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The Hall of Names, Yad Vashem.org

The Hall of Names, Yad Vashem.org

It’s impossible to write a book about “Holocaust memory” without mentioning Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum in Israel, which is dedicated, precisely, to preserving the memory of the Holocaust and to educating the public about the Jewish disaster. The goal of the Holocaust was not only to exterminate millions of Jews from the face of the Earth. It was also to erase their memory: efface every trace that they had perished at the hands of the Nazis and even that they had ever existed. This was Hitler’s intention from the start. It is also why the Nazis avoided, as much as possible, leaving a written trace of their commands and destroyed the evidence of their crimes. The mass murder of millions of Jews was kept, for the most part, a secret in Germany. Orders for extermination were referred to in code: mass murder was called “the Final Solution”; hunting victims to send them to concentration camps was called “actions” or “operations”; extermination of the Jews was euphemistically called “special treatment”. These orders were generally passed down verbally, from Hitler to Himmler, and so on down to the chain of command. Given the Nazi emphasis upon the systematic erasure of this criminal past, it’s all the more important for the Jewish people—and for the world at large—to have places of remembrance of the Holocaust.

Yad Vashem, which literally means “a place and a name,” commemorates the memory of those who have perished in the Holocaust. It also honors those who have helped the Jewish people escape from the Nazis. Plans for Yad Vashem began as early as 1942, with the first confirmed reports of the mass murder of Jews throughout Europe. In 1953 the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, unanimously passed a law establishing Yad Vashem. In 1957 the museum opened to the public. Since its inception, Yad Vashem has been one of the most visited sites in Israel, along with the Western Wall (the Wailing Wall). Located on the Mount of Remembrance in Jerusalem, the museum contains a Holocaust History Museum, a Children’s Memorial, a Hall of Remembrance, a Museum of Holocaust Art, an International School of Holocaust Studies, a library, a research center and a publishing house. The section about the Holocaust contains documents, photos and videos in English, Hebrew, German, Russian and Arabic. The museum has several interrelated objectives: 1) commemorating the past and Holocaust victims, survivors, and those who have helped victims escape from the Nazis; 2) offering the most up-to-date documentation about the Holocaust; 3) conducting further research on the Holocaust, and 4) educating the general public about the Holocaust.

To preserve the memory of the Holocaust—or of any historical disaster—well beyond the lifespan of its victims and their families, one needs to keep those memories alive for present and future generations around the world. Yad Vashem treads the delicate balance between retrieving the past as accurately as possible and using technologically modern and engaging tools of mass media communication to render that past relevant to as many people, cultures and generations as possible.

The Nazis claimed the lives of the victims and deprived them of dignity both in life and in death. They disposed of their bodies anonymously, throwing them in a heap, burying them in mass graves, or incinerating them. To preserve the memory of the millions of victims of Nazi extermination, one of the museum’s main research tasks is to identify and honor each victim as an individual. In 2005, Yad Vashem created a permanent exhibition devoted to this purpose in the new Holocaust History Museum. The explicit goal of this vast and growing display of photographs is “Identifying the men, women and children who appear in the photographic display restores names and identities to unknown faces, thereby rescuing them from anonymity…” (http://www.yadvashem.org/yv/en/exhibitions/museum_photos/index.asp). The Hall of Names, in particular, includes hundreds of photographs of victims of the Holocaust.

The new museum, a triangular structure with a luminous, 200 meter long prism skylight, was designed by Moshe Safdie, a Canadian architect born in Haifa who also created the spectacular Kauffmann Center for the Performing Arts in Kansas City, The Musée de la Civilisation in Quebec City and the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa. I have not yet had the opportunity to visit the new museum, but many of those who have describe it as an incredibly moving and uplifting experience.

One of the main reasons to remember the past is to shape the future, so that younger generations learn how to identify the warning signs of the hatred and racism that engulfed previous generations. Consequently, in the words of Moshe Katzav, the former President of Israel, Yad Vashem stands as “an important signpost to all of humankind, a signpost that warns how short the distance is between hatred and murder, between racism and genocide”.

Claudia Moscovici, Holocaust Memory

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