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Yad Vashem & St. Andrew’s Church/Guest House, Liberty Park
In the morning, we visited three nearby landmarks: St. Andrew’s Church and Guest House, Liberty Park, and the Inbal Hotel. St. Andrew’s Church was pretty bare bones, no bells and whistles here or in its guest house. But the ambience was welcoming.
Liberty Park had a few unusual embellishments: oddly shaped monoliths, a tucked-away amphitheater for kids’ theatrical productions, and a replica of our Liberty Bell in Philadelphia.
The Inbal Hotel, easily viewed from Liberty Park, is ultra-modern and elegant. Some of its shops contain outstanding heirloom Judaica.
Later on, we toured Mt. Hertzl Military Cemetery. Besides seeing the tomb of Jewish notables like Zionist pioneer Theodore Herzl and assassinated Prime Minister Rabin, we roamed through the twenty or so sections devoted to the soldiers who died in various wars defending Israel. The markers along the routes succinctly paid tribute to these soldiers (from 16 year olds to men in their forties).
During our first two days at Yad Vashem, we were inside where no pictures were allowed. But this afternoon, we visited the outdoor sites—from the Warsaw Ghetto sculpture to the 2.5 acre massive walls on which were inscribed the names of the Jewish communities that the Nazis wiped out in the Holocaust.
The First Day at Yad Vashem—Jaded no More
There were abundantly poignant moments at the History Museum in Israel’s Holocaust Museum that my wife and I visited yesterday for seven hours, especially the testimony of survivors. Most of the horror that they depicted was already drearily familiar to me, for example, desperate women in the concentration camps strangling their own babies rather than have the Nazis brutalize and fling these infants into the gas chambers. But one of the testimonial videos—up until the Warsaw Ghetto section—recalled some incidents that I had never heard or read about and will never forget. That video burned off the last layer of any complacency that accompanied me as I dutifully took in the exhibits. It was even more powerful than seeing and touching a cattle car that transported thousands of men, women, and children to Auschwitz.
The narrator, a Jewish man in the Treblinka camp, believed that to survive, the strong had to exploit the weak and the victim, unless he in turn became the predator, was doomed. One night, the inmate realized that his hat was missing. He was terrified because anyone who wasn’t wearing a hat during morning inspection was automatically shot dead. Unable to locate his cap, he realized that his only chance to remain alive was to steal a hat from someone who wasn’t vigilant enough. Moving from bunk to bunk, the man saw a portion of a cap sticking out from underneath a fellow inmate’s stomach. The man removed the cap and returned to his own quarters. He didn’t try to rationalize his theft; he simply did not want to die, no matter who had to be sacrificed. Although he couldn’t face the man as he was executed that morning, the survivor said that he wasn’t ashamed of his treachery.
But what he did regret occurred a few days later. His father, exhausted and debilitated, fell down in a ditch. Anyone who couldn’t stand up would be soon sent to the crematorium. The son wanted to pick up his father, but if he did so, he would be violating a Nazi regulation, incurring his own death. Torn between his allegiance to his father and his own survival, the son remorsefully chose to leave his father in the muck. And for all the ensuing years, he has never been able to forgive himself for selfishly deserting his father.
Blood may be thicker than water, but under dehumanizing duress, survival at any cost can break that bond as well. To survive or not to survive, that is the question that so many of the Jews and non-Jews alike grappled with as they withered away in the Nazi hell holes.
Day Two at Yad VaShem
Yesterday, my wife and I finished our self-guided tour of the Holocaust History Museum. I touched all of the exhibits—from the triple-decker inmate bunk beds to the carts and concrete blocks from the work camp projects. I saw gruesome pictures of skeletal remains of the living and the dead. I listened to survivors recounting their litany of Nazi atrocities. I read many accounts of the Righteous Gentiles who endangered and sometimes sacrificed their lives by harboring Jews throughout Europe. But none of these gut-churning and throat-constricting remembrances equaled the overpowering sense of loss I felt at the last station of the Holocaust’s own via dolorosa.
On one of the videos commemorating Israel’s becoming an independent state in 1948, a large group of grade-school children were singing Hatikva, Israel’s national anthem. Finally, there was something to truly celebrate, the perpetuation of the Jewish race. But as I watched the video for a second time, I noticed—on the upper right hand corner of the screen—an inscription: Munkacs, 1930’s. These children were not Israelis: they were Jewish Hungarians singing a traditional song (written in the 1880’s) about yearning for a homeland in Zion. How tragically ironic! How slight the possibility that any of these youngsters might have escaped the Holocaust to witness the creation of the state of Israel.
It was too late in the day for my wife and me to tour the Children’s Museum at the far end of Yad VaShem. Maybe that’s just as well. I need time to recover from the haunting video of the doomed school children who would soon fill the ranks of the six million murdered in the Holocaust.
This was our last day at Yad VaShem. Quite by accident, my wife located an enclave containing memorial plaques—some matter of fact, others poignant—composed by family members of Holocaust victims. Next we finished our tour of the Valley of the Communities, the massive towers listing every one of the annihilated Jewish populations in Nazi-controlled Europe. The only bright spot for me was that the Dutch town Vlaaringen that my wife and I once stayed in for a couple of weeks while on vacation was not inscribed on the pillars. The last thing we did was revisit the Children’s Memorial. We spent much more time there than we did on an earlier visit. What struck me the most was that the panoramically reflected lights representing the 1.5 million children murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators seemed like innumerable sheets of stars glowing in the firmament.