Yesterday, we went to the grave of Oskar Shindler and watched “Life is Beautiful.” They were in preparation for what was coming today… I was more than a little apprehensive about what was coming because I inherently don’t like unhappy things. You see, I have this philosophy that you can find something good in everything, and that even in the midst of the most depressing abyss, it is still possible to stay positive. While I still believe that is the case, it doesn’t mean I have an easy time with things that are genuinely tragic: where the hurt is so deep, so prolonged… and it is admittedly very, very hard to see what good could be found in it. Today… I went to Israel’s Holocaust museum, the largest and most comprehensive in the world, Yad Vashem. It was impossible to see all of what the 45-acre complex commemorated in just one day, but our group of students definitely experienced a lot in the time we were there. The name Yad Vashem comes from a transliteration of a verse of scripture in Isaiah 56:5 which says, “Even unto them will I give in mine house and within my walls a place and a name (in their translation it is “a wall and a name” which in the Hebrew is Yad Vashem) better than of sons and of daughters: I will give them an everlasting name, that shall not be cut off.” When the day was done, I really felt like what they meant by giving it an “everlasting name.”

Our Jewish history teacher met us there, and took us around for an hour or so to see a few things outside. One of the things he showed us is this big plaza made out of limestone with these two big metal sculptures in front (picture 1). The one on the right was a relief sculpture of people being herded to a concentration camp, with seemingly little resistance. The other was more statue-like. It showed 6 people, with one clear leader, who were in more… action poses. They represented the Warsaw uprising, those who resisted the Nazis. Our teacher explained the history behind those two statues: many Jews did what they were told, because they thought that would be their best chance of survival. After the Holocaust, though, those survivors were looked down upon. He pointed out that Yad Vashem was conceived at the height of Zionism: right when they had successfully established the Jewish state via great military success. The Jews thought of those who resisted as heroes like unto what the new state was all about: standing up for what was right to the point of dying for it. Those who merely went “as sheep” to the camps were seen as being weak. Sad as it sounds, our teacher said (himself an orthodox Jew) that this attitude is the reason why so many survivors kept quiet for so long after the war. Lots of those who had a number tattooed on their arms would wear long-sleeved shirts even on hot days so that people wouldn’t see the tattoo and start to ask questions that would only bring back the shame… of surviving!

We went through the main museum next. We had a tour guide who worked there who took us through. Her name was Sarah, and she was very good. Interestingly, she’s from Germany, and not Jewish. Everything there was symbolic of something, or had a specific purpose… all to help visitors see the whole story of the Holocaust, from beginning to end. It started a sort of video slide show of daily Jewish life in pre-war Europe, projected on one end of the huge triangle-shaped main hall. Then we walked from room to room and saw from the beginning of the Nazis rising to power, learning about how their organization and Hitler’s rise to power, and seeing the progression of how his policies were implemented, starting with the dehumanizing propaganda, continued with social humiliation, then adding things like boycotts, until the implementation of the “final solution.” I took a lot of notes at this part, but, really, it would take pages to cover this… so I plan to come back to it. I hope it will be soon. But if I don’t… at least ask me sometime about how I felt when our guide talked about the wall of the educated Nazi leadership.

After that main museum, our guide took us to the children’s memorial, which was also deeply moving. In front of it, there were these square stone pillars, about the width of a person, and they were arranged in a group of about 15, with the tall ones in the back, shorter in the middle, and the shortest ones in front. It was supposed to look like a group of children, arranged in a singing group or having a picture taken or something. All of them were very roughly cut off at the top. It was meant to symbolize that their lives had been cut off and they were never able to get any farther than that.

You walked in, and it was almost pitch black, with only a few black and white pictures of some children, who were killed, on the wall in front of you. Then you enter the main room, and it’s even darker, but with hundreds of tiny candles scattered around. You can’t even tell where they’re sitting, but you can see them everywhere you look, against the black. Then there are mirrors all around, so the candles are reflected, and it looks like millions of little bright specks to represent the 1.5 million children that died.

Again, I don’t have the time or space now to go in to my thoughts after visiting this place. It really required something of me to be there and take in what I was seeing… I asked one of my friends who was in the program last year for things that helped him after being exposed so thoroughly to one of the blackest ignominies in our world’s history… and one thing really stood out to me. It comes from Holocaust-survivor Viktor Frankl: “When we are no longer able to change a situation – we are challenged to change ourselves.” I think it an adequate way to describe part of how I feel about–and want to act as a result of–… it all.

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Me at the tower to the heroic ones.
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A memorial to a teacher. One of the ways that the center encourages healing is getting involved in things that make the world better: like teaching the next generation to be more wise than we have been
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The Eternal Flame
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