The stories speak for themselves

Guides at Yad Vashem's Holocaust History Museum are stressing the personal to make a lasting impression.

yad vashem guide 88 (photo credit: )
yad vashem guide 88
(photo credit: )
Even before the recent reconstruction of the impressive Holocaust History Museum, Yad Vashem was a place of pilgrimage visited by Jews of every stripe as well as by thousands of non-Jews. Nearly all official visitors to Israel have Yad Vashem on their itineraries, and all new ambassadors to Israel make a point of familiarizing themselves with Yad Vashem. All official visitors are taken around by a guide as are most groups, large and small. The guides are in a sense the ambassadors for the six million people who cannot speak for themselves. "Yad Vashem is not just another Holocaust Museum or institution but a remembrance authority to commemorate the six million Jews (who perished in the Holocaust) in every way possible," says Guy Shemer, the Haifa-born director of Yad Vashem's department for training guides. His department is responsible for some 50 guides, 10 of whom are volunteers. Shemer says that most of the volunteer guides are second- or third-generation Holocaust survivors who tell stories of their parents and grandparents.There are also some second-generation guides among the professionals. But most of the guides, according to Shemer, are less directly connected. Shemer's own parents were not survivors, but whole families in Poland and Romania on both his mother's and his father's side were wiped out, he says. Originally a high school history teacher, Shemer came to Yad Vashem nine years ago to train at its International School for Holocaust Studies. The people in charge of the course recognized his potential and offered him a job as soon as he completed his training. Like many of the other guides, he developed a fascination for the subject through reading Holocaust literature, watching movies about the Holocaust and attending lectures on the Holocaust. "I felt the need to participate in Holocaust education," he says. Shemer often acts as a guide himself and notes that there are two divisions dealing with the transmission of Holocaust information. One is the International School for Holocaust Studies, which is responsible for groups from schools, youth movements and the army as well as the training of educators from Israel and abroad; the second is his unit, which deals with adult groups of visiting heads of state, government ministers, parliamentary delegations, Jewish and non-Jewish organizations. History, especially when it contains too many statistics and small details, is not always an attention-getter, and after a while can become so tedious as to turn people off. "We want our guides to tell a story. This is not a history lecture," says Shemer. Even those visitors who tour the Holocaust History Museum on their own can still get some individual stories by spending time in front of the testimonial videos en route. Such videos are extremely important in conveying individual stories, observes Shemer, and become even more so after the person giving the testimony is deceased, because this becomes that person's legacy to humanity. But Shemer says there is definitely added value in having a guide who is a also a survivor. "It's something with which other guides cannot compete," he admits. Shemer cites Rena Quint, a guide in high demand, as an example. Quint was a child Holocaust survivor who spent a year in Bergen Belsen and labor camps. "She tells the overall story ... as well as her own story. It's very moving. I look at people afterwards and their reaction is very different to that of people who listen to a guide who wasn't there." He hastens to add that all the guides are good and know how to evoke sympathy and empathy, but it's still not the same. Applicants who want to be guides at Yad Vashem must have an academic degree and then have to undergo suitability tests that include written exams on basic facts. Anyone who is ignorant of the meaning of Judenraat (a local committee of Jews set up by the Nazis) or cannot explain the significance of Babi Yar (a large ravine in northern Kiev that serves as a mass grave for thousands of Soviet citizens, mainly Jews, who were slaughtered by the Nazis) is automatically disqualified. If they pass the initial tests, they are given an advance list of Holocaust related topics and are asked to prepare a guiding assignment. They are then evaluated on content, body language, tone of voice, eye contact and how they allocate their time. But all these evaluations are secondary to how they tell the story, emphasizes Shemer. Even then, they still may not be accepted for the course. Shemer listens and watches carefully as they engage in group dynamics: Ten people are presented with seven Yad Vashem goals and are asked to give them a priority ranking. The truth is that the goals are all equally important, but it is interesting to Shemer and his associates to observe the interaction and to see if the group can reach consensus. It hardly ever happens, he admits, but it does provide enormous insights into the personalities of the leaders, enabling those who are evaluating them to determine whether they are assertive, aggressive or shy and assess their potential for coherently conveying the story of the Holocaust. "When they face real groups of visitors they have to be prepared for certain reactions," explains Shemer. "Visitors can be aggressive and annoying." In addition, the guides have to know how to refute myths without being offensive and they have to be careful not to be confrontational in their interaction with Holocaust survivors. Shemer relates an experience of his own: He was taking a group past a memorial of the Warsaw Ghetto and commented that it was the largest of all the ghettos. An elderly woman who was part of the group loudly contradicted him and told him this was not so, and that the largest ghetto was the Lodz Ghetto. "You weren't there, I was," she yelled at him. Shemer was sure of his facts. Population-wise and historically the Warsaw Ghetto was indeed the largest, but he understood that the woman had probably suffered a great deal in the Lodz Ghetto and was afraid her own suffering and that of others might be diminished by admitting that the Warsaw Ghetto was larger. "She needed to express her pain and she wanted her pain to be acknowledged." Instead of arguing with her, Shemer conceded that she might be right since she had been there and he had not, and then asked if it was all right with her if he continued with the guided tour. Appeased, she nodded consent, and the tour continued. Reflecting on that incident, Shemer says: "It's different when you're not a survivor. You're telling a story that you were told. But they were there and they want to tell their stories. When that happens you have to let them do that." Shemer also encourages his guides to refer to well-known feature films about the Holocaust such as Schindler's List, Escape from Sobibor or The Pianist. "If you're talking about deportation and then ask them if they've seen The Pianist and remind them of the deportation square in which the Szpilman family stood as they waited to be deported to Treblinka, it will make the story of deportation extremely personal." These films are among thousands available for viewing at Yad Vashem's Visual Center, which is the most comprehensive resource center of cinematic work in the world, containing 50,000 video-taped testimonies from the Spielberg Archives as well as 20,000 additional testimonies collected by Yad Vashem researchers. Often a personal story of someone who did not survive is built via eyewitness reports, photographs found in someone's pocket, or artifacts that belonged to the person whose story is being shared. More than 90 personal stories are based on artifacts that have been strategically placed throughout the museum, says Estee Yaari, Yad Vashem's Foreign Media liaison. Possibly the most meaningful of these, at least to those surviving orphans for whom he provided a haven, is the broken frame of a pair of spectacles that belonged to Janusz Korczak. Born in Warsaw in 1878 as Henryk Goldsmit, Korczak studied medicine and was also a successful educator and author. He cared passionately about disadvantaged children, believing that he could change their destinies by giving them a decent home and a good education. He changed his name to Janusz Korczak, the hero of a 19th-century novel, and set up his first Jewish orphanage in 1912. He showered a lot of affection on the children in his care and believed in rewarding them when they were deserving of some form of recognition for something they had done. When the Nazis herded the Jews into the Warsaw Ghetto, Korczak's orphanage was also moved there, but because he was also a respected dignitary outside Jewish circles, he received many overtures to be smuggled out of the ghetto. Korczak refused them all, saying he would rather stay with the children. In August, 1942, the Nazis rounded up some 200 children and orphanage staff for deportation to the infamous Treblinka death camp. Korczak went with them. All of them, including Korczak, were murdered. They have no graves, but after the war, a statue of Korczak was erected in the Jewish cemetery in Warsaw. Quint likes to tell stories about Korczak, particularly because they illustrate that even under the worst conditions of deprivation, there are certain people who never lose their humanity. Quint once heard a Korczak story from a man in his 80s who had been one of the children in Korczak's orphanage. Although Korczak was not religious, he made sure the children received a sense of their Jewish heritage. For Pessah, Korczak devised a plan whereby a nut would be placed in the center of one of the matza balls and whoever received that matza ball would get a reward. The man who told her the story had received a matza ball with a nut in it after the war had already broken out. Korczak gave him a few zlotys as a reward and with the money, the boy succeeded in escaping to Russia and surviving the war. Another story Quint likes to tell is how the Holocaust impacts on teenagers from totally unaffiliated backgrounds. On one of her visits to Poland with the March of the Living trip, she was moving from bus to bus, telling her story. On the way to Treblinka, she prepared the young high schoolers for the fact that the memorial is full of different sized stones, each in remembrance of a destroyed Jewish community. When she had been to Treblinka the previous year she had searched in vain for the stone for her own home town of Pietrokov. She knew it existed, because then-Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, who came from the same place, had told her that it was there. She asked any of the kids who came across it to please notify her. Though it seemed to her as though the youngsters were a little wild and barely paying attention to her story, an Argentinian boy from the trip later ran towards her crying: "I found it! I found it!" He later told her he had prayed to find it, and in his heart of hearts he knew he would find it. No member of his family had even the remotest connection to the Holocaust. He had come to Poland believing he didn't belong, but after finding the Pietrokov stone, something shifted. "Now I feel part of the Jewish people," he confided to Quint. Quint often uses contemporary events as parallels to those of the Holocaust. When she talks about the Warsaw Ghetto going up in flames and people jumping out of windows from the upper floors of buildings, she draws a comparison with people jumping out of the windows of the World Trade Center in New York on 9/11. That vision is much fresher in people's memories and it helps them to understand the horrors of the 1940s, she says. Edna Wilchfort, another seasoned guide, is a second-generation Holocaust survivor of Czech parentage whose parents were both in Theresienstadt and whose father later went to Auschwitz and was liberated in Dachau. After spending several years in the United States, Wilchfort returned to Israel, and was looking for something interesting to do. She took a course at Yad Vashem, "and I became connected. It's now a very important part of my life." Although she also incorporates personal stories into her tours, she devotes more time to the history because she often talks to groups of foreign diplomats. In this context she also stresses the roots of racial anti-Semitism. She tailors her tours to what she feels the group will find most interesting, and when people are looking for the personal more than the general, she has a store of personal stories that have been passed on to her by survivors, or that she has learned about in class or through reading. She also makes distinctions between talking to Jews and non-Jews. "With Jews, the connection is on a different level," she says. One of her more challenging tours was when she guided a group of Palestinian women from Beit Jalla. "I was teaching them. I'm sure they hadn't heard much about the Holocaust. They were young Christians. Their reactions were on interest level rather than emotional. They weren't at all antagonistic. On the contrary, they were very attentive." Approaches vary not only with regard to Jews and non-Jews but also between Israeli groups and Jewish groups from abroad. Shemer says that when he speaks to overseas groups he never skips the story of the St. Louis, the ill-fated German ship carrying more than 900 Jewish refugees who were turned away at nearly every port of call; and when he speaks to Israeli groups, he never omits the story of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. "Israelis want to know the story of resistance," he explains. There are many high and low points in fostering Holocaust awareness and remembrance. The recurring high point for Shemer is when he takes groups to the death camps and sings the Israeli national anthem. "When you stand in Auschwitz, Majdanek or Treblinka and sing 'Hatikva,' it makes you proud, it makes you cry. There's nothing like it," he says.