Today is Holocaust Memorial Day. I’m sorry to say that normally it would pass without much thought. Often as the distance widens between our reality and the horrific events past, their impact fades and we become less concerned to think about them. Like most people in the Western world, I’ve grown up hearing about the Holocaust. I read Anne Frank’s diary when I was ten, as well as other fiction set during the time. As a young girl, it left a deep impression on me. I distinctly remember watching footage of the concentration camps at a museum and being completely stunned. I’d never seen living beings in the skeletal state that they were in the film, what to speak of knowing that it was being inflicted by other humans. Still, over time I’ve seen the same footage several times, and like anything repeated, you eventually become used to it. My trip to Israel gave me a new perspective.
There, the Holocaust seems to be part of the national consciousness. It was explained to us one evening by a lecturer in Israeli film and culture, who told us that as a Jewish state, the events of the Holocaust are eternally relevant for Israel and are explored time and time again through the country’s artistic output.
An essential part of the Birthright trip is visiting Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial museum, located in Jerusalem. The 45 acre complex, comprised of numerous memorials, museums, and educational centres, stands on the mountainside, overlooking the white city below. The design of every building and sculpture invites contemplation, and holds multiple layers of meaning. Our group walked around the outside first, through the silver birch trees and hedges of fragrant rosemary. We first stepped out of the sun and into the children’s memorial building. After walking through a dark passageway, dimly lit only by projected photos of children’s faces, you enter a large hall, full of glass and mirrors, and lit candles. Each candle is reflected hundreds of times, in every direction – it’s as if you were walking through a starry sky. This is symbolic – the stars represent each soul of a child lost. A woman’s voice announces the name, age and nationality of each one as you pass out of the hall and emerge once again into the bright light.
This journey is echoed in the recently built musuem, a prism- like tunnel, emerging from the mountain. Inside, a multimedia presentation incorporates survivor testimonies as well as personal artifacts donated to Yad Vashem by Holocaust survivors, the families of those who perished, Holocaust museums and memorial sites around the world. It was one of the most beautiful, well designed memorials I have ever been to. It was frequently moving, completely compelling and above all, gave more insight than I’ve ever had into the way that the Holocaust affected individual people. It was difficult to digest the amount of information and to process the mixed emotions I felt in response, especially in such a large group. Some members of the group felt that the events of the Holocaust presented a major question as to the existence of God. To me, this didn’t hold together, but I felt unable to offer a sweeping scriptural explanation, or a vague attempt at justifying it all according to the principle of karma.
Hearing each story, seeing each treasured photograph and diary, it was hard to do anything but cry.
Hundreds of folders in the Hall of Names commemorate those who perished.