There is a phrase in Hebrew that means “a memorial and a name” — it is used in Isaiah 56:5 which says, “And to them I will give in my house and within my walls a memorial and a name that shall not be cut off.” In transliterated Hebrew, this phrase is “Yad Vashem”.
“Yad Vashem” is what Israel chose to call their Holocaust Museum, established in 1953.
A visit to any Holocaust Museum will change you, but understandably, none of them compare to Israel’s own.
On a very hot July day ten years ago our bus wound its way up the western slope of Mount Herzl on the Mount of Remembrance in Jerusalem. I think it was July 5th. The previous day, our group of 35 American young people had splashed through Hezekiah’s Tunnel underneath the Old City, stood on the Mount of Olives, gazed across the Kidron Valley to Mount Moriah, and strolled near the Garden of Gethsemane. During dinner that night, at the hotel in Abu Gosh, we’d sung The Star Spangled Banner in celebration of our Independence Day, many Israelis and other guests joining in to sing and cheer with us for a rousing finish.
In the middle of the whirlwind 12-day tour of Israel, it was a short three days in the Jerusalem area filled to the brim with those and many other incredible highlights. Next on the itinerary was Yad Vashem.
From the moment we stepped out of the bus, the design of the place began to take affect. Set on a high green hillside, the low black buildings were surrounded by a stunning view and the whole place was intently silent. A long white stone pathway led up to the first structure. Lined with beautifully tended trees of varying ages, and at the base of each tree, plaques bearing names of all nationalities. This walkway is called The Righteous Among the Nations. Each tree is planted in grateful honor of any family that housed and protected Jews during WWII.
I have no skill to describe to you how the experience unfolds as you go inside and slowly walk the halls. Even though it was undergoing major renovations/additions at the time (a whole new complex opened the following year), none of that distracted from the power of what was presented there. Careful thought was put into each display, each room reflecting an exquisite attention to detail. It is totally consumed with honoring the lost, bringing you inside the world that crushed them.
One particular memory is an entire hallway wall that is a floor-to-ceiling, life-size photo of stacks upon stacks of bare metal cots; the pinched, haggard faces of men look out at you with utterly dead eyes. You can hardly stand to meet their gaze. You feel guilty for the clothes on your back and the food in your stomach. For the muscle on your bones. For being alive.
I searched each face, looking for one trace of defiance or hope.
When it was nearly time to go back to the bus I found myself in a wide hall with some offices at the far end, and momentarily feared that I’d wandered into an area not meant for guests. But just inside and to the left was a small dark room and I approached close enough to read the little plaque by the door. Hall of Names. I went in, with some trepidation.
Everything in this room was black. Carpet, walls, ceiling, benches, lampstands, and black velvet ropes marking off an area filled with black shelves, laden with large black notebooks. Near the ropes, a small black podium with one of the notebooks lying open. A picture of a small girl. Her name, some biographical information, and a supposed date of death.
I suddenly realized what this was.
One of Yad Vashem’s documentation goals is to create a Page of Testimony for every single one of the 6 million Jews who perished. At that point, a little over 2 million of them had been identified and documented, and I was standing alone with all of their names.
Post renovation, the Hall of Names is quite different but doubtless equally powerful.