A new job for Tommy

Ehud Olmert's recent appointment of his down-on-his-luck friend to head the Yad Vashem Council is a bit over the top

By
August 1, 2006 21:52
4 minute read.

 
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Prime Minister Olmert is known to be a loyal friend. But even friendship has - or should have - its limits. Few of us would say with British novelist E.M. Forster, for instance, "If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country." Even by standards of Israeli cronyism, Olmert's recent appointment of his down-on-his-luck friend Tommy Lapid to head the Yad Vashem Council is a bit over the top. For an equally shocking example of insensitivity, one would have to go back to Yad Vashem's decision to award the Zussman Prize to sculptor Yigal Tumarkin (a decision later narrowly reversed by a special panel). Yes, the same Tumarkin who famously remarked: "When I see a large haredi family, I begin to understand the Nazis." According to Dr. Michael Berenbaum, former director of the research institute attached to the US Holocaust Museum, 50-70% of those murdered by the Nazis "were traditionally religious Jews." How ironic, then, to appoint Lapid, who rode to fame and power a one-issue hobby horse - venomous hatred of haredim, often expressed as contempt for Judaism in general - to represent a museum devoted to preserving the memory of those who perished in the Holocaust. THE APPOINTMENT of Lapid is far from the Torah world's only problem with Yad Vashem. The original exhibition hall was very much a product of the 1950s Israeli Holocaust historiography, contrasting the martial bravery of the new Israeli Jew to those who were charged with having gone like sheep to the slaughter. Former partisan leader Abba Kovner was the chief proponent of this view, though towards the end of his life he wondered whether his brother, who had stayed behind in Vilna with their elderly mother, was not the greater hero. The magnificent new exhibition hall no longer advances the 1950s version of the Holocaust. Yet despite all the thought and money put into the exhibit, a major aspect of the Holocaust is still missing. The world of Torah learning that was almost entirely destroyed is slighted, as is the spiritual heroism of many of the victims. IN THE HALL devoted to the Warsaw Ghetto there is no hint of the rich religious life that flourished in the ghetto - the yeshivas and heders, the celebration of festivals - even though these are all documented in Emmanuel Ringelblum's journals. The hall on the Kovno Ghetto is filled with photographs of the leading personalities who died or were murdered in the ghetto. Absent, however, are photos Rabbi Avraham Dovber Shapiro, the rabbi of Kovno and leading posek of his time; of Rabbi Elchonon Wasserman, whose works remain standard texts in every yeshiva, and who returned from America to join his yeshiva before being martyred in the ghetto; or of Rabbi Avraham Grodzinski, one of the great mussar figures of pre-War Jewry. The heartrending shaylos (religious questions) addressed to Rabbi Ephraim Oshry in the Kovno Ghetto and subsequently collected as Shaylot u'Teshuvot MeMa'amakin find no mention. The leading Orthodox rescue activists in Europe go almost unmentioned: Rabbi Michoel Ber Weissmandl in Slovakia (he is pictured in connection with his plan for bombing Auschwitz); Recha and Isaac Sternbuch in Switzerland, George Mantello in Hungary; and Dr. Jacob Griffel in Turkey. TESTIMONIES of survivors are interspersed throughout the exhibition hall. But one looks in vain for one survivor wearing a kippa or a sheitel. At the British Holocaust Museum and the US Holocaust Museum they are found, but not in Yad Vashem. The interviews are full of graphic descriptions of the degraded state to which the Nazis succeeded in bringing the inmates of the concentration camps. But the spiritual heroism of those who exchanged their only morsel of daily bread for the chance to put on tefillin, or pray from a siddur; of those who insisted on blowing the Shofar on Rosh Hashanah or baking matzot on Pessah; of those who risked their lives to save other Jews goes unmentioned. The words Shema Yisroel, on the lips of millions of Jews as they met their end, appear nowhere in Yad Vashem. Nor would a visitor know that the Nazis sought not only to physically exterminate all Jews but to extinguish the light of Torah as well. I. A. Eckhardt, High Commander of the German Occupation Forces in Poland, issued a directive on November 23, 1940 warning that no Ostjuden (Eastern European Jews) must be allowed to escape because they constitute the majority of rabbis and "Talmud learners." He warned, prophetically, that the Talmud learners could bring about the spiritual regeneration of world Jewry, even American Jewry. THE STANDARD response to complaints about these omissions and many others equally glaring is that Yad Vashem is not a "sectoral" museum, but one for the entire Jewish people. And thus, with the wave of a hand, are half of those who perished in the Holocaust written off as a mere "sector," and secular Jews accorded the status of the true representatives of Klal Yisrael, the people of Israel. The gaps in the historical record infect only the main exhibition hall - the only part of the institution most visitors ever see. Yad Vashem's research facilities contain plentiful material on the world of traditional observance that was destroyed, documenting outstanding examples of spiritual heroism to parallel the courage of the fighters in the Warsaw Ghetto. This week's Mishpacha , a religious weekly magazine, contains an interview with Shulamit Imber, pedagogical director of Yad Vashem's international school of Holocaust Studies, who is herself religious, in which she expresses Yad Vashem's determination to correct the gaps in the main exhibition. Such promises have been frequently heard in recent years. Hopefully, Yad Vashem will fulfill its undertakings to present a more complete picture of the Holocaust. But the appointment of Tommy Lapid as head of the Yad Vashem Council hardly inspires confidence.

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