This place is beautiful, was my first, startling thought as I arrived at the grounds of Yad Vashem, Israels’s Holocaust museum. Then I felt guilty at the very thought and tried to retract it from my own mind.
But it is beautiful. Calling Yad Vashem a museum seriously understates the scope of its endeavor: it is a 45-acre complex dedicated to memorializing and documenting the Holocaust. Its grounds are impeccably landscaped; its architecture, quite breathtaking. This is in keeping, my audioguide tells me, with the museum’s commitment to remembering that the Holocaust occurred not in some dark corner, but out in the open, in the broad light of day. Good point. (See also: Darfur).
The main museum is what most people go to see, and with good reason. It is an incredibly thorough documentation of the Holocaust and the years that preceded and followed it. I’ve read a fair bit about the Holocaust and visited the impressive DC museum that also memorializes it. It has been quite a few years, but I don’t recall anything that documents as thoroughly the development of the policies of the 1930s that made the Holocaust possible, the mechanisms by which the murders occurred (the museum consistently refers to the slaughter not as “killing” but as “murder”) or the spread of the Holocaust from Germany through Eastern Europe. Yad Vashem also discusses the Holocaust from an entirely Jewish perspective, which makes its tone somewhat different from that of the U.S. museum.
But as I walked through the museum, taking it all in and listening intently to my audioguide, I found myself wondering whether the museum packed the emotional wallop that I had felt after I experienced other treatments of the Holocaust. I teared up at the video testimonials of survivors who told their horrible stories: watching mothers, fathers, siblings, children, killed; or, climbing out of a pit of dead bodies, stunned to find that they were still alive after a mass shooting. It was of course moving, but I was not yet left as stunned by the horror as I had been at other museums, reading books, or seeing Holocaust documentaries. I started to wonder, even worry: is there some point at which the horrors of the Holocaust stop being completely chilling? Had I reached a saturation point where I was simply disgusted in a detached way instead of being completely sickened by it?
As I approached the end of the museum’s exhibits, a few rooms documented the year 1945, when the Allies declared victory. Silent black and white footage broadcast on the wall showed bulldozers pushing piles of sick, emaciated bodies into mass graves. I tried not to watch – the demonstration of the brutality and scale of the murders was so intense – but I could not draw myself way. Finally, a sick pit began to rivet itself to the side of my stomach. So I walked to the next room, the one that documents some of the aftermath for survivors. If recollection serves, this is the point that a lot of Holocaust documentations neglect; many seem to end with the Allied victory, inadvertently leaving one with the sense “Yay, it was finally over!”
Not Yad Vashem. The last rooms document some survivors’ experiences, and they were not pretty. It was a video here of one woman’s story that finally got me. To paraphrase: the only survivor in her family, she outlived the Holocaust and got married, I believe to another survivor. Like other woman survivors, she was malnourished and emaciated, so she had stopped menstruating. But after a time, she started to develop breasts. Surprised, she went to her doctor to find out what was going on.
“You are pregnant,” he told her.
“Pregnant? How can that be?” she asked. “I cannot be pregnant.”
“You are,” the doctor said.
She was horrified. She pled with the doctor for an abortion. I must have one, she insisted. How can I listen to a baby scream? she asked him. All I will ever hear is the screaming I know already – the screaming of the babies of Auschwitz.
But the doctor refused to end the pregnancy, because she could not pay him. In the video, her husband sat next to the woman, completely stonefaced as she told the story.
The woman returned home from the doctor. Using a wet towel and a hot iron, she tried to abort the pregnancy herself. It did not work.
She had the baby. She said that when the baby was small, she swore that she would share with him the stories of Auschwitz. But she never did, she tells the camera. She could not.
Hearing her story -- for me, it captures something about the essence of the Holocaust, how it turned everything that should be normal and good in on itself -- I finally reached my emotional breaking point. Sickened, and ready to sob heaving, disgusted sobs, I left the museum and stood on a platform overlooking the Jerusalem forest. Back in the broad light of day, I contemplated the Holocaust, the nature of good and evil, the world, and my own role in it.
Yad Vashem Postscript
At Yad Vashem there was also a temporary exhibit on survivors who came to Israel after the war. I entered the exhibit, hoping that it would memorialize survivors’ experiences of Israel, ideally with them describing in their own words what Israel means to them. Instead, the exhibit documented the artistic and literary achievements of some of the survivors who came to live in Israel.
But it turned out that one of the survivor’s life stories illustrates the meaning of Israel to survivors better than any testimonial could:
Samuel Gogol (1924-1993) moved to Israel from Poland following the war. Gogol, according to the exhibit, was orphaned after his mother died and his father was deported from Poland. He lived in an orphanage for a time, where one year as a birthday gift he was given a harmonica. He took to it. In Auschwitz, he was assigned to the camp orchestra. As he witnessed the horrors around him, he swore that if he survived he would dedicate his life to teaching Jewish children the harmonica.
And he did. He moved to Israel, played harmonica, taught children, and started a band in a town near Tel Aviv. A video in the exhibit showed a child, presumably one of Gogol’s students, on stage, playing his heart out on the harmonica. Watching a carefree child live Gogol’s legacy told me all I needed to know about how Israel helped those few who survived the Holocaust realize their dreams.