Saturday, October 20, 2012

A Name and a Memorial

Warning: this post is not approved for all audiences. Parental guidance is suggested for young children. It’s nothing profane or anything like that—but it may be that only the adults will want to hear about the holocaust museum.

The words “yad veshem” mean “a name and a memorial. They are taken from a scripture in Isaiah, as follows: “I will give themi n my house and within my walls, a monument and a name (yad veshem) better than sons or daughters. I will give them an everlasting name that shall not perish.” Yad Veshem is dedicated to the six million Jews who perished during the holocaust. Visiting there was not easy, nor is it easy to write about. I’ll cover the basics, at least, for anyone who cares to hear about it.

We walked around the grounds some first with Ophir as our guide. To enter the museum, we walked along a walkway lined with trees. It’s called the walk of the “Righteous Among the Nations” or the “Righteous Gentiles.” Each tree is dedicated to some brave non-Jew who helped to hide or save or rescue those who were caught up the holocaust. Beyond that was a courtyard, where stood a monument to the heroes of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising—one of the few Jewish revolts from those years. There Ophir told us how in Israel, at least, those uprisers were given a lot of glory and honor because they were willing to act and fight back, while the victims were looked down upon to an extent for going “like sheep to the slaughter.” It’s not fair, or course, but there it is.

We visited a monument to the children who perished—a dark, ethereal room filled with the reflected images of candles, while somewhere overhead a muffled recording read off some of the names of the dead. It was rather abstract, but also peaceful in a way. On our way out from there we passed a tree that had grown from a cutting of a tree that grew by the Jewish ghetto Terezin, which was the ghetto my holocaust play took place in senior year—and as such it was particularly special for me. Then we finally entered the museum.
It was not what I had expected. The walls and floors were of cement, which wasn’t particularly inviting, but it was well lit by windows high above our heads. I went through the rooms mostly alone, though members of my group were never far away. I read about the rise of Hitler and the Nazi party to power and saw instances of their propaganda. I watched as the anti-Semitism became worse and worse, from street abuse to forced moves into ghettos to the first of the mass killings, then finally to the industrialized concentration camps. I watched videos of testimony from those who had survived to tell about it and were willing to share their stories. I saw the belongings of those who had perished—dolls, shoes, household silver, pocket watches, prayer books, even a pair of little girl braids. I was struck and horrified and saddened by so many things. A letter tossed from a train with instructions to the finder to give it to his family in case he should not come back… Pictures of young women no older than me waiting in a huddled group by a mass grave… A part of a Torah scroll, the Jew’s sacred scripture, along with a quote of a letter to a purse and bag maker that the writer had several rolls of good parchment to sell to him, and though it had a little writing on the back it could easily by washed off… So many things. I had to rush through parts of it. I could have spent a week down there and not seen everything. I had just enough time at the end to walk around the big, dome-ceilinged memorial room, where photographs of those who perished were displayed, alive and smiling, on the arched rotunda above.

As I said, it was not what I expected. The primary reason for that is that I did not cry. I had expected to, but didn’t. I felt distanced from all of it, and was actually a little disappointed about that. I discovered later what a blessing it really was. Two occasions made me think as much.
The first was at our next stop—Mt. Herzel, a military cemetery and the sacred ground of the Zionist movement. The founder of Zionism (Herzel) is buried at the top of the hill. We did lunch there and went to a few sites while Ophir lectured to us. I learned a ton, especially about the traditional vs. secular conflicts within the Jewish community (for example, Mt. Herzel is like a temple to the secular Zionists—hallowed ground- while many Jews still look to the temple mount only for the holiest site in Israel). At one site Ophir asked for a volunteer to read a poem, and I was nominated (apparently my storytelling has earned me a reputation). I was still feeling drained from the museum, but of course I said I would do it. He gave me the poem to look over while he lectured. I glanced it over and new immediately that I could read this. It was from an Israeli poem called “City of Slaughter.” This part described a pogrom—and with no effort to sugar coat or ease anything. The principle abuse described was the raping of Jewish women in this town, and went on to make scathing commentaries of the passiveness shown by the Jewish men. It wasn’t obscene necessarily, but it was blunt and pointedly graphic. I was so horrified by the image it described just by reading it silently—I knew by the second stanza that I couldn’t say it out loud. When the time came and Ophir indicated that I was to read, I said something like “I would prefer not to read it,” and somebody else volunteered. As we listened I broke down entirely and wept. For some reason the poem had managed to hit home in a way the museum had not.

The other occasion was later. I had heard a couple of my teachers and a speaker mention a man named Mengelle in association with Nazi atrocity. I looked up his name to see who he was—and almost wished I hadn’t. Even the Wikipedia article disturbed me. Mengelle was essentially the mad scientist of the Nazis, specializing in human experimentation and the like. I won’t go into details. Suffice it to say that this man was not like Hitler, calling the shots from a distance—he was hands-on, heartless, up-close-and-personal evil.

After reading about him and feeling the impact of the harsh descriptions in the poem, I realized why I hadn’t cried in the museum. Yad Veshem was well lit, airy, and pleasant. The horrific events of the past were described in matter-of-fact, simple and non-descriptive ways. It did not pull me down into the dark and twisted world of the holocaust, but rather allowed me to view it from a safe distance. I didn’t realize what a blessing that was until I had experienced the dismay and horror and grief a little more acutely. Suddenly I was grateful for the way the museum had allowed me to experience the holocaust—closely, not excluding or covering up anything, but in relative peace and safety.

One other comfort came that evening. For FHE, we went up to the Dome Theatre and listened to a holocaust survivor speak. Mr. Einzelberg was from South America, where he fled after the war—so two of our boys (brothers, actually) translated for us from Spanish. He told us his story start to finish. He survived no fewer than 9 camps (some work camps, some concentration camps) and a death march. He even showed us the scar on his arm from his time in Auschwitz. He was liberated just shy of being killed and weighing in at a mere 79 lbs with many others at the end of the war and was sent to an American camp to recover Despite the subject matter, Mr. Einzelberg was surprisingly cheerful. He insisted that the one thing that had really got him through was working hard wherever he was. Hard work, hard work… that was the battle cry. I told you in my previous post how he managed to make us laugh. I think it was just what we needed after such a hard day—to see someone who had actually been there being happy and making others happy as well.

Well, there you have it. It was not any easy day, but I am glad we went. As we walked back from the museum along the walk of the Righteous Among the Nations, I was given some hope that although there is great evil in the world, there is great good in it, too. In hindsight, I have also thought that the name Yad Veshem is an appropriate one in more ways than just a memorial marker. Having been through the museum and seen more of what happened, I will never forget those perished—and so I have become a memorial to their names as well. It is the best memorial there is. In a way, if the memories of all those people (and all those many others who have perished on this earth), they will continue to live.

Thanks for listening in, if you went through all of that. Love you all—and I’ll write more soon.

1 comment:

  1. Dear Rachel,
    Thank you for sharing this with all of us. It is hard for us to comprehend the magnitude of the tragedy you described. The collective loss of six million Jews is overwhelming--but multiplies when one considers that the death of even one person diminishes us (in the words of John Donne). It is an event so cruel that our empathy is immediately exhausted, a tragedy beyond tears--