye is immediately drawn to the walls, etched in Hebrew and English with the names of 5,000 devastated communities.
Every wall bears the name of the largest Jewish community in that region, with smaller communities written on the side.
In the courtyard designated for Greece, for example, the left side of the wall bears the name Thessaloniki (Salonika), once the largest Jewish community in that country. Athens, which had a smaller Jewish population, is listed on the right, along with other Greek towns and villages whose Jews perished.
About 90 percent of Greece’s Jews died during the Holocaust.
Designed by architects Lipa Yahalom and Dan Tsur, “the valley will hopefully remind people that a whole world was lost during the Holocaust,” said Billie Laniado, head of public relations at Yad Vashem.
“These communities were alive with activity and purpose. There were synagogues, Jewish schools, burial societies. A way of life was destroyed forever.”
Though it will not be open to the public until mid-November, the valley has already witnessed a handful of memorial ceremonies.
“We have allowed some Holocaust survivors and landsmanschaften (fraternal organizations from given communities) to gather here for ceremonies,” said Laniado.
“In the past they would gather in a room in Tel Aviv. Here, among the names and the stones, they feel a deeper connection to the community.”
Yad Vashem hopes that the monument, which cost $12 million in funds raised privately, will draw younger people as well. An educational center, due to open next spring, will provide information about each community commemorated in the valley. Every Israeli schoolchild visits Yad Vashem at one time or another.
Whatever the age of the visitor, the valley will leave few people unmoved.
“Some people have likened the valley’s appearance to the Wailing Wall,” said Laniado, “and I think that is fitting, because the Wall is also a symbol of something that was destroyed.”
Like the Wall, the stark valley, devoid of all color, evokes a sense of loss. But here and there, a hopeful green leaf pushes through the cracks.