A Holocaust museum has its own ethos. Humor, chatter, hand-holding, and all the other light-hearted emotions and behavior must be left at the entrance. It’s not exactly Dante’s admonition to leave all hope behind, but the sobriety of the event must never be underplayed.
How much horror will they show? How many cremated, hanged, shot, decapitated bodies will they present? How many confiscated shoes, suitcases, glasses, hair, jewelry, concentration camp uniforms, dolls, talitot and ceremonial art will they dare display? How many identity cards, photos, film clips, video-taped accounts can you bear to be witness to?
Going to a Holocaust museum is never fun, but it is a trip that must be made, both for the memory of the dead and the sake of the living.
I beg the reader to forgive the bathos of this preamble, but these were the emotions I carried into Jerusalem’s new Holocaust History Museum of Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority, a decade in the making.
Nearly three hours later I emerged into the sun overlooking the Jerusalem hills and breathed a sigh of relief, mingled with my salty tears and fueled by my unspeakable rage. Relief that I, an American-born Israeli who came into this world in April 1943 during the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, was saved by an accident of birth; tears that so many of my people were not; and rage, that a so-called civilized people could commit with smiles, guffaws and mindless discipline such a horror.
As I finished my visit, I heard German spoken. I wheeled around as if struck by a missile, saw that “the enemy” was a nice-looking, refined family of blond-haired tourists with the same solemn look on their faces as the rest of “us.” My logical mind told me to calm down. The father of the family, younger than I, hadn’t been responsible. But then my illogical mind intruded and staring menacingly at him, I choked back the words, “But your father was, you b—–d!”
I have visited Holocaust museums all over the world, from the wonder in Berlin to the humblest, most poorly funded, windowless room in the most out-of-the-way community centers. I feel as if I’ve seen all the photos, heard all the tales of shame, savagery, heroism, indifference and disbelief. The “I’ve seen it all before” approach is, of course, a defensive tactic, a way of numbing yourself to the horrors, of distilling them into something neutral, even artful. If I keep seeing the same material time and again, maybe, just maybe, there isn’t anything left to shock me.
But of course, there are always new images. One of the most painful I’ve ever witnessed first came to my attention at New York’s Museum of Jewish Heritage some years ago. It showed two partisans, a male and female, being hanged by the Nazis. The woman, although twisting on the rope, was not yet dead. You can see the disbelief, the unspeakable sadness in her eyes as she stares into oblivion, her long, blond wavy hair whipped around either by the breeze of the winter’s day or the movement of her dangling body. Next to her, a soldier tightens the young man’s noose. He turns away from his comrade, not wishing to intrude on her final moments.
In a macabre sort of way, this photo is an old friend. Having seen it so many times before, I am “comfortable” with the imagery. But this time, it is accompanied by another photo of the pair, showing them minutes before, being led to their execution in a city square in Minsk in 1941, forced to carry signboards detailing their crimes (they had shot a German soldier). The caption identified her – 17-year-old Maria Borisova Bruskina – and showed her as a living creature, wearing two sweaters to protect her from the cold, one whose face was still beautiful, whose body still bore her with pride. For me, she is now somebody, no longer simply an icon. I want to shout, to tell her how sorry I am, how I wished I had known her. Perhaps I could have saved her. Maybe we could have become good friends.