‘A Memorial And A Name’: The Story Of Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum

Reprinted from Honest Reporting.

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Angela Merkel’s last trip to Israel as chancellor of Germany this week included visits to a number of important sites. Possibly the most significant destination on her two-day itinerary was Yad Vashem – The World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem. 

The German leader has expressed remorse over the Nazi genocide of some six million Jews during World War Two, notably during her address to the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, in 2008. During the speech, Merkel stated that “the Shoah [Holocaust] fills us Germans with shame. I bow to the victims. I bow to all those who helped the survivors.”

Merkel’s visit to the memorial, which is protocol for every world leader who travels to Israel, serves as a reminder of Yad Vashem’s importance — to both Jews and non-Jews alike.

Book of Isaiah, Chapter 56, Verse 5: Roots of Yad Vashem

The idea to establish Yad Vashem as an Israeli-based memorial to the Jews murdered during WWII was first proposed during a Jewish National Fund meeting in September 1942. The discussion was prompted by early reports of Jews being perseucted and oppressed in Nazi-occupied countries. At the time, meeting attendees were not fully aware of the full extent of the horrors occurring in Europe.

Credit: Valley2city

In the aftermath of the war, the plan for a Holocaust memorial was again discussed at a meeting in London in 1945 that established a provisional board of Zionist leaders. In February 1946, Yad Vashem opened its headquarters in Jerusalem, along with an office in Tel Aviv. 

The ‘Yad Vashem Law’ was passed unanimously by the Knesset in 1953, five years after the state of Israel was created. It formed the Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority, and established Yad Vashem as the World Holocaust Remembrance Centre.

The act entrusted Yad Vashem with the responsibility of commemorating, documenting, researching and educating about the Holocaust, with a specific focus on remembering the people, families and places that were lost during the war.

Overall, the goal was to ensure that those who perished would not be forgotten. 

The name ‘Yad Vashem,’ which in English means ‘a memorial and a name,’ was taken from a biblical verse in the Book of Isaiah: “And to them will I give in my house and within my walls a memorial and a name that shall not be cut off.” This verse encompasses the mission of Yad Vashem as an institution; that is, to memorialize the victims of the Shoah and safeguard their memory. Along these lines, Yad Vashem created a ‘Hall of Names,’ in order to record  the name of every victim of the Holocaust so that their lives could never be erased from memory.

‘Looking Into the Eyes of the Individuals’: Holocaust History Museum

Credit: Dennis Jarvis: Israel-06229 – Yad Vashem

The Holocaust History Museum is the central feature of the 45-acre Yad Vashem grounds, situated on Har HaZicharon (Mount of Remembrance). The museum was designed by the prominent Israeli architect Moshe Safdie and opened in 2005 after two decades of planning and construction.

The Holocaust History Museum is structured as a long corridor with 10 exhibition rooms, moving chronologically from the beginning of the Nazi rise to power in Germany until the liberation of the death camps and the aftermath of the war, ultimately ending in the Hall of Names. Each room contains numerous artifacts, including personal possessions, political propaganda and testimonies.

Avner Shalev, the former longtime chairman of the museum, wanted the new exhibition to feel less like a depiction of a series of events and more as if visitors were “looking into the eyes of the individuals.”

Triumph Over the Worst Genocide in Human History

Credit: Dennis Jarvis: Israel-06258 – Yad Vashem

Architect Safdie discourages a singular interpretation as to what the structure of the museum symbolizes, urging people instead to derive their own meanings based on what speaks to them personally. 

However, the 180 meter-long triangular tunnel that begins narrow and dark and then gradually becomes wider and lighter as the exhibitions progress — a result of the prism skylight that runs across the length of the museum — for many evokes feelings of hopefulness for the survival of the Jewish people and triumph over the worst genocide in modern human history. 

The fact that the exit of the museum leads onto a sweeping view of Jerusalem is also seen by many to embody the future of the Jewish people, along with the idea that the existence of a Jewish state will prevent such atrocities from happening again.

Infinite Number of Lights: Children’s Memorial

Credit: Bgabel at wikivoyage

The Children’s Memorial is another evocative exhibit, also designed by Safdie. Located a short walk away from the main museum building, the Children’s Memorial is hollowed out from an underground cavern, creating darkness and lending silence. The only content in the memorial is the single candle in the center of the room. Strikingly, the multitude of mirrors that line the walls makes it appear that there are an infinite number of lights; symbolizing the 1.5 million Jewish children who were murdered in the Holocaust.

In addition to the visual display, visitors hear a subtle undercurrent of sombre music alongside an audio recording that reads out the name, age and country of origin of Jewish children lost during the war.

The Children’s Memorial was proposed and funded by Holocaust survivors Abe and Edita Spiegel, whose two-and-a-half-years-old son Uziel was murdered in the Auschwitz concentration camp. A stone portrait of Uziel stands at the entrance to the memorial cave, modelled after the only surviving picture that the Spiegels had of their son. 

A Time For Prayer: Yad Vashem Synagogue

The Yad Vashem Synagogue functions as a place where people can either pray in private to mourn those who have been lost, or participate in a traditional Jewish service. A defining feature of the synagogue is that it contains thirty-one distinct items of Judaica that were preserved and brought from Europe, including four Torah arks. Unlike the vast majority of Judaica from synagogues and homes across Europe, these items were not destroyed. As such, they act as a reminder of the “extraordinary will of the Jewish people to survive, to remember and to rebuild,” in the words of former museum chairman Shalev.

Over 27,000 Righteous Among the Nations 

Credit: צילום: ד”ר אבישי טייכר

As part of the Yad Vashem Act of 1953, the museum has a duty to honor the non-Jews who risked their lives to allow Jews to escape Nazi persecution. These people are known as the Righteous Among the Nations, and more than 27,000 have been recognized as such by Yad Vashem. 

They are commemorated at Yad Vashem with trees, each one dedicated to a person or organization that helped Jews survive the Holocaust. The trees are planted around the museum complex. Some names are also engraved on the Wall of Honor in the Garden of the Righteous Among the Nations. Their names are also available in the ‘Encyclopedia of the Righteous Among the Nations,’ which also includes multiple tributes to different groups of people who sacrificed their safety and freedom to help others survive.

Documenting the Shoah: Yad Vashem Archives

The Yad Vashem Archives are the world’s largest collection of documents and artifacts from the Shoah. Because of the ongoing efforts of historians and archivists, the amount of information being unearthed about the lives of Jews trying to survive the Nazis is continuously growing. 

The archives house millions of artifacts from the Holocaust, including documents, photographs, written testimonies and physical items. Together, these have contributed to a better understanding of the various ways that people attempted to survive the Holocaust. The archives also allow those who perished to be appropriately memorialized. 

A significant portion of the archives has been digitized and can be freely accessed online by the public.

4,800,000 Names

One of Yad Vashem’s core missions – to memoralize the name of every victim of the Holocaust – manifested in the creation of the Central Database of Shoah Victims’ Names. It contains over 4,800,000 names, many of whom were revealed as a result of testimony submitted by friends or family of the victims. 

Credit: Yad Vashem, Holocaust Museum, Jerusalem – Hall of Names_ Noam Chen_ IMOT

The names are displayed in the final room of the museum, known as the Hall of Names; arguably the most moving section of the museum. The ceiling of the hall is a 10-meter high cone stretching skyward, displaying over 600 pictures and fragments of documents related to victims of the Holocaust. As a result, the display is reflected in the pool of water, creating an atmosphere of reflection and mourning for the people whose names will never be found and cannot be personally included in the memorial. 

The Pages of Testimony, which provide information about the victims of the Shoah, line the walls on a series of shelves, some of which are poignantly left empty with the hope that more names will be discovered and added to the database. This way, every victim will one day be memorialized.

Never Again 

The Yad Vashem institution operates the International School for Holocaust Studies to ensure that people all over the world, both Jewish and non-Jewish, can receive a comprehensive education about the Shoah. Yad Vashem is home to the school’s Learning Center that enables visitors to interactively explore different historical issues and the moral questions that the Holocaust raises. 

Since Yad Vashem’s inception, it has done ground-breaking work memorializing the victims of the Holocaust, ensuring that such tragedies will never be forgotten or minimized. Standing at the forefront of Holocaust remembrance and education, Yad Vashem represents the power of the Jewish people to survive the worst conditions imaginable while remaining unified and hopeful about the future.

Ruby Kwartz is a Fall 2021 intern at HonestReporting.

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