a few hours at yad vashem

The pace of the this trip is relentless. Days have begun to meld together. Today we spent a few short hours on the grounds of Yad Vashem. A tour guide lead us through the Holocaust history museum rather quickly, but at least he had a few interesting stories to tell. He talked about how the Nazi regime mailed each German citizen a free radio (the equivalent of sending everyone now a free flat-screen television). This gift radio could receive only one Nazi-controlled frequency.

The front entrance to Yad Vashem

The endpoint of the Yad Vashem's Holocaust history museum opens onto a sunlit vista of the city of Jerusalem
, an ambivalent image of both the collective Jewish effort to survive the Holocaust, and a city held in part by a brutal military occupation.

Nahum Goldman, former president of the World Zionist Organization, expressed this strife over Israel's use of the Holocaust:
"We will have to understand that Jewish suffering during the Holocaust no longer will serve as a protection, and we certainly must refrain from using the argument of the Holocaust to justify whatever we may do. To use the Holocaust as an excuse for the bombing of Lebanon, for instance, as Menachem Begin does, is a kind of "Hillul Hashem" [sacrilege], a banalization of the sacred tragedy of the Shoah [Holocaust], which must not be misused to justify politically doubtful and morally indefensible policies."

While I disagree with Goldman about the sacred nature of the Holocaust, I agree with the sentiment that this past act of genocide does not give the Israeli state license to oppress others. Yad Vashem is a required site on all Birthright trips; and while I think it's an important visit, it is also important to recognize how memorials and museums may construct histories to support the status quo.

A cement pillar at Yad Vashem: "I will put my breath into you and You shall live again, and I will set you upon your own soil" (Ezekiel 37:24)

After a whirlwind tour through the history museum , we circled up on the lawn for a discussion about our feelings.
I thought: how can I talk to anyone respectfully about the fact that the reasons the Holocaust happened all make sense to me? And since the Holocaust was an aberration only in its scale, events like it can happen again. Large-scale genocide continues to happen in the post-World War II world.

Later in our circle discussion, one guy said the whole experience made him want to go out and kill some Germans (how ironic). I made the case that the Holocaust could not be claimed as an exclusive event of Jewish suffering. The Nazis targeted for death homosexuals, Roma, trade unionists, communists, and disabled people among others. However, it seemed to fall on deaf ears. A bit later in our discussion, someone asked, "why didn't the Jews resist?'
"Actually, they did
." I said.

However, the resistance did not have broad support in the Jewish community, and was heavily suppressed by the Nazis. Jewish and non-Jewish resistance to the Holocaust occurred on a number of levels: including underground presses, sabotage, and armed revolt. For more information, I suggest reading Resisting the Holocaust which contains essays on a number of different kinds of resistance to the Holocaust including a piece on the demonstrations of German gentile wives of Jewish men.

The book also does an excellent job of complicating the Jewish role in the event. On all too many occasions, Jews have been depicted as passive victims. In fact, the word "holocaust" itself comes from a Greek term that refers to a sacrificial burnt offering. Jews were not just victims; some were collaborators (in a number of cases community leaders hoping to buy more time for their village), some insurgents, and others were not as easy to classify.

I expect to come to back to discussing Holocaust Tourism in more detail later.

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