Yad Vashem, Jerusalem, 12 August 2013
After my courtesy call at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Jerusalem to present a copy of my letter of credence (I am Ambassador designate until I present my credentials to the President), I visited Yad Vashem, the world center for documentation, research, education and commemoration of the Holocaust. My guide for the visit was Rob Rozett, Director of Libraries. The centre piece of the complex is the Historical Museum. It comprises a main hall, a long wedge of concrete sliced deep into a hill and forming a canopy over a series of rooms that trace sequentially the rise of anti-Semitism, Nazism and the Holocaust.
Fact is piled on startling fact: the Polish population was 3.25 million before the war and by its end 3 million had been killed, reducing Polish Jewry from 10% of the population to a mere remnant. As Rob explained, the exhibition of photos, film, archives and artefacts determinedly asserts the individuality of victims so that the human cost is not lost in the figures of fatalities that are themselves so astronomical as to become merely objective.
Listening to Rob trace the evolution of the tragedy one cannot escape the realization that there was an inexorable determination at work by the architects of the Holocaust, from the vilification and ritual public humiliation of Jews to their isolation in camps and Ghettos and their eventual transportation to the death camps. The footage of Hitler’s infamous 1939 speech predicting the destruction of the Jews of Europe displays the ferocity and clarity of his determination. He was the driving spirit of the genocide but it took many individuals and organisations to give it effect. Throughout the exhibition there are photographs of the implementers of the Shoah. Their names and faces are on lids that open to boxes containing information about their very normal lives and qualifications – husband, father, doctor, Ph.D, accountant. It is this conscious and determined effort by educated men to eliminate an entire human group that constitutes the effrontery, the grand moral offence of the Holocaust that makes it the crime of crimes.
Mysteries abound that continue to haunt. How could such a civilized country like Germany engage in such evil? Why were Jews, a mere 0.8% of population and themselves proud Germans, accepted by the vast majority to be such a threat at the mere prompting of the Nazi Party? How could so many people participate, condone or by acts of omission allow the thuggish Nazi leadership have its way in this scheme of such vast malignity? And – most frightening of all in some ways – how easily average citizens across Europe were recruited to form a cog in the butchery of millions of their fellow human beings.
Nazi determination to complete the genocide of the Jews even as the war is manifestly lost illustrated its centrality to Nazi ideology. By early 1944, the Soviet Army is rampaging on the Eastern Front toward Germany. The Allies are preparing for the invasion of Western Europe and the race to Berlin. Time is running out, Germany’s defeat is inexorable and only a matter of time. In Hungary, the Jewish community has escaped the worst of it because the Government, though allied to Germany, had refused to hand them over. Hungary is host to some 800,000 Jews. Hearing of secret Hungarian talks with the Allies, the Nazis invade Hungary in March 1944. They decide to play catch-up: deportations of Jews begin in May and, astonishingly, within eight weeks 437,000 Jews are rounded up and transported to Auschwitz-Birkeneau.
My family and I had visited the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC last year. It was personally very interesting to compare that experience with Yad Vashem. Both have in common the evocation of what the Holocaust constituted, with graphic and unforgettable images of barbarity and slaughter of individuals and families; the murder of children is unavoidably even more incomprehensible. Both too testify to the intimacy of murderer and victim – the removal of spectacles, shoes and clothes from the living, the act of killing men, women and children whether by bullets or Zyklon B, the looting of possessions and body parts, the callous burden of disposal of such large numbers of victims.
In Washington for me the most startling image was a simple one; against a plain black background, in a frameless glass case, a Brownshirt uniform was displayed, cosy light brown corduroy, swastikas on the lapels, flaring jodhpurs. This was the font of evil, a physical artefact from the scene of the crime. Many donned that uniform and later other uniforms that allowed the wearer to abrogate the normal human decencies. The truth of the uniform was that general causative explanations of the Holocaust cannot relieve the burden of moral obligation from the individuals who took part.
At Yad Vashem, the most profound occasion came toward the end. Rob had had to leave to give press interviews because on the day of my visit Hungarian war criminal Laszlo Csatary had passed away. Yossi Gevir took over and escorted me to the Hall of Names. The wall of this circular space is shelved with the black dossiers of the names of those known to have died in the Holocaust. Some 4.2 million names of the 6 million victims have been traced, authenticated and inscribed. The search goes on, aided by technology, threatened by the passage of time. Yossi explained the painstaking process of collating and verifying the names. In the centre of the Hall, below a circular handrail, a rocky funnel frames a pool of water. From your reflected image, your gaze vaults upwards to photos of a selection of photos of victims in the chimney ceiling; the space between symbolises the journey from the source of life to its end, our reflections the remembrance of the Shoah. The physical metaphor of the well is compelling but it was toward the books on the shelves that one’s gaze kept returning. The simple white letters on their black spines seem to speak in whispers.
We turned to approach the exit, up an incline to where the concrete walls that lean together to form the wedge’s apex curve outwards toward a vista of bright sky, pines and olive groves on the hills of Jerusalem receding before you. Mere consciousness of the effectiveness of the architectural intent could not suppress the sense of welcome and relief that one had exited to such light and landscape, that an unmade day beckoned with possibility. God, as someone once said, only owes us a sunrise. The rest is up to us.
Séamus Heaney once wrote that early Christian monks in Ireland would lie in their dark corbelled beehive huts for days on end, fasting and meditating with a heavy rock on their chests. One can only imagine where their Dark Age minds travelled as they sought out devils to wrestle. Casting off the rock, they would emerge into the sunlight, their spirits vaulting heavenward. Though the devils are very different, the architects of Yad Vashem brilliantly achieve a similar effect.
The Chairman of Yad Vashem, retired Brigadier General Avner Shalev, graciously met me and over coffee we discussed the Holocaust, what it said about human nature, models of remembrance and lessons for us today. As with our conversation, history and evil, capricious twists of history and inexorable tragedies, ironies and explanations return again and again to the Holocaust’s ineffable sadness, the loss of so many and so much.
There is much more at Yad Vashem than its central and incomparably dramatic and compelling Historical Museum – the exhibition pavilion, the Art Museum, the learning centres, and the location itself. My visit was only a first one but I left with an inescapable impression. The modern secular Yad Vashem complex stands in evocative power and significance alongside the other great sites of ancient Jerusalem.