As I walk the halls of Yad VaShem Memorial and Holocaust Museum, it is not unlike the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC. There are pictures accompanied by written words, places to sit while watching documentaries, and remnant artifacts from the time of the events.
It is no different, yet it is.
Yad VaShem hits closer to home, perhaps because it is in fact closer. Closer to those who suffered, closer to the location where it happened.
If you have never visited a Holocaust museum, you are led through the chronological recount of events, as one might expect in any typical retelling of a historical account. Yet the experience of it is something altogether different.
The cool air that blows through the museum halls is thick here, heavy with suffering endured in the past and hearts breaking in the present. The only real color that exists is carried on the clothes of the visitors, as black, white and gray dominate the exhibits and environment. I walk with headphones on to center myself against the harsh photography and writings. The words affect more than the images as you can feel the emotion of the author pour through. It is observance versus experience. Observing yields sympathy; experiencing brings about empathy, and that is something you can’t help but take with you as you travel from room to room.
Guides whisper to their tour groups, providing historical facts and insights that go beyond the museum content. Somber faces fill the halls, mothers silently touching their sons and daughters, reminding them that compassion still exists in the world. You need that reminder here, you need that human touch.
On one of the walls, there is a quote by Martin Niemöller, a German Pastor, that reads:
They came for the Communists,
and I did not object for
I was not a Communist.
Then they came for the Socialists
and I did not object for
I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Jews,
and I did not object for I was not a Jew.
When they came for me,
there was no one left to object…
What I take away from this is the importance of standing against injustice, no matter where it is found. It is not limited to race or creed or socio-economic status. It is not a political or government problem. It’s a human problem and as such, we must rage against it no matter where it is. For as Martin Niemöller discovered, if left uncontested, it will come home to roost.
There are words written by those in the Ghettos, speaking of defiance, of testaments that will exist beyond their lives. They fight the injustice from the inside out, striving to create some sense of the meaningless suffering that humanity must endure. Seven decades later, can we say that things have changed? I have only seen a fraction of this world, but I cannot rightfully answer that question the way I wish that I could. For when one suffers needlessly, we all do.
Another quote reads:
The wild grasses rustle over Babi Yar.
The trees look ominous,
Here all things scream silently…
— Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Babi Yar
The last line, Here all things scream silently, are haunting words that belie the truth. It reminds me of the age-old question of if a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? If the screams of the suffering in the world fall silently on our ears, does it truly happen?
Before leaving on my trip, I told a friend that we all ultimately have two choices to make. We must decide who we are and how we choose to live our lives. Everything else stems from these foundational decisions. There is also a third choice, afforded to only some: how we choose to leave this world. I am reminded clearly that this final choice is not granted to all as I come upon the shoes.
Four clear panes line the floor, sitting atop hundreds of blackened shoes, only a few of which hint at their original color. Slippers are mixed with men’s dress shoes that lie atop heeled soles, as if to say no one shall be spared, regardless of age, gender or stature. If I could take one picture from here, this would be it. But pictures are not allowed. Perhaps because the curators know that memories are what matter most.
As I continue to travel the sobering corridors of this place, the two most poignant emotions are of sadness and anger. They compete with one another, each winning its rightful battle depending on where in the museum you are. But sometimes something unexpected happens. In the chaos of tragedy, they both surrender to grant a brief moment of solace. It is a most welcomed release, however temporary, for you need strength of heart to move your feet once again.
Towards the end of the exhibit is The Hall of Names, a visually stimulating sight to behold. Along the circular walls are hundreds of books memorializing the names of the Holocaust victims. In the middle of the room, if you look above, are pictures of victims that rise to the ceiling. Looking down you see rock cut out of the earth to reveal a pool of water with coins shimmering at the bottom. I toss in a coin only to see afterwards the sign requesting that no coins or objects be thrown. Oops!
The final room of Yad VaShem plays music with powerful words of victims projected on the wall in both English and Hebrew. As one fades, another takes its place. The room speaks of remembrance and one can’t help but yield to its call.
Exiting the museum is an experience in itself. The fresh air hits you immediately, bringing a much needed lightness to your step. The Easter sun is out in full force, generating warmth to the skin and the soul. And the sight of the Jerusalem Forest marked in the background by the city helps to provide a sense of renewed peace to a heavy heart.
The Yad VaShem Memorial and Holocaust Museum serves as a beacon of the atrocities of which the human heart is capable. I believe that to be only one view. For it too speaks of the other side of the coin, etched in the words of the victims and survivors alike, in their courage and sacrifice. It is a far more powerful force than all the suffering contained in the hallowed walls behind me. For although I have in many ways only yet to begin to explore my world, I have come to recognize it for what it is —
May it find us in both our lightest and darkest hours, and in all the ones in between.
Happy Easter and Passover from the Holy Land to all of your lands, wherever they may be.