Yad Vashem is more than a museum. Physically, it reminded me of a campus university, set on a forested hillside on the edge of Jerusalem, and it is of course a centre of scholarship on the Holocaust as well as a museum, national shrine and place of pilgrimage. I had a brief, damp, wander around the garden of remembrance for the Righteous Among the Nations, paying my respects at the tree commemorating Oskar Schindler and noting one English name among them (Charles Coward, a brave soldier who helped 400 Jews escape Auschwitz and testified at Nuremberg). But the museum is a focal point, housed in a low concrete building the shape of a mutilated half-star of David.
Anything one writes about the Holocaust seems trite. Like any European with an ounce of intelligence or empathy, I have stared into this abyss before as a reader, and as a traveller I have been to Auschwitz, Stutthof, Babi Yar and other defiled places, and to Berlin’s museums and memorials. Yad Vashem is different in some ways, in that the ground it is built upon is not complicit in the evil of the Shoah but instead implies a kind of complicated redemption from that valley of death. As a museum it is of course fascinating and thoughtful. One of the first bits of museological design one comes across is a ditch across the main route of the exhibition containing contemporary copies of the forbidden literature burned by the Nazis on Opernplatz in Berlin in May 1933. It evokes the German-Jewish writer Heine’s amazingly prescient words of 1821:
Dort, wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man am Ende auch Menschen
(Wherever they burn books, they end up burning people)
Crossing the ditch of discarded books takes one to a realm of cruelty and degradation.
In the museum there were some artefacts of anti-Semitism I had not seen, or perhaps not registered, the like of which before – anti-Semitic board games from Nazi Germany and a nose-measuring tool so-called scientists used in racial classification, for instance. There was also some harrowing testimony from a survivor of the Sonderkommando, who had encountered evil cruelty at its most extreme. The terrifying singularity of the Aktion Reinhard ‘camps’ – although camp is a misnomer for these genocide factories – defies the imagination. How could these small places, Treblinka, Sobibor, Belzec, run by human not demons, kill millions and then fade back into the countryside from which they emerged? Yet it happened, in my father’s lifetime. It’s somehow shocking that the birds still sing, that the stones do not cry out in horror and shame.