Last night I struggled with the idea of writing about Yad Vashem, Jerusalem’s Holocaust museum, for several reasons. First, my posts about Israel thus far have been serious at times, but mostly full of jokes, puns, and some light kvetching. There wasn’t much humor to be found, though, in our seventh day. Second, I felt that my experience of Yad Vashem was different than many others in our group. I’ve visited other Holocaust museums, for one thing, and studied the Holocaust extensively on my own. Very little surprises or shocks me anymore, though it still makes me angry every time.
As we walked through the museum, I noticed each member of our group gravitate toward different displays, react emotionally to different things, and linger at different moments. How could I write about an experience so individual without including our Birthright family of 40 in the conversation? So I included them, asking each person to describe one or two things that affected them most that day.1
I think the preliminary discussions leading up to the museum had the most impact on me. Our group did a great job of framing the intensity and seriousness of the museum. I enjoyed people sharing their stories in discussions about antisemitism the night before and discussions of what it meant to be Jewish. (AKA sharing our feelings.) The museum itself was almost too much for me to understand, as it’s hard to conceptualize such horrible massacre and so many lives lost. Our close knit group really helped me.
There were two things in particular that hit a chord with me. The first thing in the museum, after a video of daily life pre-Holocaust, there were a bunch of personal items found in people’s wallets, or pockets, or shoes, or wherever they could keep little pieces of home. There were a lot of family pictures and letters, and for me (and I’m sure a lot of other folks) it made the devastation feel very real very fast. I kept thinking how it could easily be a picture of or a note from someone in my family.
The second is a little silly, almost, but I think it’s something I’ll always remember. Backstory: When I was in high school (and though less overtly, even in college) my favorite band was Say Anything (I went through a psuedo-emo phase), and they have this song called “Alive With the Glory of Love” that’s about the lead singer’s grandparents or great-grandparents in the Holocaust. But it’s actually more of a love story and how they held onto their love to pull them through this unimaginably horrible circumstance. There’s a line towards the end of the song that goes “Our Treblinka is alive with the glory of love.”
Where this ties into the museum: there was one part where our guide took us to these models of the three main death camps. I can’t remember the first two, which oddly enough were the two our guide was focusing on, but I walked over to the third, which was Treblinka. And I instantly thought of that song and the story, and even though I’ve loved that song for years now, I never felt that type of connection. I can’t really explain why this was so special and impactful for me, but I think it just put the story in a different context–a very real, scary one–and i was just thinking about the people who were sent to the death camps and how even though they knew their fate, they were fighters and held on to hope and love.
It may sound shallow, but the thing that I was blown away by at Yad Vashem was the architecture. Not only was it beautiful, I’ve never seen a building have such intent on creating an experience for the person inside it – and have it be so successful. It was a beautiful and powerful design. As for the actual exhibit, I think my feelings towards it were shared by many others, but I wasn’t expecting to learn new things, and hear personal stories. The most powerful ones were about those losing and regaining their humanity through their experience
The collection of shoes in that glass case in the floor. It makes you feel the presence of those people that were taken and creates a visual of [them] being stripped of everything, including their shoes. But the shoes remain together, as the Jews (and others that the Nazis tried to exterminate) ultimately did as well.
I have been to several other holocaust museums and memorials in my day. This one in particular was cartoonish and highly animated. Instead of feeling like a harmless educational experience, I felt as though our group was livestock being routinely shepherded through a theme park-themed abattoir. The final room we entered, the one with the binders and pictures and reflection pool. I felt a sense of serenity and peace in there, but combined with a sense of uneasiness. It was by far the most moving of the displays.
The last room with the wall of photos and names as well as the section that showed how Nazis used propaganda to build their “cause” really affected me. The last room was extremely moving because it allowed you to come face to face with victims of the holocaust. It’s one thing to hear about what happened, but to be able to see the faces of the people who experienced it is shocking and makes the event less of a historical story and more real and tangible. The propaganda was simply scary, because you see the tactics used to move an entire generation of people towards this dangerous idea/belief, which lead to the extermination of thousands. It made me think about today, modern holocausts and also the propaganda that we see every day and how it affects how we treat other people.
The Children’s Memorial was somewhat surreal. You have no idea where you are and how much further the memorial goes. I imagine the goal was to make you feel lost as much as possible.
Every time I study the Holocaust I always experience an influx of emotions. This trip to Yad Vashem we learned about Ovadia Baruch and how he recreated his journey during the war. The strength and courage this man had to re-face the horrors he once suffered is inspirational.
In one of the many times I was in Yad Vashem or one of the other Holocaust related museums or events, I attended a live testimony by Ovadia Baruch, the same person from the video we saw along the end of the visit. It was one of the more memorable testimonies I’ve heard and I thought about it once in a while in the years after that. So I was sad to learn that he had passed away. But on the other hand I’m happy that he got to live a life that looked long and full of meaning and purpose.
The part that affected me the most was the part at the end where we sat in the room and we watched the film about Ovadia Baruch. This was the most powerful part for me in Yad Vashem because I’ve been there maybe ten times and it’s kind of different every time you go, there but the principle is the same. And I get kind of bored. I don’t know if that’s a terrible thing to say, but I get bored. But at that part, when we watched him, it touched me. He told his story and it was real. It wasn’t the first time I heard a Holocaust survivor talk but it was the first time it got to me. I think maybe it’s to do with the joy and the “life” that Ovadia gave you when he talked. Even if it was sad, it was real. I got really choked up.
So I really hope for you guys that the rest of the tour touched you. The first time is pretty powerful. The tour guide went fast and there wasn’t much time to let stuff sink in, but I really hope that you did get this feeling of connection and a powerful sense of belonging.
Me again. Whenever I go to a Holocaust museum, I get stuck on the faces. There’s always a room or book full of photographs taken inside the concentration camps, like mug shots, and I just can’t look away. I study each face, comparing them to mine. Sometimes we have the same eyebrows, or our mouths curve the same way. I recognize my hair, my eyes, my cheekbones. It’s unsettling and makes me feel like it could have been me.
- At some point I realized that I was leading the online equivalent of a feelings circle, one of the things that I complained about during the trip. Guess I didn’t hate them so much after all! [↩]