Yad Vashem building’s moral statement

Martin Peretz ()

Martin Peretz ()

BOSTON, April 17 (JTA) — It was the prophet Isaiah who gave Yad Vashem its name. “And to them will I give within my house and within my walls a memorial and . . . an everlasting name” — which is precisely what the site of remembrance in Jerusalem for the 6 million victims of the Jewish catastrophe in Europe is trying to do. A name and a history for every one of those murdered by the Nazis and their numerous collaborators: the pious and the free thinking; the wise and the dumb; the beautiful and the plain; scholars and shoemakers; seamstresses and skiers; serious folk and slackers; the poor and the rich and those in the middle; men, women, young children — at least one and a half million of the latter. No exceptions made, except by luck or the special bravery of the doomed. Yad Vashem was not the first monument in Jerusalem to the European hell: A terrifying cave of artifacts and plaques was established on Mount Zion a few years after the war. But it was Yad Vashem that introduced the combined ideal of a memorial and a name, of commemoration and scholarship. It was first imagined during World War II and formalized immediately after the war at an international Zionist conference held in London. The project was put into the hands of the National Council of the Jews of Palestine, the singularly democratic authority that had been preparing the Yishuv for sovereignty. It opened in 1957, the first such institution anywhere, on a richly forested hill overlooking the western outskirts of the city in the Jewish state that — had it been permitted by the great powers to exist 15 years earlier — would have systemically absorbed the stalked Jews of civilized Europe. The original installation, heavily didactic and built almost entirely around photographs, had hardly any architecture. It felt like a bomb shelter, or a cave carved out of the earth. It did adjoin a handsome stone memorial hall, enclosing a stark floor map of Europe punctuated by the eternally horrifying names of death camps: Bergen-Belsen, Auschwitz, Treblinka, Sobibor, Majdanek and so on. An eternal light is all that illumines the macabre cartography. All of this still stands, as does the Avenue of the Righteous, sided by trees planted to honor some 18,000 gentiles — not all that many of them, when you think about it — who risked their lives to rescue Jews from Moloch. It is from this route of Christian heroes that visitors make their way to the shattering experience. Now the Israeli-Canadian architect Moshe Safdie has built a new Yad Vashem on the same sacred site. Safdie had previously designed and set in place a memorial centered around an actual railroad car that ferried Jews from the ghettos to the lager (historians tell us that the train schedules were indispensable to the success of the Final Solution, a theme explained in the new exhibits) and a children’s memorial centered on a single lit candle that, through mirror and magnification — and a recorded recitation of the known names of the perished — hauntingly conveys the magnitude of the disaster. But, in mid-March, he unveiled an amazing new structure, a space at once primordial and highly modern, to hold the terrible evidence that no one wanted to confront at the time — not Franklin Delano Roosevelt, not the pro-Zionist Winston Churchill, and not the non-Jewish Jews who owned The New York Times — that the Jewish people were being snuffed out. The 200-meter-long structure is a three-dimensional cement triangle, which burrows through the mountain revealing the building’s beginning and its end, both of which are brilliantly cantilevered into space. Safdie’s signature command of natural light—in this case, light from a narrow skylight running along the structure’s apex cutting through the alp — illumines the entire dark journey, through the deep prism itself and the historical galleries undulating on the sides. You cannot skip one gallery for another, one part of the narrative for another. Safdie has cut angular trenches through his chronological passageway, and one of the first is filled with books — by Einstein, Freud, Werfel, Zweig, and the other Jewish degenerates — that the Nazis gathered for the burnings visible on the adjoining video screens. (It was not long before people were gathered for burnings.) And, at the end of the dark journey, you emerge in the clear sunlight on the Jerusalem hills. From five feet back, and ten, all you see is sky. And then you are quite literally free. You are over land, the land of Israel. But the voyage is always curtained by the concrete. Over the land of Israel: There is a Zionist dimension to the exhibit at Yad Vashem, and it is altogether apposite. Middle-class liberalism in Europe demanded of the Jews that they assimilate, and, when they did, they were resented. Social democracy denied the Jews their peoplehood. Communism saw the Jews as enemies and even made an alliance with Adolf Hitler and then prepared its own onslaught against them. Religious Judaism (with some exceptions) instilled among Jews a debilitating passivism. Only the Zionists grasped that Europe was doomed soil for the Jewish people. A few European Jewish communities experienced an exodus during the 1930s, and almost all of those who went were Zionists. Thessaloniki is one instance. In 1935-36, 15,000 Jews from Salonika emigrated to Palestine and built the port of Haifa. Some 50,000 Jews stayed behind, of whom fewer than 2,000 survived the war. This surely was among the highest “kill ratios” of the entire Holocaust. The exhibit at Yad Vashem starts with an exquisite magic lantern video presentation of old footage — the home movies of the martyred — by Michal Rovner. Here you see those who were alive just before they would be dead. The footage moves from east to west, in a meshing of map and landscape, from right to left, as in a Torah scroll. I cannot get out of my mind the young girls beckoning the visitor into their lives with the gentle inward waving of their hands. I cannot forget their smiles. I bitterly note their astonishing diversity. This building may be the most moral statement made by architecture in our time. Its rendering of the life of the murdered is searing and subtle. You can almost wear their shoes, look through their eyeglasses, read their poems of despair. You almost feel what it was like trying to get bread in the Warsaw ghetto or being trapped in Budapest when the Germans, already almost completely vanquished, mobilized themselves for their last great massacre of Hungarian Jewry in Auschwitz. And then you come to a photograph of Heinrich Himmler, and you listen to a recording of a speech he made to SS officers in 1943: It is one of those things that is easily said. “The Jewish people is being exterminated,” every party member will tell you . . . “And then along they all come, all the 80 million upright Germans, and each one has his decent Jew. . . And none of them has seen it, has endured it. Most of you will know what it means when 100 bodies lie together, when there are 500, or when there are 1,000. And to have seen this through, and . . . to have remained decent, has made us hard and is a page of glory never mentioned and never to be mentioned.” It was not just 6 million who perished. It was an entire culture that was put to death. Still, consider the raw numbers. At Yad Vashem, 3 million dead men, women, and children are individually recorded in the archives, some even with pictures. My mother, who came from a Polish village called Levertov, had six siblings, one of whom survived (he went east to Russia). His daughter and grandchildren now live in the United States, and a son and his family live in Israel. The five who perished were all married and had children, perhaps four or five each. My father, who came from the same shtetl, left eight brothers and sisters at home, and pleaded with them to come to the United States (which wasn’t so easy) or go to Palestine. All of them were married with the usual number of children. Only one of these children, a daughter of one of my father’s sisters, got out, taking the underground route to Palestine, running the blockade, and ending up on a kibbutz in what is now Israel. Still alive at 90, she has two children, five grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren. So here is the disaster writ small: Had her 30- or 40-odd cousins lived, how many of the family line would still be alive? How many more Jews would be alive if the 6 million had not been slaughtered? There was one discordant note in the opening ceremonies, and it was the participation of Kofi Annan. He had taken time out on his way to Jerusalem to pay homage at the Ramallah grave of Yasser Arafat, a certified legatee of the anti-Semitism of the Nazis. How diplomatic! The secretary-general’s very presence evoked the offending memory of his predecessors: U Thant, who removed U.N. troops from the Sinai — a decade-old barrier to war between Israel and Egypt — on the command of Gamal Abdel Nasser, which unleashed the Six-Day War; and, most grotesquely, Kurt Waldheim, whose personal role in the Final Solution to “the Jewish problem” was suppressed by the great powers and the U.N. bureaucracy. And what were Annan’s qualifications for this ceremony? Well, he is an expert on genocide, an expert of a certain sort. In his diplomatic practice of the 1990s, in various U.N. posts, he became a genocide-denier, since he refused to act against the extermination wars in Bosnia, Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Sudan. If the history of our time is written honestly, it will record that Annan stood passively by as the new exterminators went to work. Shame will be his memorial, his everlasting name. This article by Martin Peretz appears in the current April 18, 2005, issue of The New Republic.

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