Yad Vashem, the museum where the history of the Holocaust is thematically and chronologically remembered, stands atop the Mount of Remembrance in Jerusalem.
Throughout the generations, there have been many dark and terrible episodes of history, but the Shoah, in which the majority of the world’s Jews were systematically murdered by the Nazi regime in its plan to annihilate every single Jew on earth, has never been paralleled.
Jews were the main intended victims of “The Final Solution,” Hitler’s maniacal plan to slaughter the world’s Jews, but they were not the only ones. Members of the Slav nations, the Roma (gypsies), Jehova’s Witnesses, homosexuals, communists, and other opposing political groups were included in the plan.
Simon Wiesenthal, the famous survivor and Nazi-hunter, estimated that six million Jews were killed by the Nazis, and historian Yehuda Bauer stated that 35 million non-Jews were also killed by them.
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”George Santayana
George Santayana, Spanish philosopher, poet, essayist and novelist, in his Life of Reason, stated that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” It is for this very reason that Yad Vashem is important for the human race.
Established in 1953 and built on the western slope of Mount Herzl in Jerusalem, Yad Vashem seeks to preserve the memory and names of the millions of Jews who perished in the Shoah, as well as the many communities that were destroyed at that time.
Designed by world-famous Israeli architect Moshe Safdie, Yad Vashem consists of a largely underground prismatic structure in which its different halls set out to present to the public many aspects of the Shoah, from the time of the apprehension of Jews in their homes and shtetlach (villages), to their deportation in cattle cars to the concentration camps and destruction. One section displays piles of books, in memory of the book-burning in 1933 by the Nazis, when top academics and university students, spurred on by Propaganda Minister Goebbels’ invective of hatred against what he termed anything ‘anti-German,’ cast tens of thousands of books into massive pyres in different parts of Germany. The image of Hitler is of course ever-present, demonstrating his vituperative and hateful polemic.
Yad Vashem has a research institute, archives, a library, a publishing house, and the International School for Holocaust Studies. Particularly moving is the Children’s Memorial, which commemorates the destruction of the 1.5 million children murdered by the Nazis. This is situated in a hollowed-out underground cavern. One yahrzeit candlelight is reflected on the basalt from which the memorial is carved, giving the impression of stars shining in the firmament.
In the Hall of Remembrance, also constructed out of basalt stone, the names of 22 of the most infamous death camps are engraved on the stone floor, and an Eternal Flame casts its light upward.
As important as it is to remember those who were destroyed by the Shoah, it is also important to remember those who worked to support and rescue Jews threatened by the Nazis.
With this in mind, the Avenue of Righteous Among the Nations was established on Holocaust Remembrance Day on May 1, 1962. The concept of “the Righteous Among the Nations,” or “the Righteous Gentile,” is ancient in Jewish tradition, taken from the literature of the sages. In modern Israeli law, it refers not only to those who saved Jews but also to those who risked their lives in doing so.
Initially, 11 trees were planted by rescuers of Jews, on the path leading to the Hall of Remembrance. “The Jewish people remember not only the villains but also every small detail of the rescue attempts,” said Golda Meir, then foreign minister. She compared the Righteous Among the Nations to drops of love in an ocean of poison: “They rescued not only the lives of Jews but saved hope and faith in the human spirit.” In 1963, a program to identify and honor such people was passed into law.
At first there were relatively few names, but as of today, more than 24,000 have been identified and honored. Each of these has received a medal and a certificate of honor, and to those who are no longer alive, the next of kin is awarded posthumous recognition. Their names are now inscribed on the Wall of Honor in the Garden of Remembrance at Yad Vashem, whereas previously trees were planted in their names. It is not possible in this article to identify thousands of people, so I have chosen to mention several who rouse particular resonance in my mind, but the rest are equally meaningful.
William Yorta Cooper
In 1938, when Yorta Aboriginal William Cooper learned about the Night of Broken Glass (Kristallnacht), he led a delegation from his home to the German Consulate in Melbourne, protesting about German violence against Jews. The consulate rejected the petition, and it was only 80 years later that a replica was delivered to the German government. On December 9, 1920, a tribute was paid to Cooper in a memorial ceremony in the Hall of Resistance.
In 1939, Japanese diplomat Chiune Sugihara was sent to Kovno, Lithuania, to open a consulate. Shortly afterward, waves of Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi-occupied Poland entered what was then independent Lithuania. Sugihara knew very little about them, but one day he noticed many people standing outside the Japanese consulate. A message, written in Polish, was delivered to him: “We are Jews. We lived in Poland, but we will be killed if we are caught by Nazi Germany. However, we don’t have any visas to escape. We want you to issue Japanese visas.”
When it was discovered that two Dutch-controlled islands in the Caribbean did not have visa requirements for entry, but that people could travel there on Japanese boats, Sugihara prepared by hand transit visas for 3,000 Jews. He did not have permission from his government, and was in fact forbidden to do so, but his sense of morality made him prepare those visas. In so doing he managed to save several thousand Jews. This was done to the detriment of himself and his family, but he felt that he had to listen to his heart.
Frank Foley, an Irishman, had fought and been injured in World War I. He was subsequently recruited by the British Secret Intelligence Service, and became one of Britain’s most successful spies. He served as passport control officer in the British Embassy in Berlin. After observing how Jews were treated by the Germans during Kristallnacht, he personally prepared exit visas for tens of thousands of Jews, and by so doing assisted their escape from death by the Nazis. Because of his quiet personality, the Nazis never suspected what he was doing. Foley is well known as a Righteous Gentile, and there is a moving statue of him in his hometown of Highbridge, Somerset, England.
These three people are only a few drops in the ocean, but their humanitarian action served to help purify the poison in the Nazi sea. ■