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Jerusalem, Part 2: Yad Vashem and the Israeli Supreme Court

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.

Yad Vashem

“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.

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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.

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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.

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Petr Ginz

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.

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Petr Ginz, Earth Seen from the Moon

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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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Germany, Part 2 – Berlin

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East Side Gallery, Berlin
“Paris became Paris a long time ago. London became London a long time ago. But Berlin is still becoming Berlin.”

This is how Zabi, my guide, described the city on the free walking tour during my first full day in Berlin. I think this statement captures the essence of Berlin. I had been looking forward to visiting Berlin since I started planning this trip months ago (being the history nerd that I am), and it did not disappoint. I remain fascinated with this city. While I was initially drawn here because of its historical significance, I really enjoyed the overall vibe in Berlin, and I managed to make some great friends during my 5 days here.

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The Bundestag, home of Germany’s parliament
Berlin, the capital of Germany, is also the former capital of Prussia (another one of the German states that used to be a separate kingdom that now comprises modern Germany). This city has experienced extremely dark periods of history, and my impression of the city (given the number of museums and memorials, as well as the tone of the artwork that’s prevalent throughout) is that it is dedicated to learning from these terrible periods and not repeating past mistakes. If a city can be called “introspective,” then I would say this is what Berlin is. In the last century, the city has experienced 2 world wars, the rise to power of a monster, and a 28 year division by a wall manned with armed guards and lined with barbed wire separating West Berlin as an “island of democracy” from the rest of communist East Germany. However, the city has also experienced a type of rebirth and is well along in the process of becoming the Berlin of today.IMG_1991[1]

Below are some of the highlights of my time in Berlin:

-Free walking tour with Sandeman’s. This walking tour was an absolutely fantastic way to start my time in Berlin. We started at the iconic Brandenburg Gate, then walked past the balcony where Michael Jackson dangled his baby at the Hotel Adlon.

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If I recall correctly, the Michael Jackson window is 4 floors up and 2 from the right.
Then we visited a random apartment building parking lot. We were told that Hitler’s bunker was located 15 meters below where we stood. This is where he allegedly committed suicide as the Soviets invaded Berlin in 1945, as well as where Goebbels and his wife killed themselves and their 6 children. There is no marker for this sight, and the world carries on in the apartment building and playground adjacent to the parking lot.

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Hitler’s bunker was 15 meters below my feet. I am standing in a parking lot.
We then continued to the Holocaust memorial and a piece of the Berlin Wall. My favorite spot from the tour was art outside of the former Luftwaffe Headquarters (interestingly, this is one of the few former Nazi buildings that survived WW2, and it was due to a mutual agreement with the Allied forces not to bomb air force headquarters). A mural outside of the building depicts a march in the artistic style of socialist realism (aka bright colors, smiling faces, and fierce nationalism) as a form of Communist propaganda. The photograph below shows the reality of June 17, 1953, when over 500 East Germans were murdered for peacefully protesting the Communist regime.IMG_1855[1]

We also visited Checkpoint Charlie, one of many famous checkpoints between East and West Berlin during the Cold War. People would go to extremes to escape the communist east, including sewing themselves into a car seat to be driven through the checkpoint.

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Checkpoint Charlie
-The Holocaust Memorial. Located just a block from the Brandenburg Gate, the memorial at first glance appears to be just a bunch of blocks. However, one must walk through the blocks to extract the real intent and purpose of the memorial. As you start at the edge, the blocks are low to the ground, and you are forced to walk alone given the narrowness of the path. Then, as you continue further, the ground becomes uneven and the blocks get taller, ultimately reaching 5 meters. This I think represents the “gradualness” of the Holocaust. First, the Jews were forced to wear a mark, then they were separated from the rest of society, then families started disappearing. The atrocities grew over the course of several years. I think it’s important to recognize from this that the longer persecution is allowed, no matter how big or small, the worse it becomes. As Jewish families began to disappear, many Germans looked the other way, and the problem grew. I think the memorial is meant to teach that it is all of our duty to learn about what is happening to and affecting our neighbors, and to speak out and act accordingly to stop injustice before it grows.IMG_1844[1]

-The East Side Gallery. A portion of the Berlin Wall has been preserved as an art gallery, and different pieces of the wall are commissioned out to street artists. The murals really speak for themselves, and say so much about what Berlin now represents.IMG_1948[1]

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-Pub crawl. This was a lot of craic (as the Irish say!) and a great way to meet other people traveling.

-Potsdam. This small town is located just outside of Berlin, and is home to several Prussian palaces. To me, it felt like the Versailles of Germany. Upon entering Potsdam, our tour group crossed the same bridge where the US and the Soviets would swap spies during the Cold War. The line dividing East and West Berlin cut the bridge in half. It was fun to pretend I was a spy as I crossed the bridge…haha.IMG_2009[1].JPG

Potsdam is also the location of the Potsdam Agreement–the meeting of the Big 3 (Truman, Churchill, and Stalin) that ended WW2. Before these leaders met at Cecilienhof (a chateau in Potsdam) to begin their discussions of what to do with Germany and how to force Japan’s surrender, Stalin moved first to make his mark on the chateau by having this huge Communist star planted in flowers…I guess he had his own priorities!IMG_2028[1].JPG

In particular, I enjoyed the gardens around San Soucci, which was the home of the famous Frederick the Great. Frederick was the Prussian king in the late 18th century and is very loved and admired in German history. He is buried at San Soucci with his beloved greyhound dogs. Visitors still place potatoes on his grave, as he is well-known for playing a personal role in helping to introduce and integrate the potato as a crop to the commoners of Germany during his rule. He was truly a king who cared about his people.

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San Soucci
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The grave of Frederick the Great…notice the potatoes and all the gravestones for his dogs.
-St. Christopher’s Inn. By far, my hostel in Berlin was my favorite of my whole trip! It was so easy to meet people here, as the lobby is basically a pub. My room was large, clean, and comfortable. It even connected to a private living room and kitchen! Also, the staff was extremely nice and accommodating (I even got a free sandwich once after the kitchen was closed and I was starving!) St. Christopher’s is a hostel chain with locations in other cities, so I highly encourage other travelers to check them out. I am going to see if they have locations in any of my remaining cities and book there if possible!

I could have spent more time in Berlin, as there are still so many museums and sites I would still like to see! As I mentioned in my last post, I have taken this week slowly, and I actually spent a good bit of time reading this week and finished 3 books–The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Siddhartha, and Mrs. Hemingway (historical reading but a light, fun read for being on holiday!).

Now, I am in Provence for another unexpected and unplanned portion of my trip! I have me up with Nat, my friend from Southeast Asia, and am spending 5 days in a small village located near Marseille. I am excited to get away from major cities for a bit and see a less touristy side of Europe!

 

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