Whose Holocaust is it?

Haredim once believed Yad Vashem placed too much emphasis on the role of the Jewish state in redeeming Jews after the Holocaust. Now, the ultra-Orthodox visit the museum and use its tools as teaching resources.

Hardeim (photo credit: courtesy yad vashem)
(photo credit: courtesy yad vashem)
In a recent edition of the popular weekly haredi magazine Bakehila, the editor-in-chief obscured the faces of several Jewish women who appeared in one of the famous photographs of the deportation from the Warsaw Ghetto. This was done in accordance with the strict rules of modesty, imposed mostly on women, which in recent years have reached a very high level in the haredi community. Besides the criticism that this move has incurred, most of the reactions (on social media such as Facebook) pointed to the long history of hostility on the part of the haredi community toward Yad Vashem, the world’s major Holocaust memorial.
Nine years ago, a scandal erupted when haredi leaders requested that, for modesty reasons, the photographs of naked Jewish women on their way to the gas chamber be removed from Yad Vashem’s permanent exhibition. And two months ago, police arrested two young haredim suspected of vandalizing the walls of the monument that commemorates the destroyed communities in Europe.
These two examples (there are many more) illustrate the fact that there is deep mistrust between the haredi community and Yad Vashem, a place the haredim regard as a stronghold of Zionist ideology, which they officially reject.
However, for the past three years, some things have changed in this regard. Whether the change is part of a general shift within the haredi community – with more yeshiva students leaving or reducing their talmudic studies to study at academic colleges, join the labor force or enlist in the haredi unit in the IDF – Yad Vashem seems to have lost much of its threatening aspect in the eyes of many haredim, including their rabbis.
“Try to visit Yad Vashem during the three weeks [the period between 17 Tamuz and 9 Av, the date of the destruction of the Temple, when yeshiva students are on leave],” suggests Moshe Levkowitz, a hassidic Jew who heads an organization dedicated to helping elementary-school pupils from needy families reach the level of their classmates. “For the last three or four years, Yad Vashem has been filled with haredim, entire families who come to visit. The number of haredi visitors is so high that Yad Vashem has created a special route that bypasses the photographs of naked Jewish women that upset them so much only a few years ago.”
But visits by individuals or large organized groups are one thing, and being willing to learn about the history of the Holocaust at Yad Vashem is another.
However, that is exactly what is happening. Large groups of teachers in the haredi sector are receiving teacher-in-service training at the institution by its official lecturers.
“Girls during the time of destruction,” one of the major teacher-training programs, has been attended regularly for the last three years by teachers from the haredi education sector. This includes a modular training kit of items, adapted for various ages – from Talmud Torah (the equivalent of preschool and first grade in the haredi sector) up to the highest grades before the students move on to yeshiva. The program – comprised of three separate courses – includes a part on Jewish life in Poland before the destruction of these communities; the outbreak of World War II; and a description of how the Jewish communities dealt with the anti-Semitic regulations of the Nazi occupation before they were deported to the concentration camps. The program also includes the testimonies of survivors (carefully adapted to the target audience) and ends with exercises in class. There are also guided tours of the Yad Vashem Museum, following study days for the teaching staff. Once a year, for three days during the three weeks before Tisha Be’av, the program ends with a gathering of all the teachers who attended the courses that year, each time dedicated to a different topic.
NAVA WEISS is the head of the Holocaust education department for the haredi community at Yad Vashem. A haredi woman herself, Weiss says that most of the community’s mistrust of Yad Vashem dissipates when they meet her.
“But,” she adds, “their interest and desire to learn more about that period in our people’s history is stronger than any fear or suspicion.”
Yad Vashem’s training of teachers in the haredi education system is provided nationwide, “but the annual seminars we hold in Jerusalem are packed, and it increases every year,” she says.
Weiss’s explanation for why the haredi community originally refused to have anything to do with Yad Vashem is not only the Zionist nature of the institution.
“We’re used to using the terms ‘Shoah’ and ‘Tekuma’ [Holocaust and Revival], which to haredi ears sound problematic. For them, ‘revival’ is not to be associated with the events of the Holocaust; revival is a secular and political issue connected to the Zionist movement and the creation of the state,” she says.
“It was clear that they could not cope with that. But many things have changed. Not only are the haredim less anti-Zionist than they were at the the time of the creation of the state, but there are certain realities that have developed during our mutual life here that cannot be ignored,” she continues.
Another factor that prevented haredim from having any connection with Yad Vashem for a long time was the Knesset’s decision to hold Holocaust Remembrance Day on the same day that commemorates the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, which fell in Nisan, a period on the Jewish calendar when Jews are not permitted to mourn.
“These were much more important reasons than the issue of photographs of naked Jewish women just before they were killed. And although the dates and the dilemma about it hasn’t changed, of course, specific and reliable information about that period has become important, hence the high demand for the seminars and courses we provide,” concludes Weiss.
In fact, Yad Vashem has created a special haredi education program, alongside the program that the institution has run in the Israeli education system for years. The programs are run nationwide for both boys and girls in every town and city that has a haredi sector in its education department.
Considering the amount of hostility that the haredi community has harbored for years toward Yad Vashem, that is quite a radical change.
“Things have changed slowly but surely,” says Levkowitz. “Note that at a certain point, the Yad Vashem board decided to invite a haredi leader [Dudi Zilbershlag, a haredi publisher and public figure] to join. In a way, it was the officialization of a process that was already happening, indicating things had changed not only within the haredi community but within the Israeli establishment as well.”
ACCORDING TO other haredi sources, the change was indeed occurring on both sides. While inside the haredi community there was a growing need to learn about the major catastrophe of the Jewish people, at Yad Vashem there was a readiness to understand the needs of the haredi community and to make special efforts to respond appropriately to those needs. Thus the creation of a haredi education department and a specially adapted teaching program, including, of course, separate classes for male and female teachers. Even for individual haredi visitors, a special circuit was built that bypasses the photographs of naked Jewish women in the ghettos and the concentration camps.
For Shmuel Pappenheim, a member of the hassidic sect of Toldot Aharon, it doesn’t seem surprising, at least now.
“It is true that, for a long time, haredim avoided any contact with any institution or representative of the Zionist establishment, especially since at Yad Vashem there is a clear link established between the Holocaust and the Tekuma [the redemption of the Jewish people through the creation of the state],” he explains. But he is quick to add, “Things have changed, and today on one hand the haredim are not as anti-Zionist as they used to be; and, no less important, there is a tremendous need on their part to understand from a his-torical point of view and to learn the historiography of that period.”
Pappenheim adds that there has not been any official declaration by the rabbis in the haredi community that brought about the change.
“It’s not that one day influential rabbis said that Yad Vashem was no longer forbidden. It just happened over the years, slowly and naturally, and today there is no longer such an interdiction. I guess it’s more because people just want to learn the facts about what happened.”
However, things are still not so simple for all the members of the haredi community, and “normalization” towards the state’s institutions – or the “Zionist establishment” as it is called there – is far from reality.
“Yad Vashem is a part of the Zionist state and the Zionist establishment, which is not in accordance with our holy Torah,” says a young haredi yeshiva student, who wishes to remain anonymous.
How would that assumption prevent haredim from at least learning about the facts? “Anything that happened to the Jewish people and is not presented in the framework of God’s will must be considered heresy or blasphemy,” he says.
A PLACE that presents the Holocaust from a different perspective does exist. It was, in fact, the first museum about the Holocaust created in Israel in 1948. It was called the Chamber of the Holocaust (Martef Hashoah), located on Mount Zion in the Old City. Although the museum was founded by an official member of the Zionist state’s government (the director-general of the Ministry of Religion, Rabbi Dr. Samuel Zanvil Kahane), it is totally different from Yad Vashem’s mission and vision. At the Chamber of the Holocaust, nothing hints at any aspect of redemption through a secular state or at the Zionist option. Soon after its establishment, it was handed over to an Orthodox group that founded the Diaspora Yeshiva, which focuses on repentant Jews. This museum focuses exclusively on the destruction; the central room looks like a cave or a tomb, with eternal flames, in addition to a courtyard and exhibition rooms. On the walls of the courtyard and some of the rooms there are tombstone-like stones bearing inscriptions – mostly in Yiddish – as memorials for the Jewish communities destroyed during the Holocaust. Many young yeshiva students, not specifically those who study at the Diaspora Yeshiva, visit it and still refuse to go to Yad Vashem.
“They [Yad Vashem] believe that a strong army and a state are the answers to what happened to the Jewish people,” says the haredi source. “We are faithful to our holy Torah, we know that there is no redemption other than through God’s will. Therefore, I don’t have anything to do with that institution.” •