It is impossible to visit the Holocaust Museum at Yad Vashem and not be moved, horrified, ashamed. It is one of those places where you feel it is an intrusion to talk, breaking the silence which can be the only real response to genocide.
I have visited concentration camps and studied the literature. I have spoken to all sorts of Germans who responded in diverse ways to Nazi totalitarianism. I have read deeply and thought long about the Holocaust. But, when you walk into Yad Vashem a good deal of the rationalising has to be left behind in order to be impacted afresh by the almost inconceivable inhumanity of systematic cruelty.
The most moving memorial (to my mind, at least) is that dedicated to the Warsaw uprising. On the left is a bronze relief of the 19 year old and others who led the armed uprising within the ghetto – resisting the crimes of the Nazis with all the power and arms they could muster. On the right there is another bronze relief of Jews being led to slaughter, accompanied by German guards who have been given no faces. These two reliefs display two different responses to the Nazi evil: resistance or acceptance of their fate.
After the War, many survivors struggled with this. Which was the right response? And was one wrong for choosing the other option? Should the Jews have simply succumbed to the power of military abuse; or should they have fought against it? The answer offered here is that there is no answer: there is simply the fact that people responded differently.
The more worrying aspect is the refusal of the artist to give the German sentries faces. Apparently, he felt that we couldn’t humanise such monsters. The last time I visited Yad Vashem I asked our academic guide if this was wise – that if we simply dismiss such people as ‘monsters’, we don’t have to deal with the human capacity (in all of us?) to collude in such monstrosities. It is only when we give the ‘monster’ a face that we can begin to understand and respond to what they have done. Only then can we begin to face the common human problems of cruelty and violence.
However, as indicated by the above, the brain does have to be engaged at Yad Vashem. Sir Jonathan Sacks has spoken of the dangers of ‘memory becoming history’ – when the ‘story’ becomes a commodity useful for justifying other ends, easily disconnected from reality and turned into an ideological weapon. Miroslav Volf has written eloquently about the ways in which ‘memory’ is turned into a justification for violence and the exercise of power.
And this is the struggle that goes on at a place like Yad Vashem: how does the story of the Holocaust relate to how states behave now?
As you enter there is a quotation by Kurt Tucholsky:
A country is not just what it does – it is also what it tolerates.
I saw this a couple of days ago – painted onto the wall that imprisons Bethlehem. To whom does it apply? Just Nazi Germany – or Israel and other states that oppress other people? Or does the incalculable suffering of the Jews in Europe excuse all subsequent abuses by Israel? This is a tough question that inflames passions, but goes to the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Alongside all this, Yad Vashem celebrates the people who resisted the dehumanising violence of the Nazis. It points out that two-thirds of those who planned the Final Solution had university degrees and of them half had doctorates in philosophy, law, politics and economics. Yet it also quotes the German pastor who said:
We don’t know any Jews; we know only human beings.
We see recorded the humanity of a priest in Mlyny who – and it must have seemed like a futile and miniscule gesture at the time – “instructed the village undertaker to write on a note the numbers that were tattooed on the arms of the murdered inmates he buried”. It is this that brings us back to the greatness of Yad Vashem: this place records the names of all those who suffered and died in the Holocaust, remembering their names and ensuring that although their lives ended in anonymity they will never be forgotten. The fact that they lived will be recalled and honoured.
Primo Levi wrote:
Then for the first time we became aware that our language lacks words to express this offence, the demolition of a man… we had reached the bottom. It is not possible to sink lower than this… Nothing belongs to us anymore: they have taken away our clothes, our shoes, even our hair… They will even take away our name.
Even where, as in Mlyny, the name is now a number, Levi was to be proved wrong. Yad Vashem insists that the memory of these people will be honoured – whether they resisted or succumbed. The question is now: how does the power of this act in Yad Vashem affect not just our view of the past, but our behaviour in the present and our potential for the future? Or are we simply condemned to repeat history because although we remember, we do not learn – and we see the cruelty in the faceless others and fail to look in the mirror?
There is a cattle truck standing on the end of rails that hang over the precipice outside the museum. On the wall in front of it is inscribed a poem found written in pencil inside the sealed railway car. It reads:
Here in this carload / I am Eve / with Abel my son. / If you see my other son / Cain son of man / tell him
What are we to tell him?