I am standing in front of a towering, thick-cream coloured rock face, on which are carved the names of hundreds of pre-war Jewish communities.
Our guide, Yoni Berrous, picks out one: Joanina, in Greece. “It was not Ashkenazi, not Sephardi either. But today in the world there are only three congregations to remember the culture, the food, and the people of Joanina: one in New York, one in the remnants of the place itself, and one in Israel.”
For a brief moment, standing in Yad Vashem’s Valley of the Communities, the sounds, the sights, the colours and the noise of the Jewish world before the Holocaust come to life again.
If this extraordinary institution, created by a Knesset act in 1953, has a mission, it is to re-create and record what was lost as a result of the Holocaust.
The casual observer might think of Yad Vashem, towering above Jerusalem by Mount Herzl, as a place of gloom and misery. Instead, it seems to be a place of hope and a remarkable desire to remind the visitor that the Jews were not just victims.
Life flourished in the Jewish communities of Europe in a way that is scarcely credible today. Yad Vashem’s approach is make that life manifest, through a two-pronged vision: its revamped museum, and an ambitious plan — now well on the way to being realised — to name as many as possible of those who died in the Holocaust.
Shulamit Imber is one of the most impressive of Yad Vashem’s front-and-centre spokesmen. Officially, she is the unpromisingly titled Pedagogic Director of the International School for Holocaust Studies, and is the main developer for Yad Vashem’s educational philosophy. A smiling, religiously observant grandmother, her lectures catch fire as she insists: “There has to be a human story. We don’t want to talk about piles of bodies, but about human stories, who they were, who we were.”
It is a theme echoed inside the Holocaust History Museum, designed by Israeli architect Moshe Safdi. Here, within the long, Toblerone-shaped building, there is no escape: you can’t nip out for a smoke or a calming breath of fresh air. The visitor is obliged to travel through the whole gamut of the story, which begins with extensive pre-war film footage of Jewish life in eastern and central Europe.
I spent nearly three hours in the museum and barely scratched the surface. In the ghettos area, the Yad Vashem designers have reclaimed cobbles and tramtracks from Warsaw; in the camps section, the pitifully thin uniforms and ill-fitting clogs tell you, almost by stealth, how so many died where they stood on the strutting plazas of the Nazi death camps.
Nevertheless, the last section of the museum is optimistic and full of grace: an enormous plate-glass viewing point, looking out over the Jerusalem hills. Choose life, is the message, not death.
Be ready for when no survivors left
Avner Shalev, chairman of Yad Vashem for the past 20 years, has a problem — and he knows it.
“We are trying,” he admitted, “very intensively, to prepare ourselves for the time when there are no survivors.”
As it was, on this special UK journalists’ seminar, Yad Vashem was forced to ask a child survivor of the Holocaust, Rina Quint, to share her painful memories. Time and the natural order of things are ensuring that there are fewer and fewer people alive with direct experience of the concentration and death camps, the ghettos or slave labour.
For Mr Shalev, a former brigadier-general in the IDF, who ran the army’s Education Corps, turning Yad Vashem into an institution which is fit and relevant for the 21st century is of utmost importance.
He instigated the uploading of Yad Vashem’s central database of Holocaust victims’ names onto the internet, and has been a prime mover in harnessing modern technology to help to tell the human stories.
“We are doing our best to collect stories and amass as many victims’ testimonies as we can,” he said. “We ought to have given much greater priority to this — even at the expense of building memorials.” Judging by the rash of memorial plaques around the Yad Vashem campus, this must have been a hard decision to resist.
“I spoke to [Steven] Spielberg when he told me he was going to collect testimonies after he made Schindler’s List,” said Mr Shalev. “I told him we would do the same, and now we have 120,000 victims’ testimonies. But it’s still not enough. We are working very hard to develop ways of using original material such as letters, diaries, music and art — and I hope in this way that something of the spirit of the survivors will remain — even after the last one dies.”
There are, it turns out, more than 1,000 variants of the spelling of the name Isaac. But that is just one of the gargantuan difficulties facing the historians and researchers of the Yad Vashem archives.
Today, almost all of Yad Vashem’s vast resources are available on its website, from individual testimonies to time-lines showing how people were moved from ghettos to camps, and from camps to death marches.
Digital resources are a good start, but nothing compares to the real thing, the thrill of the physical object. And of those, Yad Vashem has thousands.
Haim Gertner is the be-kippahed, bespectacled director of Yad Vashem’s archives. It would be a mistake to pigeonhole him as a dry academic. Dr Gertner lights up as he reveals the treasures of the archives, from 1941 architectural drawings of the Auschwitz camp, signed by Heinrich Himmler, to a poignant message written by Romanian Jewish students, bidding farewell to their teacher, Feivish Dauber, in 1944. It reads: “Memory is the only paradise from which you cannot expel a person.”
Dr Gertner’s mission is clear: “It is not enough to collect,” he says, “we have to comment and give access. We think everything we have has to be shared.”
To that end, Yad Vashem has signed agreements with the governments of as many countries as it can, allowing it to scan and copy documents.
Some governments make their wartime documentation freely available. Others, such as The Netherlands, cite data protection concerns and have more recently closed off access to Yad Vashem.
But the sheer scope of what is in the archives is shocking and fascinating. Dr Gertner, points to a chilling record of Nazi obsession: a train that left Prague in February 1942 for Theresienstadt was carrying just one Jewish passenger, Ilsa Messnerova, aged 35. A whole train, just to exterminate one person.
The Holocaust, Israeli politics and the failure of understanding
If the Yad Vashem authorities thought that British journalists were not going to ask pointed and uncomfortable questions about parallels between the Holocaust and contemporary politics, they were both naïve and mistaken.
A lecture on “the state of Israel and the Holocaust” by the senior historian at the International Institute for Holocaust Research, Dr David Silberklang, started off conventionally enough.
The American-born Dr Silberklang described the landing, in November 1942, of 78 Polish Jews in Haifa. The civilians, all British passport-holders, were allowed to enter Mandate Palestine in a straight exchange for German prisoners of war.
In the debriefing of the 78, direct testimony was given for the first time of the death camps and destruction of European Jewry. “By November 23, 1942, all the Jewish newspapers in Palestine appeared with black borders around the reports of the evidence,” Dr Silberklang said.
He also referred to the choices facing post-war survivors. Those in the DP (displaced persons) camps “were asked to go home. But ‘home’ did not exist any more. The only place they could be was where Jews could live freely.”
But Dr Silberklang was at pains to state that the Holocaust does not inform policy in Israel. Later, Yad Vashem chairman Avner Shalev acknowledged that he had frequently written to Israeli politicians asking them not to invoke the Holocaust during campaigning.
But — apparently by virtue of having drawn a direct line from Auschwitz to Jerusalem — Dr Silberklang was immediately subjected to a barrage of slightly hostile questions. One journalist asked if Israel ought not to feel more sympathy with the Palestinians because of Jewish experience in the Holocaust, and drew a parallel between where Palestinians live today and wartime Jewish ghettos. “I would remind you that a Jew died every eight minutes in the ghettos,” returned the historian. “There is no direct parallel or comparison.”
Yad Vashem brought the 12 journalists to Israel for an intensive three-day seminar which tried to challenge perceptions and widen horizons about the Holocaust. It is difficult to know how successful this was or whether some existing prejudices were simply underlined.
One journalist, who writes about gay issues, asked why Yad Vashem did not tell the stories of other minorities which had suffered at the hands of the Nazis. Another asked: “Where is the will for peace [in present-day Israel]?”
If only such questions could be answered easily. Perhaps it was not Yad Vashem which was naïve, but its visitors.