Never again: An institution’s daunting task

From the outset, Yad Vashem has overcome challenges in its goal of honoring victims and survivors of the Holocaust.

Tour of Yad Vashem 521 (photo credit: Dara Frank)
Tour of Yad Vashem 521
(photo credit: Dara Frank)
A couple of weeks ago, an international symposium took place at Yad Vashem to mark the 60th birthday of the world-famous Holocaust institution in Jerusalem.
The event went by the name of Formation, Consolidation, Challenges and featured dignitaries and professionals from Israel, France, Germany, Poland and the United States.
The speaker roster included chairman of the Yad Vashem Council and former chief rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Israel Meir Lau; American historian and author Deborah Lipstadt, whose bibliography includes Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth & Memory and The Eichmann Trial; Dr. Susanne Heim from the University of Freiburg in Germany; and chairman of the Yad Vashem Directorate, Avner Shalev.
Shalev has headed the institution since 1993 and has overseen large scale and fundamental shifts in the mindset and physical structure of the Mount Herzl campus. He brought hefty professional credentials to the post, including stints in senior positions in the IDF, such as head of then-chief of staff David Elazar’s bureau, in the 1970s, and eventually as chief education officer of the IDF. Shalev used his time in the latter tenure to introduce programs that helped to disseminate information and educate soldiers about the Holocaust.
After leaving the army Shalev was asked by the education and culture minister to found and head the Culture Authority, and he also served as chairman of the National Culture and Art Council. It was in these capacities that Shalev set about allocating public funding for a wide range of educational programs, including cultural activities for schoolchildren.
Shalev was born in Jerusalem in 1939 and had no direct familial connection with the Holocaust. In the years immediately after World War II, as survivors began to make it to pre-state Palestine, Shalev and other locally born children started to come across their counterparts from Europe who had experienced a very different childhood to their own. “We knew something about the Holocaust, and we heard stories,” he says.
He got a much clearer idea of the horrors of the concentration camps at the tender age of seven. “I had a good friend, who lived next door to me, whose uncle was a survivor. The uncle brought with him all kinds of photographs from Europe which someone, probably his mother, had stashed away in a shoe box. One day, when no one was home, we went there and – I remember this so clearly, to this day – we took the shoe box out from under a bed and found lots of photographs inside. They were horrific pictures, the kind we have all come to identify, of piles of emaciated bodies at Dachau and Buchenwald. The uncle must have gotten the photos from American and British soldiers. I was traumatized by what I saw.”
Shalev began to meet survivors of his own age, at his school in Ramat Gan. “I was in seventh grade and we heard bits and pieces of stories, of their ordeals in Europe. Back then we called them refugees, but that wasn’t the right word for them. They didn’t talk about what they had experienced in Europe.”
FOR THE last two decades the Yad Vashem head has ensured that the stories of Holocaust survivors have been told in the most impressive and user-friendly way, to as many people from Israel and around the world, as possible. Today, the sprawling site of the Yad Vashem Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority – to give it its full name – incorporates over a dozen buildings spread over around 45 acres.
The new Holocaust History Museum, which was inaugurated in 2005, houses nine subterranean galleries that tell the story of the Holocaust based on a chronological and thematic narrative.
The exhibits include a wide variety of original artifacts, testimonies, photographs, documentation, art and multimedia displays. There are also the Hall of Remembrance, Garden of the Righteous Among the Nations, archives and library building, Learning Center, synagogue and Visual Center.
Shalev notes that, while the stark numbers of victims of the Holocaust are overwhelming, the institution invests great effort in telling the stories of the individual people and families whose lives were devastated, and ended, by events that took place prior to and during World War II. The Yad Vashem Hall of Names goes a long way to conveying the scale of the tragedy on a personal, micro-level and feeds off research and Pages of Testimony completed by survivors with details of their loved ones who perished.
Today, Yad Vashem is the world’s most important Holocaust center, but things were not always so rosy. “In 1988, Yad Vashem was in danger of being shut down because of financial difficulties,” says Shalev. Considering the centrality of the Holocaust to the very existence of the State of Israel, and the number of survivors and second, third and now fourth generations of survivors living in Israel, the absence of a hall of remembrance is hard to grasp.
The institution was officially kick started in 1953, when the Knesset passed the Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance (Yad Vashem) Law which paved the way for the establishment of the Memorial Authority. However, the concept of a means of commemorating the victims of the Holocaust actually began to take shape while the horrors were still taking place in Europe.
“It is a wonderful thing that the idea was first proposed in 1942, by a very special Jew called Mordechai Shinhabi,” explains Shalev. “He came up with a plan to establish a repository for testimonies of the Holocaust, which he also called ‘a house of revival.’ This was when the first news began to trickle through here about the murder of the Jews of Europe.”
It appears that Shinhabi was a mover and shaker, on all kinds of fronts, and was just the person to get the Yad Vashem project up and running. “He went to Jerusalem to speak to Jewish Agency people, and other leaders of the Yishuv, and as soon as the World War was over he [again] spoke to the Jewish Agency and he thought of setting up a center somewhere in Israel, he didn’t know where. Eventually it was decided to build it in Jerusalem,” says Shalev.
Shinhabi took the initiative to the international stage when he went to London to attend the World Zionist Congress in 1945. The congress attendees lent a sympathetic and supportive ear to the proposal but, as Shalev points out, at the time the leaders of embryonic Jewish state had plenty of more immediate needs to address. “Most of the energy here was channeled to the struggle to establish the state, and it was a very tempestuous and intense time for the Yishuv.”
As increasing numbers of survivors made it to these shores awareness of the Holocaust started to increase, and the Yad Vashem enterprise began to gather pace. The institution’s initial physical surroundings were somewhat humble, but activities related to documenting the events of the Holocaust began to take off in earnest soon after the end of World War II. “In 1946 a three-room apartment was rented at 27 King George Avenue in Jerusalem and, very importantly, around that time people began to bring over here records of Holocaust survivor testimonies, taken at the DP camps.”
These included records kept during the course of the war, and found in such invaluable repositories as the Ringelblum Archives, kept by Emanuel Ringelblum, a Polish-Jewish historian, politician and social worker. The archives included a dozen metal boxes and milk cans which contained copies of several underground newspapers, an account of deportations from the Warsaw Ghetto, and public notices by the Judenrat – council of Jewish leaders – as well as documents of ordinary life, such as concert invitations, milk coupons and chocolate wrappers. “There was an awareness, here, of the need to collect documentation of the Holocaust,” continues Shalev. “Immediately after the war, and even before, from 1944 when the Soviet army began to liberate parts of Europe, survivors began to prepare to come here and there were also efforts to collect information about the survivors’ experiences. Thousands of testimonies were gathered at DP camps.”
This was largely the result of individual proactive enterprise. Considering the Nazi horrors the Holocaust survivors had endured, some for over a decade, it is somewhat surprising that, so soon after the liberation, they instinctively sought to document their ordeal. “Yes, that is surprising,” concurs Shalev. “At the time they desperately looked for surviving members of their families, for love and human warmth, and they saw all the destruction around them. Despite all that, they were aware of the importance of chronicling what they had been through.”
Naturally, some of those records found their way to Yad Vashem. “We have around 15,000 to 20,000 testimonies,” says the chairman. “Normally, someone would interview a survivor and there would be around two to four pages of testimony. This is invaluable material.”
BUT THERE were many survivors who, for a variety of reasons, did not talk about what they had been through. For much of his life, 85-year-old Jerusalemite Asher Aud was one of the latter, but all that changed 20 years ago. “I am a Witness at Yad Vashem. I speak to groups of soldiers and tourists from abroad,” explains Aud.
The octogenarian was not always so forthcoming about his Holocaust experiences.
“Up to 20 years ago I never said a word about the Holocaust, to anyone,” he declares, his family included.
Aud hails from the town of Zdunska-Wola, near Lodz in Poland, where he lived with his parents and two brothers. He says his family and the other Jews did not have much time to react after the Nazi invasion. “The war broke out suddenly. A third of the population of our town was Jewish and we started to run away towards Warsaw. I don’t remember how long we walked – one week or two weeks – but the Germans caught up with us and we had to return home.”
Before long the Germans herded the Jews of Zdunska-Wola into a ghetto comprising three streets, and the situation deteriorated rapidly. “The Germans cut people’s beards off and beat us, and made us all watch when they hung 10 Jews,” Aud recalls. “Then there were more aktziot [roundups] and another 10 Jews were hanged. I was only 11 at the time.”
How Aud survived that time, emotionally, is a miracle. “I am still here and, thank God, I can still smile,” he says. “My victory is that I am still here and have a family. I have 10 grandchildren,” he adds proudly. The latter refers to biological offspring, but Aud is “in danger” of being inundated with surrogate progeny. Our chat was interrupted by a telephone call, and then a visit, by Raz, a doctor who was in an IDF delegation to Poland led by Aud a few years ago. Aud makes three or four trips to Poland each year, and shares his firsthand knowledge with youths and soldiers there. “All sorts of people who come with me in delegations to Poland, including army officers, want to adopt me as their grandfather,” says Aud with a smile. “Raz has done that, and he helps me and my wife with all sorts of medical and other things.”
These days Aud, who lives in sheltered housing near Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem – just a stone’s throw from Yad Vashem – is kept very busy by Holocaust-related activities. “Whenever they need someone to talk to a group of tourists, or people from Israel, in a hurry they call me and I go right over to Yad Vashem. I am not sure which is my first home and which is my second home – here or Yad Vashem,” he says.
All that is a far cry from Aud’s early years in this part of the world and, indeed, during the ensuing four decades. “When I came here, people here would ask me how I survived the camps,” he says. Aud went through no fewer than three concentration camps, including Auschwitz, and lost his entire family except for one brother with whom he was reunited many years later. “It was as if I had to feel guilty for being alive while others had perished.”
That was that for Aud, in terms of talking about his Holocaust experiences, until Mrs. Aud got in on the act. “My wife tricked me,” he says. The Organization of Former Residents of Zdunska-Wola had arranged a trip to Poland, and Aud’s wife presented her husband with a fait accompli. “I booked two places on the trip and I told Asher all he had to do was go down to the tourist agency and pay for the tickets,” she says. “He rushed over there in the middle of his supper.”
“We, in the organization, talked about taking a plaque to Chelmno [extermination camp] for three years,” Aud explains. “We started talking about in 1990 and I was certain I would not have the emotional strength to go with them. But my wife said she had arranged everything – the trip was only two days later – and on June 29, 1993 I went back to Poland for the first time. We put the plaque at Chelmno and then we went to Zdunska-Wola. There was nothing left of the Jewish community buildings, only the cemetery. There is a mass grave with 219 Jews buried there, which may include my mother and brother. I don’t know.” Since then, Aud has been back to Poland dozens of times and talks about the Holocaust, to all and sundry, whenever he can. “I am ready to pop over to Yad Vashem, or get on a plane to Poland, at the drop of a hat,” he says. “I am also on the management board of various community centers, and talk about my experiences there too. All those years ago I was asked why I survived the camps. Today I know I survived so I could live to tell my story.”
SHALEV NOTES that the 1953 law spells out the designation of Yad Vashem in the clearest possible terms, and that the original intent is just as relevant today, 60 years on. “Contrary to the belief in certain quarters, the law does not place special emphasis on heroism, ahead of the commemoration of the Holocaust.
Even though Yad Vashem is officially called the Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority – the Holocaust and heroism are both in there, on supposedly equal terms – but if you read the law carefully you will see that we, first and foremost, are charged with engaging in documentation of the Holocaust, as well as addressing heroism and also the Righteous among the Nations.” Thus far, around 25,000 people around the world have been awarded the latter title.
Education is a major part of Yad Vashem’s ethos. Much of this is achieved through the International School for Holocaust Studies on the Mount Herzl campus. The bare statistics make for impressive reading. In 2012, for example, over 300,000 students from Israel and abroad, including IDF soldiers, participated in seminars and programs operated at the school on the campus, and at the school’s Givatayim branch.
The school also offers seminars and courses for educators from here and all over the world, with 71 teacher-training days held in 2012. Members of the school’s staff also spread the word outside the campus and abroad, and, to date, have worked in 30 countries around the globe.
Naturally, advanced technology is used extensively to offer access to information about the Holocaust and Holocaust victims. “Over 13 million people from 212 countries used the website last year,” states Shalev. “Around one third of the site users come from the United States, and about 20 percent more from Israel. The site is in various languages and we have an online school too.”
Shalev is at pains to stress that Yad Vashem is not just a place which members of the public can visit to see artifacts from the Holocaust. “We are mostly called a museum and we can’t get away from that, but we are not a museum. We are a remembrance authority which established a campus that is called a remembrance hill. The idea was to establish a place, as quickly as possible, where people could mourn but also commemorate.
This was a basic need of the entire Yishuv, including the veterans here, such as my parents who came here before the Holocaust. In a very short space of time Yad Vashem became a central part of everyone’s life here.”
Shalev says Yad Vashem has a threefold mandate. “The first element is to collect the testimonies, and Yad Vashem assumed responsibility for this enormous task and collates testimonies and data from all over the world which document the Holocaust. That is a task of gargantuan dimensions which will continue for many years.”
To date, the Yad Vashem archives contains in excess of 150 million testimony pages. “We are also doing our best to collate all the names of those murdered during the Holocaust,” Shalev continues. “That is of paramount importance. There was awareness, right from beginning, straight after the end of the world war, that there was a need for an archive, a sort of virtual cemetery, with the names of all the Jews who have no known grave. That was a primary objective from the early 1950s.”
Shalev says there were peaks and troughs in the work, but things picked up around the time he took up his post at Yad Vashem. “Today we have around 4.2 million names of Holocaust victims. Fifteen years or so ago I would not have been optimistic about reaching five million names, but we are now well on our way to achieving that figure.”
Considering the noted Nazi propensity for efficiency and for recording everything, one would have thought that might have helped Shalev and his staff’s efforts to monitor events during the Holocaust and the fate of the victims. Shalev begs to differ. “The Germans were not, in fact, so orderly. In Western Europe there were precise lists of transports, but there are absolutely no records from most places in Central and Eastern Europe. The Germans were not so interested in noting down names, they were interested in recording numbers.”
RESEARCH IS also uppermost on the Yad Vashem agenda. This all-important work is undertaken by the International Institute for Holocaust Research. “Initially, there were some differences of opinion as to how to go about doing the research,” explains Shalev. “Some, like [then education minister] Prof. [Ben-Zion] Dinur preferred a more academic approach.
But, regardless, Yad Vashem realized the importance of research and publishing findings from the outset.” The results of the research work are available to the public at the Yad Vashem library which currently houses 127,000 publications and books, in over 50 languages.
Today, 60 years after construction work began at Mount Herzl, Yad Vashem’s global standing is undisputed in the field of the commemoration and study of the Holocaust. “One leading newspaper called Yad Vashem ‘the eighth wonder of the world,’” says Shalev. “In the last 20 years we have invested great effort in making Yad Vashem an appropriate, efficient and aesthetic place to come to, to obtain information. We do our best to tell the story of Yad Vashem in the best and most human way possible.”