Yad Vashem chair Avner Shalev recalls achievements, challenges

Shalev has long been the public face of Yad Vashem, welcoming popes, presidents and prime ministers to the Mount of Remembrance.

GAZING AT photographs of Holocaust victims in the Hall of Names, on the Mount of Remembrance. (photo credit: COURTESY YAD VASHEM)
GAZING AT photographs of Holocaust victims in the Hall of Names, on the Mount of Remembrance.
(photo credit: COURTESY YAD VASHEM)
Avner Shalev, retiring chairman of Yad Vashem, strides into the room with a vigor belying his 82 years, squarely faces the camera, and begins our Zoom interview. Shalev, a former IDF brigadier-general who served as bureau chief for IDF chief of staff David “Dado” Elazar, retains his crisp military bearing, and speaks plainly and to the point.
Shalev has long been the public face of Yad Vashem, welcoming popes, presidents and prime ministers to the Mount of Remembrance. In early 2020, when a bevy of world leaders converged upon Yad Vashem for the Fifth World Holocaust Forum, he was even more visible. Yet Shalev is far more than a master of ceremonies who welcomes politicians and personalities to this important institution. For the past 27 years, as chairman of the Yad Vashem directorate, he has been the driving force behind the numerous changes and advancements that have secured Yad Vashem’s status as the world’s leading source of Holocaust remembrance and education.
In 1993, Shalev, who was then the director-general of the Culture Authority in Israel’s Ministry of Education and Culture, was approached by Dr. Yitzhak Arad, then-chairman of the Yad Vashem Directorate, who suggested he take over the position. “The idea was not mine,” says Shalev candidly. “He tried to convince me, unsuccessfully,” he adds, chuckling at the recollection. “He even came to my house on a Shabbat morning to speak to my wife, and I don’t think he convinced her, either.” Finally, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin urged him to accept the offer. “At that point, I couldn’t refuse.”
Though Shalev was born in 1939 in Jerusalem to parents who had emigrated from Poland, his family did not emerge unscathed. “Some of my aunts and uncles were murdered in the Shoah, together with their children. My family, just like all Jewish families who lost relatives and friends during the Shoah, mourned their death until their last days,” he says quietly.
New leadership, new direction
Shalev recalls his first major decision as Yad Vashem chairman. “As the first Sabra [Israeli born Jew] to head the institution, and as an educator at heart, I understood that our most important mission was in the area of education. Though Yad Vashem had already assembled a very impressive archive and held important memorial ceremonies, including the annual state opening ceremony for Holocaust Remembrance Day, I knew that we needed to foster teaching about the Holocaust in order to reach the next generations.”
Shalev discussed the Holocaust with young people and found that there was great interest, but felt that the level of relevance of the subject needed to be secured. “At that point, I realized that we needed to have a center that would provide educators with the facts and tools necessary to impart this vital period in history in an accurate and impactful manner in the classroom.”
AND THAT’S just what he did. “First on the agenda,” he recalls, “was the creation of a global educational center, providing the necessary tools to ensure that the Holocaust would remain a relevant topic to the Jewish people and humanity for future generations. It is for this reason that I established the International School for Holocaust Studies, in order to attract educators, community leaders and opinion shapers from Israel and all over the world to view Yad Vashem and its unique approach to the Holocaust as an invaluable educational and remembrance resource.”
The International School for Holocaust Studies is the only institution of its kind in the world, providing quality Holocaust education and instruction to diverse audiences from Israel and around the globe. Each year the school trains thousands of educators to teach the history of the Holocaust, develops pedagogic and didactic tools, and conducts educational workshops for hundreds of thousands of youth and soldiers. It has developed a unique multidisciplinary educational philosophy, teaching the Holocaust in an age- and culturally-appropriate manner.
Educating about the Holocaust, explains Shalev, is far more than speaking about the cattle cars, the death camps and forced labor. Of equal importance, he says, is learning how the Jews lived, particularly in the years prior to the Holocaust.
“We must recognize the rich and deeply rooted lives the Jews of Europe and North Africa led before the destruction of the Shoah – their creativity and contribution to local culture as well as their influence in many aspects of technological advancements of the 20th century was significant. In order to understand what the world and humanity lost, it is essential to study what was once there. Therefore, Yad Vashem teaches students and educators about the lives of the Jews in prewar Europe, North Africa and the Balkans. It is an integral part of the story that we tell,” he notes.
Remembrance for the future
The development of a modern museum complex on the Mount of Remembrance that complements Yad Vashem’s educational, commemorative, documentation and research endeavors, was also undertaken under Shalev’s direction, and tells the complete story of the Holocaust from the point of view of its victims – Jewish men, women and children. “The Holocaust History Museum,” he says, “is the cornerstone of much of the activity here in Jerusalem. Each year, the museum attracts some one million visitors, to learn from and be inspired by individual narratives of the Holocaust.”
Speaking of the history of the Holocaust and its significance, Shalev points out that it is incorrect to suggest that the events of World War II were the catalyst for the founding of the State of Israel. “The modern Zionist movement began long before the Holocaust, at the end of the 19th century, and throughout the 20th century.”
On the other hand, he acknowledges that this cataclysmic event greatly minimized the option of Jewish self-identity and fulfillment outside the Land of Israel and led to increased numbers of people wishing to make Aliya.
“One of the primary takeaways from our experience during the Holocaust is that it is essential that we can take care of ourselves, our country and our Jewish moral values. This is a basic part of our national identity. I hope that as Israel continues to develop and become a leading country in many aspects of the global sphere, we will be able to guard these values through studying and reading about the Holocaust, including firsthand testimonies from the survivors.”
PRESERVING THE memories of the Holocaust is one of Yad Vashem’s core tasks. To that end, the institution has continued to expand and develop its collections, including the central database of Shoah victims’ names, survivor testimonies, artifacts, artworks and documentation from the Holocaust period. Yad Vashem preserves and catalogs its unparalleled assets from the Holocaust era, scans millions of archival documents each year, and makes them accessible online. Many are available on the Yad Vashem website, currently in eight languages, as part of online exhibitions and databases, thus harnessing modern technology in the service of Holocaust remembrance for future generations.
Technology, testimony and remembrance
Shalev notes that despite the new technologies continually being introduced, there is no substitute for face-to-face contact in communicating a message or idea. “We are endeavoring to assemble all of the visual testimony in the world, including from other collections, which together number more than 130,000 interviews,” says Shalev. What is key, he emphasizes, is knowing how to utilize visual material.
“It’s not that simple. We need to show others how successfully to combine the visual testimony in lessons and discussions. Every year, we teach how to best integrate these testimonies into courses for a range of learners, both in the formal and informal spheres. I believe that our expertise in knowing how to best utilize the video testimony of survivors will continue to have an impact on millions of lives around the world.”
Indeed, these types of videos were used in the permanent “Shoah” exhibition in Block 27 at the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum. This powerful multimedia installation presenting the murder at Auschwitz-Birkenau within the larger context of the Holocaust was created by Yad Vashem in 2013 and was curated by Shalev himself.
Shalev expresses similar positive feelings about high-school educational visits to Auschwitz and other authentic sites from the Holocaust-era, but with a caveat. “It is essential that there be sufficient preparation for a trip to Poland for our young adults. Without preparation, these trips can be emotionally damaging and often a waste of time and resources. In addition, after the trip, students need to meet to discuss what they learned and experienced. If we fulfill these conditions, I believe that these visits can be beneficial.”
Avner Shalev is leaving Yad Vashem an influential and determined institution, one that will not be deterred from its path of continuing to keep Shoah remembrance relevant as the years pass. By every measure, including through its renowned International Institute for Holocaust Research, which promotes the academic investigation of the Holocaust through a myriad of angles and publishes dozens of academic papers and publications every year, Yad Vashem is an unqualified success.
THE IMPLEMENTATION of Yad Vashem’s vision is bolstered through a strong and active network of partnerships and agreements with institutions, friends and donors from all over the world, Jewish and non-Jewish alike.
Despite all of this remarkable progress, Avner Shalev suggests that the work is far from over. “Our challenge is to make sure that the significance and meaning of the Holocaust is preserved for generations to come, so that our nation continues to understand its importance in Jewish history, and the world continues to see its relevance as a beacon – for understanding the consequences of leaving any form of racism or xenophobia unchecked.
“We believe that it isn’t enough to just fight the spread of hate-filled lies,” warns Shalev. “It is also incumbent upon us to bolster the presence of the facts and truth, ensuring that this information is accessible to each and every person, in as many languages and on as many platforms as possible. In addition, we offer online courses and lectures about the Holocaust and antisemitism in order to help understand, identify and deal with the phenomena in its many varied forms.
“I wish once and for all to shatter the erroneous impression that there exists a paradox between the Jewish significance of the Holocaust and the wider meaning it has for all of humanity,” he continues. “The understanding of the unique implications of the Holocaust for Jews as well as its universal humanistic value are neither contradictory nor sit on opposite sides of the spectrum; rather, they are both interconnected and intertwined.”
As Avner Shalev retires from the institution he has guided for close to three decades, he voices his hope that it will remain a place of consensus for the entire Jewish people and stay above any partisan agenda. “During my tenure and the leadership that preceded me, Yad Vashem had no plan other than to ensure that Holocaust remembrance remained relevant and important to the Jewish people and the whole of humanity, and was led in accordance with the research-based historical narrative. This is the only way to maintain its standing on the national and international stage, and allow it to fulfill its missions in the coming decades.”
Shalev concluded his interview with two messages. The first, that “humanity must always remember that alongside technological advancements, we must continue to cultivate and uphold basic moral values. After all, it was one of the most advanced modern societies in the world that caused the complete collapse of those intrinsic values during the Holocaust.”
In contrast to this stark warning, Shalev’s second message is one of hope. “We should draw strength from the example of Holocaust survivors. Despite everything they went through, the vast majority of them chose life; instead of plotting revenge or absenting themselves from society, they chose to build families, communities and friendships; they chose to live and to love.”
This interview was written in cooperation with Yad Vashem.