Some Thoughts on Visiting Yad Vashem

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The first thing that struck me on my first visit to the new exhibition hall at Yad Vashem, Israel’s major Holocaust museum, was the group of older people in front of me entering the hall. The men were all wearing the kind of smooth white yarmulkes that one picks out of a box at Reform temples or Jewish funeral homes. Clearly these were not regular yarmulke-wearers, and I wondered why they felt that doing so was appropriate for Yad Vashem.

It occurred to me that the wearing of the yarmulkes was not without its symbolism: To a large extent, Holocaust Remembrance has become the religion of American Jewry. Between 75% and 85% of American Jews rate
the Holocaust as a very important factor in their sense of themselves as
Jews, far higher than belief in God, Torah or Israel.

The yarmulkes on their heads also hinted to another tragedy. The most frequent “life-cycle event” at which these elderly Jews find themselves — if, in fact, they were Jewish, and not Christian tourists, who think of Yad Vashem as some sort of Jewish holy site — are funerals. For too many American Jews, Yiddishkeit is primarily associated with death and dying, and to the extent that their Jewish identity centers on the mass slaughter of Jews during the Holocaust the association is only heightened. Jewish simchas and Yiddishe nachas are almost entirely absent from their lives. No wonder they have been unable to provide their children any little reason to affiliate with the Jewish community. Who wants to be just another link in a chain of death and persecution?

I HAD BEEN TOLD by others who had visited the new exhibition that they felt it downplayed the Holocaust as a tragedy for Torah Jewry. In this regard, our tour of the museum got off to an inauspicious beginning with our guide telling us that no more than one-third of those killed by the Nazis, ym”sh, were shomrei mitzvos. When I pressed him on this point, he told me that is what he learned in Yad Vashem’s course for tour guides. That conclusion, however, flies in the face of the testimony of Michael Berenbaum, the former director of the U.S. Holocaust Museum, who has written that between 50-70% of those killed were “traditionally observant Orthodox Jews.”

One of the first streaming videos in the exhibit tried to capture something of the communities that were destroyed. Here too, Jewish religious life prior to the Nazi onslaught was slighted, and photos of Zionist youth groups given prominence. In the choice of interviewees for the many videos throughout the museum, I noted a curious absence of those wearing yarmulkes (though some of those interviewed could have been formerly observant Jews, who later gave up observance, as a consequence of what they went through).

One of the most powerful testimonies was that of a survivor, who described his experiences as a fifteen-year-old in the death camps. One night he felt someone take his cap in the middle of the night. The loss of that hat was a death sentence, for anyone who showed up at daily inspection without a hat could count on being shot on the spot. The man, now well over 70, told how he had decided that he was not yet prepared to end his life.

So he slipped down from his bunk and walked by a dim light throughout the barracks until he found another Jew whose hat was sticking out from under his head. Slowly he slipped the hat out from under his head and made his way back to his bunk. He related how at the inspection the next morning he had looked straight ahead throughout so that he would not be haunted the rest of his life by the face of the Jew whose death he had caused. Even when he heard one of the prisoners called out of line and a shot ring out, he just kept staring ahead.

The same survivor related, with even greater shame, how his father had collapsed one day while standing next to him in line, and he had not bent over to help him to his feet. Signs of compassion for a fellow prisoner too could result in being shot on the spot.

I would never presume to judge this man, and I cannot help but admire the courage it took to share these searing memories with a large audience. Certainly his testimony had its rightful place in any compendium of the Nazi evil, for the Nazis not only murdered millions of Jews they sought to first turn them into desperate animals clawing desperately at any chance of survival.

But could Yad Vashem not have found a place as well for the spiritual heroism of many other Jews in similar circumstances: those who exchanged their only morsel of daily bread for the chance to put on tefillin or daven from a siddur, those who risked their lives to hear the Shofar blown or to bake matzah in the camps, and, most important, the many who risked their own lives to help their fellow Jews survive.

Such stories are legion, and they are entirely absent from Yad Vashem. The section dealing with the Warsaw Ghetto uprising is one of the largest in the museum. But in addition to the physical heroism of the young Jewish men and women who battled the mighty German army to a standstill for days, armed only with handmade and foraged weapons, the bravery and spiritual heroism of all those who went to their deaths with “Shema Yisrael” on their lips needs to be told.

On one of the walls, there is a large plaque with the proclamation of the Hans Frank, the Nazi governor of Poland, that not one Jew must be allowed to survive. Absent, however, is another crucial Nazi directive – a general directive to the German Occupation Forces in Poland issued November 23, 1940 from the German High Commander I.A. Eckhardt. Eckhardt recognized that the secret of Jewish survival lies in our devotion to Torah learning. Accordingly, he warned that no Ostjuden, Eastern European Jews, must be allowed to escape because they comprise the majority of the rabbis and “Talmud learners.” If they escape, he wrote prophetically, they can bring about the spiritual regeneration of world Jewry, even American Jewry.

The Nazis knew that they were waging war not just against Jews, but against Torah. And Jews who come to witness the record of the Nazi evil, in all its details, should know that as well.

These omissions, as well almost complete absence of any mention of the Orthodox heroes of rescue, such as Rabbi Michoel Ber Wiesmandl (who is pictured), Recha and Isaac Sternbuch, George Mantello, and Yosef Griffels, to name just a few, are not accidental. Our guide told me that, as far as he knows none of the senior staff members of Yad Vashem are religious. The absence of a religious perspective may not be deliberate, but it is the result of a lack of any guiding sensibility that could provide it.

SINCE IT WAS THE LAST DAY OF BEIN HAZEMANIM, there were plenty of yeshiva bochurim in the museum, and we had no trouble finding a minyan as we exited. The beautiful wooden shul is in the shape of an amphiteater sloping upwards. All around the shul, at the back, there is a walkway with exhibits, and only a half wall divides the walkway from the shul.

As we davened, a tourist group came in and stood watching us throughout the entire Shemoneh Esrai. I could not help wondering what they found of interest about a group of mostly young yeshivaleit davening silently. Had they emerged from the exhibit with a desire to connect themselves more closely with the People whom Hitler, ym”sh, sought to wipe off the face of the earth and envy us our ability to do so in age-old rituals? Or had the confrontation with Absolute Evil left them too with a desire to connect to its opposite?

AM I GLAD I WENT? I don’t really know. I recall a Tisha B’Av drasha that I heard many years ago from Rabbi Moshe Eisenman of Yeshiva Ner Israel in Baltimore. He explained why he had not traveled from Baltimore to Washington D.C. to view the new U.S. Holocaust Museum. To go through such a museum, and then to return shortly thereafter to drinking one’s coffee, he felt, would be a desecration of the memory whose torment was recorded within.

I had a similar feeling after visiting Yad Vashem when asked how I enjoyed it. What was I supposed to answer? That I enjoyed it? It was nice? Powerful? Any response would only trivialize the experience in a manner similar to that Rabbi Eisenman feared.

Of one thing I’m sure, however. Unless one knows nothing about the Holocaust, it is a mistake to take a guide through the museum (even though ours was excellent). There is too much to think about as one wends way through the large number of exhibits to be bound to anyone else’s schedule. One’s reactions to the vast array of powerful visual images will inevitably be individual, and each person’s journey through the museum his own.

Whether the new exhibit hall is done poorly or well – apart from the caveats mentioned above — I’m not yet prepared to say. My reaction to the Holocaust Museum at the British War Museum was far stronger. But there I was on my own, and the museum far less crowded on both the days I was there.

Yet no matter how well or poorly the exhibitions have been done, one cannot leave Yad Vashem anything other than shaken by enormity of what Hitler wrought. I could not help thinking of a young woman attending one of the prestigious overseas seminaries in Jerusalem who spent a Shabbos with us many years ago. Somehow the subject of the Holocaust came up, and she quickly whipped off a twenty second answer. Problem solved. I was stunned by how casually she dispensed with any challenge to faith. (To this young woman’s immense credit, she herself must have sensed that there was something terribly shallow about her response. The next summer she returned to Jerusalem to study in the beginner’s program at Neve Yerushalayim.)

I mention this incident only to make one point. I’m convinced that Hashem does not seek from us some easy affirmation after coming face to face with the Holocaust. Rather He wants us to wrestle with the enormity of the events, question, probe, and to be changed by the experience. Otherwise He would never have hidden Himself from us during those years of wrath. Only out of that wrestling can emerge a deeper and truer faith in He Who has preserved us in the face of all the Amaleks, and Hamans, and Hitlers.

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