Thursday 12 June 2014
Today we visited Yad VaShem, the Israeli Holocaust Museum. It was a harrowing experience.
The name derives from a verse in the Bible:
“And to them will I give in my house and within my walls a memorial and a name (a “yad vashem”)… that shall not be cut off.” (Isaiah, chapter 56, verse 5)
Yad vaShem is thus both a “memorial” to the victims and also assures that their “names” are not forgotten.
Yad vaShem is divided into ten sections of varying length and breadth. They provide a photographic, textual and video account of the tragedy of the Shoah (the Holocaust), as well as artefacts of that time, clothing, shoes, personal possessions, posters, railway carriages. The sections deal with:
1. the rise of the Nazis,
2. the invasion of Poland,
3. the fate of Jewish communities in Eastern and Western Europe, ghettoes, deportation …
4. the invasion of Russia and the beginnings of the mass murders,
5. the concentration camps and death camps,
6. the responses of the Allies and the resistance,
7. Auschwitz and the Allied victory,
8. the liberation,
9. the Hall of Names,
10. quiet dark spot for reflection.
There is also a moving Children’s Memorial.
I wrote that the experience was harrowing. Yad VaShem confronted me with the reality of the absolute horror that was inflicted on the Jewish people of Europe (and gypsies and homosexuals and some others) in the years leading up to and especially during the Second World War. The inhumanity to fellow human beings is shocking. It was ruthless, systematic, sustained, programmatic. It culminated in the industrialisation of death. 6 million people killed, simply because they were Jews.
It is confronting. Because it is clearly evident that the previous centuries of anti-Semitism by the Church contributed to the hostile environment against the Jews in which the Nazi ideology of Aryan supremacy was able to flourish, which was able to “demonise” the Jews, deny their humanity and reduce them to pests to be exterminated.
It is confronting. Because the deadly anti-Jewish programme was carried out by fellow citizens, and involved the complicity of many people who were not directly involved but nevertheless condoned it, or turned a blind eye, or chose not to see.
It is confronting. Because of the enormity of the scale on which it was conducted, across many nations in Eastern and Western Europe, reaching even into North Africa.
It is confronting. Because of the silence and sometimes refusal of other nations to provide support, refuge and succour to those trying to flee the persecution.
It is confronting. Because I became ashamed of the evil which fellow human beings inflicted on fellow human beings. It confronted me with the horror of which we are capable.
Throughout the exhibits, there are video clips of the survivors of the Holocaust, who recount in graphic detail what happened to them, to their parents, to their children, to their relatives, to their neighbours, how they were going about their lives, how they were assimilated into society – so they thought – then suddenly and inexplicably they face discrimination, persecution, loss of property, pogroms, ghettoization …. but this is a phase only and will pass, they think. It is a phase, yes, and it passes, but to something even worse! Deportations begin, to unknown destinations, and no returnees!
Many of these survivors tell the story of what they endured in the ghettoes, the living conditions, in the trains, on arrival in the camps, the selection, the forced labour, family members never seen again, the hunger, the cold. Others tell of the murders, of being lined up along a trench to be shot, falling and lying among corpses. They all tell of unimaginable horrors, and of survival against all odds. Listening to these stories, I was moved to tears several times.
My journey through Yad VaShem was emotionally draining. I was sorry that we only had a couple of hours – it really needs a full day to see and experience everything, so I had to rush through some sections – but on the other hand, a full day would have been completely emotionally exhausting.
I was very glad to have had the experience of engaging with the exhibits in Yad vaShem. While the Museum is a memorial to the victims of the Holocaust by remembering their names and telling what happened to them in the middle of the last century, it has made me wonder about what is happening to others in our world today, to the poor, to the asylum seekers, to the minorities, to those exiled from their ancestral homelands, to the thousands displaced and dying in Syria – to mention just one country among so many others that is suffering the torment of violence and war – to those discriminated against on the basis of their colour, their gender, their religion, their sexual orientation, to the many victims in our world and in our society.
Am I complicit? Do I condone their suffering while enjoying the benefits of the systems that exploit them and discriminate against them? Do I turn a blind eye? Do I excuse myself saying the situation is too complex? Am I silent? Do I do nothing to help, to challenge, to make a difference?
These are very challenging and disturbing questions. I hope I can find the courage to keep asking them. Even more, I hope I can find the courage to act, to live a solidarity which embraces all people (and indeed all creatures, including our planet) and from which no one is excluded. Only then can I claim to be a son of the One who is Father/Mother to all. May God grant me this grace, and pour it out in abundance on all people.
Yad vaShem has a website. See http://www.yadvashem.org/yv/en/about/index.asp
I invite you to have a look at the site, scroll through its pages, listen to some of the video clips of the Survivors, and be challenged as I was to try and look more honestly at what is happening in our world today.
We truly honour the memory and names of the victims of the Holocaust only by ensuring that no one ever again must undergo what they underwent.
Shalom, Peace, Salaam!!!