While our first day in Jerusalem had centered mostly on the ancient and religious history, our second day focused on the modern history and secular governance of Israel.
**Warning: This post contains some graphic descriptions that may be upsetting.
“For whoever listens to a witness becomes a witness”- Elie Wiesel
Our day began with a visit to Yad Vashem, Israel’s memorial to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust. The museum is built as a prism penetrating a mountain. Before descending into the museum (the darkness inside the mountain), we passed along a row of trees called the Avenue of the Righteous Among the Nations. These trees symbolize non-Jews who risked their lives to help their Jewish neighbors hide and flee Europe during the Holocaust. We saw the tree commemorating Oskar and Emilie Schindler, and were reminded of their story. Still, the trees represented 23,000 known helpers, and 6 million Jews were murdered. I couldn’t help but think of how many chose to look the other way as these humans were slaughtered, and feel deeply disturbed.
Once we were inside, we began to learn about the Holocaust through movies, photos, and our guide. I had visited the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC in 2009, and the images, films, and piles of clothing of victims I saw there are still emblazoned in my mind. To be honest, I was nervous to visit Yad Vashem for this reason. But we can’t turn away and forget what happened–it’s our job to know and prevent this from happening again, even though we as humankind have failed so many times since then to prevent the crime against humanity of genocide (Cambodia, Rwanda, Armenia, Darfur, Syria).
Yad Vashem presents the story of the Holocaust differently than the DC museum by focusing more on telling individual stories, and by maintaining a record of over 4.5 million victims as well as a database with the names of survivors. Our guide told us the story of a survivor who had not spoken about her experience in a death camp for over 50 years, because she was so traumatized. Yet once she told her story at Yad Vashem, she was told about her brother, who had also survived, and they were reunited after all this time.
The last stop within Yad Vashem is the Hall of Names, where thousands of binders contain the names in print. Yad Vashem is returning the dignity of identity to the memories of the victims, yet over 1.5 million victims remain unidentified.
There was so much to take in and so much I cannot put into words. Below is my attempt to share a few personal takeaways from Yad Vashem:
1-Many times, entire villages were wiped out in a single instance. In one village in Estonia, men were forced to dig their own graves before being forced to run into the grave and shot, and we saw footage of this. Because entire communities were wiped out, this means entire cultures and traditions unique within the Jewish faith and a particular region are gone forever. Because there were often no survivors, this means the world will never know the identity of all the victims of these atrocities.
2-We were able to see several artifacts that were found among the clothing remains of victims, signifying the last things they grabbed and put in their pockets as they were forced from their homes. Our guide asked us to think of these items as what the victim wished to be remembered by. I focused on a picture of a man, around 25-30 years in age, with his dog sitting beneath a shade tree. His humanity was stripped from him, but Yad Vashem is working to make sure is memory is honored and his dignity is returned to him.
3-One photograph stood out in particular to me–a young Nazi soldier laughing as he cut the long beard of a Jewish rabbi in Poland. I can’t describe the look in the young soldier’s eyes as he laughed–it was almost like there wasn’t a soul within his body. The sadness in the Polish Jewish man’s eyes stung. It made me wonder how humans can ever justify treating other humans this way and stripping them of their identity and dignity. I don’t understand.
4-One story that stood out to me in particular is the story of Petr Ginz, a young boy from Prague who died at Auschwitz. When I first learned he was from Prague, I thought back to my visit there and pictured him playing in the streets of the Jewish Quarter, where I had visited. Petr was born in 1928 and died in 1944 at age 16.
Petr was an extremely gifted kid, and wrote 5 novels before his death. He also wrote for a local magazine and conducted interviews of people in the concentration camp, and he is known to have continued pursuing his studies by accessing confiscated books. He had a deep love of science. He was also an extremely talented artist, and he produced several drawings that have been recovered. Petr loved Jules Verne and dreamed of traveling to the moon–Petr would have been 41 when Apollo 11 landed on the moon. Given what we know of his aptitude, I can only imagine how he could have changed the world. But we will never know.
In 2003, Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon took Petr’s drawing of the Earth seen from the moon with him on the space shuttle Columbia. In this way, Petr’s memory was honored as a piece of his living memory was able to fulfill his dream. Sadly, Columbia broke apart on reentry and all the astronauts perished on the very same day that would have been Petr’s 75th birthday.
5-While I had made the connection before to a certain extent, I now fully understand the role of Israel as a modern homeland for the Jewish people. Yad Vashem articulates how the European Jews had nowhere to go during WW2, and were turned away and rejected from many countries where they sought refugee status (including the USA, which we have been painfully reminded of given the rhetoric around the current Syrian refugee crisis). Israel is a place that the Jewish people can always call home. One example of this is when the state of Israel air evacuated over 14,000 Ethiopian Jews in danger because of their faith from Africa to Israel in 1991 (Operation Solomon).
6- We were able to meet with a Holocaust survivor and hear her personal story. She was taken from her mother first at age 6 when they took all women and children from her village in Poland, then lived as a boy with her father to escape being taken by working in a forced-labor factory. She was then eventually separated from her father, and placed in a camp. She said the primary thing she remembers is how cold it was, and to this day the feeling of coldness brings back that horrible memory. She also described how she would eat dirty snow for water. However, this lovely lady with bright pink fingernails talked happily about her many children and grandchildren, and the wonderful life she has been able to lead. She even took a call from one grandchild in London on her iPhone as she met with us. Her positivity despite all odds was so inspiring. It also made me realize how many young women never had the opportunity to lead such a life.
**Disclaimer: All Yad Vashem pictures above were taken from online, because I did not bring my phone into the museum.
Israeli Supreme Court
After a very heavy and emotional morning at Yad Vashem, we visited the Israeli Supreme Court in Jerusalem. I found it hard to concentrate after all I had taken in that morning, but nevertheless it was interesting and informative to visit such an important building in modern Israel.
After a tour and Q&A session, we had the opportunity to meet with Justice Hanan Melcer. The Israeli Supreme Court has 15 justices, and 3 justices hear a case at a time. Because Israel is so small, the SC often has original jurisdiction meaning its annual docket often reaches ~10,000 cases (as compared to ~90 cases for the US Supreme Court).
I thought the most interesting point Justice Melcer made was about how the Israeli Supreme Court is the part of the Israeli government most trusted by the Palestinians, as compared to the Knesset (Israeli parliament) which often passes anti-Palestinian laws. For example, the SC has ruled against the legality of some Israeli West Bank settlements, and the SC ruled in 1991 that Palestinians, as well as Israelis, were entitled to free gas mask kits being distributed by the government to defend against chemical weapon attacks. To me, this speaks to the fact that the judicial branch of any country is tasked with being apolitical and seeking justice for all.
We were supposed to finish out the day at the Machane Yehuda Market, but I decided to take this time to decompress in my hotel room and make some Turkish coffee. There was just so much to take in on this day, and it was particularly draining. Yet it was very necessary to learn and witness all that we did.