Israel Reflections 2013–Yad Vashem

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Category: Human Rights, International Law & Diplomacy, Public
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Today’s post is from Brendan Byrne on visiting the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial – a regular stop for visitors to Israel including the President this past month.

Yad Vashem is the official memorial to the victims and survivors of the Holocaust that took 6 million lives and left physical and emotional scars on millions more during World War II. The museum itself is located on a tranquil and peaceful mountaintop surrounded by walking paths that allow for reflection after the atrocities recounted within.

To enter the museum everyone must cross a wooden bridge. Once inside I immediately noticed that I was surrounded by 30 foot high concrete walls and instantly recognized that I was not entering the comforts of home; it was something far from home. Rounding the first turn I saw a single long hallway that seems to be brightly lit at the end, but I couldn’t just walk a straight path to that light; the path is blocked by numerous wired fences.

So I made my way into the start of the exhibit. Even for someone who does not suffer from claustrophobia, the going was slow and the space limited and constricting. Oftentimes my progression through the museum came to a complete stop as a few people in front of me paused to reflect on a certain display. I along with the gathered crowd waited to move on and a few people quickly grew into a large mass behind those that created the block, but it remained silent in the museum, and everybody waited to move forward; nobody interrupts the others’ reflective state. This happens over and over again as I walk through the museum. It almost seems as if this were an intentional feature of the design. It made me think about, even if just for a few seconds, what it must have been like to be treated like an animal, herded into the ghetto, then onto the train bound for the concentration camp, and finally herded into the long fenced-in pathway leading to the gas chamber.

It was also not a coincidence that during the first half of the museum the pathway everyone is walking is declining. The decline starts with the anti-Semitic laws passed in Germany in the 1930s and reaches its lowest point at the period of mass extermination. After reaching the bottom of the decline, which signifies the most difficult time for the Jewish people, I began walking up the incline and enter the Hall of Names. Here I gazed at the walls of the room filled with binders of the names of the known victims and their stories. I could also see empty shelves that signify the incomplete work where there is room for the names of those who have yet to be remembered or those who have been lost to history as there is nobody who knew them that survived to tell their stories. I looked up and saw the faces of hundreds of the victims, their photos and the moments of happiness on display, before they fell victim to the Nazi regime. I looked down and saw the faded images reflecting in a pool of water and realized that their faces had faded with time, but their memory will live on in the hearts and minds of the Jewish people and those who witness this museum.

But the Hall of Names is not the end; it really signifies the beginning. Just outside the Hall of Names, and slightly up the incline, the bright light that could be seen at the beginning of the long hallway is now clearly a bank of windows and doors leading to a patio. When you reach the edge of the patio you overlook the hills of Jerusalem and realize that, yes, all of these horrendous things have happened, and the trials these people faced were long and hard, but the Jewish people, looking out on the hills of Jerusalem were, once again, in a place of hope, and in a place they can truly call home.

Cross posted at Indisputably.

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