Israel snapshot: Revamped Yad Vashem blends digital, old-style exhibits

Sheila Wilensky was in Israel recently with the American Jewish Press Association.

Israel Defense Forces soldiers visit Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial museum, as part of their training. (Sheila Wilensky/AJP)
Israel Defense Forces soldiers visit Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial museum, as part of their training. (Sheila Wilensky/AJP)

The new Yad Vashem museum, run by The Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority, was packed when I visited on Jan. 14. I had toured the museum, which was established in 1953, with my daughter 20 years ago. We’d walked through the halls, overcome by the tragedy of the Holocaust, especially in the incredibly sad Children’s Memorial and Remembrance Hall.

The new museum, completed in 2005, is much larger and stands on a 45-acre campus. “There are so many changes going on in the world,” Estee Yaari, the museum’s foreign media liaison, told the visiting AJPA members. “We wanted to rethink how to maintain a dialogue. An educational approach underlies everything we do here.” Approximately 1 million visitors come to Yad Vashem every year.

Survivor testimonies appear on about 100 screens throughout the museum, which is stark in its concrete grayness. The earlier Yad Vashem garnered most of its information from German archives. “We’ve shifted the focus to the victims,” said Yaari. “We’ve recorded around 25,000 Righteous Among the Nations so far. We’ve been able to identify [through the use of advanced technology] approximately 4.2 million of the 6 million killed.”

Amid the video screens and computers, provocative quotes still have their place, such as “A country is not only what it does but what it tolerates,” by Kurt Tucholsky, a German-Jewish journalist (1890-1935). I wanted to find out why on a Thursday afternoon in January — not the height of the tourist season — the museum was so crowded with foreign visitors and what they hoped to learn.

“I love the Jewish people and the state of Israel. I would live here if I could,” an elderly British former nurse wearing a cross told me, adding that it was her seventh trip to Israel. “According to the scriptures, God has a covenant with the Jewish people. I want to work with Holocaust survivors here, caring for and serving them. We owe a debt to the Jewish people,” she continued. “Christian roots are with the Jewish people. There’s no word for how horribly the Jewish people have been treated over the centuries.”

The museum’s exhibit halls border a large center hall for walking that follows Holocaust history chronologically, focusing on small exhibits along the way. As I approached an old cart filled with books, I was taken aback. The accompanying quote, “Where books are burned, human beings are destined to be burned, too” (anonymous), spoke volumes to me.

As part of their training, new Israel Defense Forces soldiers visit the museum. I noticed a group of young people in uniform and spoke to a few who seemed somewhat uninterested in the guide’s presentation. “We also come here in high school,” a young woman told me. No doubt, the IDF recruits already knew about the Holocaust.

Later, outside, I saw the group of IDF soldiers from a distance. They were standing in a circle with their arms intertwined, perhaps praying or engaging in a moment of silence.

Back inside, a group of young men from a Spanish soccer team seemed deeply engrossed in the exhibits. One who spoke a little English said they hadn’t learned much about the Holocaust in school.

“It’s very different,” Yaari had told us, “to teach the Holocaust to a six-year-old who hears sirens every year than to a high-school student in Canada.”

The American Jewish Press Association trip was sponsored by the Israel Ministry of Tourism.