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A Memorial and a Name
How a Visit to Yad Vashem Changed My Perspective
This week, I am a guest of Israel’s Foreign Ministry, learning about social impact with a delegation of content creators.
Jerusalem is a city full of holy places. I visited one today.
As a guest of Israel’s Foreign Ministry with a delegation of social impact content creators, we received a guided tour of Yad Vashem, Jerusalem’s holocaust museum and memorial.
Before entering the primary building housing the exhibits, guests pass trees and lists of “The Righteous Among the Nations,” a still-growing list of 28,000 non-Jews who aided Jews—typically at the peril of their lives and their family members’ lives—during the holocaust.
It inspires personal reflection for non-Jewish visitors like me as we tour the memorial. The vast majority of 150 million non-Jewish Europeans turned a blind eye toward or actively supported the slow, staggered, step-by-step dehumanization and murder of millions of innocent people. What would I have done for my Jewish friends and neighbors at the peril of my life?
One of the most powerful features of the museum is buried in the floor. An exhibit of shoes collected by the Nazis at one of the death camps moves visitors. The exhibit is literally in the floor below thick glass so that visitors can walk over the shoes.
No one does. At least during our visit, no one walked over the shoes, the only physical artifact connecting the murdered human beings whose remains were cremated immediately after death to this place and time. The sacred nature of shoes is self-evident.
At the spiritual center of the memorial is the heart of the work of Yad Vashem. The words mean “a memorial and a name.” The ongoing work is to document the name of every person killed in the holocaust—all 6 million.
The gathered names are organized inside a gallery that can be seen beginning at the 12-second mark of the video above, featuring images and names of 600 or so individuals. Surrounding that moving exhibit is shelving about 30 feet high in a circle about 60 feet in diameter. On the shelves are books that document the names of 4.8 million individuals.
It is a powerful reminder that Jews, Roma, homosexuals, their allies and others were robbed of their identity in various ways, including tattooed numbers replacing their names. That horrific depersonalization was essential in convincing people to participate or look away. In the end, however, every single one of the 6 million was a priceless human being with a name.
Yad Vashem’s work will continue until every name is documented. Here are the 4.8 million names.
Following our tour, our little delegation was privileged to meet with Dani Dayan, Chairman of the Yad Vashem Directorate. He was generous with insights and stories.
After allowing everyone to draw their own lessons from a visit to Yad Vashem, he had drawn one ultimate conclusion: anti-semitism, racism, and xenophobia are never too small. “When you see it, combat it immediately. It is never too small.” There is no tolerable level. Racist ideas cannot be allowed to germinate, let alone flourish.
The challenge to call out such offense at the moment it occurs served as a conversation starter for the delegation. Earlier in the day, someone speaking to the group had referred to the broader gay community with a tired attempt at humor, calling it the “LGT, oh, I forget the numbers….”
To be clear, I sincerely doubt the speaker had intended an offense, but I suspect they had grown accustomed to making the tired joke rather than mastering LGBTQIA (or even the shorter LGBT). With the casual treatment of the acronym, the speaker treated subsets of the community as disposable. A visit to Yad Vashem highlighted the pain of being made to feel disposable.
To be fair, one could reasonably conclude that where no offense was intended, there is no need to “combat it.” But that may miss Mr. Dayan’s point. If we allow a slight intolerance, we leave room for it to grow.
So, I left the site, reflecting on the question of what I would have done in Europe as my Jewish friends were isolated, rounded up, hunted down and massacred. In the simple test of being an ally to the LGBTQIA community on this day, I had failed—well aware that no penalty would have been imposed.
It would be easy to choose to believe that, in hindsight, I would have been courageous and noble enough to be counted among the 2 in 1,000 Europeans to garner recognition among the Righteous. Instead, I will accept the challenge to prove it by my actions going forward.
How about you?