Thursday, August 9, 2007

Yad Vashem

The Ulpan was easier to write about—an update every few days was all that I really needed to do. I mean—who really needs to hear about the conditional form? Or which verbs get “eh-eh” instead of “ee-ah”? In Jerusalem, though, the days have been so full that I have little time to update and a whole lot to throw in the updates. So here goes:

Working my way backwards—today, August 9, I went to Yad VaShem, the Holocaust Memorial.

First, a reflection on what I am about to discuss. In the case of genocide—or other horrors—is it right to compare and critique memorials to the event? Is it not enough to say that the memorial exists? That has been a serious question over the years, but fundamentally naïve. Every event has an interpretation, a meaning, and thus a use of some kind, simply by being made in a particular way. Neither bad nor good, simply the way things are. For me, having read extensively, if not deeply, on the subject, and having visited many Holocaust sites, when I now visit a place, I put in that context, compare it to other sites, and consider the political and social rhetoric. Which is fine when you’re talking a movie, but seems cold-blooded when the issue is: “So, how did they deal with typhoid deaths in the camps? A little too tasteful, don’t you think?” You see the problem…

The three of us—Brian, an ex-pat Brit from Brazil, who has joined us in seeing the sights, Steven, and me—got to the museum about ten and agreed to meet for lunch at one. In fact, the museum is an individual experience, something to wander through on your own, with perhaps the audio guide as a companion. (So I didn’t see Brian again—he ended up at the bookstore and from there to the bus with Steven about two, while I stayed on some time longer.) The problem is that I know the material so well that all I could do was critique it.

And here’s the critique: what the museum does extremely well is to lead the visitor through a winding inexorable path back and forth from beginning to end. The end, by the way, is a breathing-taking view of Jerusalem. Hmm, nothing political there. (There is nothing wrong, by the way, about pointing out that the state of Israel would not exist except for the world’s guilt about the Holocaust. However, I prefer the direct statement, rather than the implied.)

It also very carefully weaves the words of survivors into the overall context. I focused on the videos, partially for the Hebrew, but mostly because they were so moving in so many different ways. I think the one that hit hardest was of the partisans. Three of them—two men and a woman. They spoke of the high that fighting gave them, what it felt like to blow up a train, to burn a village. They spoke matter-of-factly, but their eyes were haunted. At the end, one man said: “You shot to kill. That is just what we had to do in that time.” He paused. “It took me years to get over it.” Haunted eyes, indeed. Simply haunted.

The whole place was filled with names, with words, with remnants of lives. Yet the film at the beginning that showed whole communities, not individuals, remains the most vivid statement of what was lost. The individuals were part of the whole and that whole is completely gone. And now I’ll make the connection: Israel does have the potential to have that vibrant variety of Jewish life and more so. I haven’t been a fan of “using” the Holocaust to justify Israel (and I still think it can be dreadfully misused), but now I think that linking the two really is the honest thing to do and no apologies for doing so.

What didn’t I like? This museum is particularly Jewish in focus—as the final view of Jerusalem shows. That is appropriate here, but because of that focus, it misses some things. For example, the Holocaust museum in the US focuses on how Hitler used many of the Jim Crow laws as models for the restrictions against Jews. Developing racial categories happened across the world—not only for Jews, but for all races. Even the Chinese used racial categories.

I don’t think I ever wrote about Nuremberg—it was the one week that didn’t make it in—but the Nuremberg Documentation Center focuses particularly on how Nuremberg was used by Hitler to invoke German pride in race and power. That museum spends a very long time showing in depth the way Hitler came to power—using PR, force, fear (of Nazis and of others), coopting and changing words, and developing common themes that built community. We’ve seen some of these techniques in the recent past in other places.

Both of these other museums do a much better job of answering the question of “why did it happen?” than does Yad Vashem. They show the common traits of society, the shared global values and worldview. Yad Vashem doesn’t say, but simply by its choices implies that the Holocaust was sui generis.

Yad Vashem is not simply the Museum, though. It is a whole site. I wandered through it for an hour or so, looking at memorials to one thing or another. Then I went into the Children’s Memorial. That is where I completely lost it and just sat there weeping. Part of it was because of who I am, part because of the memorial itself (and I’m not going to describe it—it simply has to be experienced). I have some reservations about the large Orthodox families in Jerusalem—I feel pretty overwhelmed by them, but after that, I can understand the impulse to have as many as possible. Makes me wish I’d had a few more…

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