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A New Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum is Woven into the Fabric of Israeli Society

Schoolchildren, heads of state, soldiers and tourists all pass through its gates into a hush of religious solemnity. It is the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial, whose stone buildings, razor-wire sculptures and even trees are soaked with meaning and the memory of those murdered in the Holocaust.

Yad Vashem, set in the hills of a Jerusalem pine forest, has become the physical symbol of remembering the Holocaust in Israel. It has also become part of the national landscape and a central site of collective Israeli identity.

As Israel makes its way in the new century, Yad Vashem is about to open a new $56 million dollar museum aimed at giving voice to the personal stories of the 6 million Jews killed in the Nazi genocide. The ceremonial opening is slated for March 16; it will open to the public at the end of March.

Since it opened in 1973, Yad Vashem has been the first stop on visiting dignitaries’ official tours. It is where Israeli schoolchildren — Arab and Jewish — often get their first real sense of what it means to be part of a country founded in the aftermath of the most wide-scale genocide in history.

During her recent visit here, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice emerged from the section memorializing the more than 1 million children who were murdered — symbolized by a single candle reflected a million times by a maze of mirrors — and wrote in Yad Vashem’s guest book:

“This is a place that causes all to remember those who perished and to accept that it must never happen again; that good men and women do not act.”

And the importance of memorializing the Holocaust is one of the few issues still uniting Israelis.

On Holocaust Memorial Day, they turn on their television sets to watch the somber state ceremony of remembrance. On tours of Jerusalem, Yad Vashem is a regular stop for Israelis from all walks of life, from the most left wing and secular to the most politically conservative and religious.

“Yad Vashem today has become a holy site in a way, like the Western Wall, a site that places the memory of the Holocaust as a central part of Israeli history,” said historian Roni Stauber, who has written on the origins of Holocaust commemoration in Israel and the beginnings of Yad Vashem.

“Because of this, Yad Vashem has become one of the main institutions of the country,” said Stauber, who is affiliated with Tel Aviv University.

In Jerusalem, the author and historian Tom Segev says there are three sites that are central to Israel’s identity: Yad Vashem, the military cemetery on neighboring Mount Herzl and the Western Wall.

“These three places symbolize most the worth and the ethos of what it means to be Israelis and Jews,” said Segev, who wrote the groundbreaking “Seventh Million,” which explored attitudes toward the Holocaust and its survivors during the early years of the state.

The sprawling Yad Vashem complex is more than the museum of the history of the Holocaust, which opened in 1973. It is also home to a vast archive, a research center, an international school and a library. Yad Vashem officials also recently launched a vast online database of victims’ names.

Today Yad Vashem sees vast numbers of visitors each year. Its peak year was 2000, when 2 million visitors came. Last year, the number was 850,000, according to officials.

Among the visitors are 100,000 school-age students and 50,000 soldiers. Both Israeli and foreign teachers come to Yad Vashem for courses on how to teach the Holocaust.

The first voices calling for a memorial for the Jewish victims of the Nazis were raised as early as 1942, while the war still was being fought.

In 1953, following the passage of a special law in the Knesset, Yad Vashem was established to commemorate the victims and document the events of the Holocaust in order to educate future generations about its meaning and legacy.

In the early years of the state, there was great ambivalence about how to handle the memory of the Holocaust, historians say.

As a young country focused on building a future, a place where people had an ideological preference for heroism over victimhood, the Holocaust was thorny territory.

The 1960 trial of Nazi Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem marked the beginnings of a sea change in Israelis’ attitude toward the Holocaust.

As Israelis came to terms with what happened to their people under Nazi rule, the standing of Yad Vashem, in turn, took on greater importance to the Israeli public.

“As the issue of Holocaust memory became more central in Israel and Israeli identity, the institution became more and more sacred,” Stauber said, referring to Yad Vashem. “It’s a development that took place with the passing of years. It did not happen all at once.”

James Young, a professor of English and Judaic studies at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, is a leading expert on memorials, particularly Holocaust memorials.

He recently sat on the jury to select the memorial for the World Trade Center and also was on the jury that selected the Berlin memorial to Jews killed in the Holocaust.

Young said that with its new museum, Yad Vashem is poised to speak to a new generation of Israelis, who are more interested in the Diaspora experience than the founding generations had been. Those earlier Israelis preferred to cut themselves off from their pasts in Europe and so focused on a highly nationalist and Zionist interpretation of the Holocaust.

In a telephone interview from Amherst, Young said the Yad Vashem Memorial Authority is recognizing that the new generation of Israelis, including many Jews from the former Soviet Union, are “validating the Galut experience in ways the older generation did not.” Galut, the Hebrew word for exile, is used to refer to the Diaspora.

“Life in the Galut led only to holocaust,” according to the Zionist narrative, he said. “The new generation does not see things that way.”

“They are willing to look at their former lives in the Galut” as what they bring as people, “as immigrants with whole immigrant experiences,” he said.

Yad Vashem, according to Young, is “an essential part of Israel’s national story itself,” a story that tells Israelis why they are here.

Shulamit Imber, pedagogical director at Yad Vashem’s International School for Holocaust Studies, said more Israeli schoolchildren have been coming to Yad Vashem in recent years, and therefore the experience is woven into their understanding of the Holocaust.

Built on Har Hazikaron, Hebrew for Memorial Mountain, Yad Vashem gives people a feeling, she said, that “they are coming to a place with meaning.”

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