Note: The following is a reflection, written for the EMIS school trip to Yad Vashem, the museum of the holocaust, on April 26th. The task was assigned by Lorelle Shub, our English A teacher, who insisted we reflect on our visit.
While I am privy that “most” probably wrote this reflection rather halfheartedly, treating it more as a nuisance than any item of worth; I wrote my own reflection with great zeal. I must have had a lot to say.
It is a particularly outdated response, however, I still believe it worth sharing. I also apologize for the personal perspective it offers. It was a reflection and therefore REFLECTS my most personal opinions.
Visit to Yad Vashem
The holocaust is a piece of history. A piece of current history, yet history nonetheless. It was an atrocity, a horrid, act of violence and a zenith to the violent, morose side of humanity. Without, excluding anything, it is difficult to imagine a token which would more fittingly depict the nadir of mankind.
Our visit to the Yad Vashem museum of the holocaust had a deep impact on my own interpretation of the holocaust. This was done in a myriad of ways, and excluding having been given any new piece of novel information.
It was first, simply another reiteration or reminder. I am a person of material affectation. I am persuaded, affected, drawn to the power of the concrete, an object a token, a place, a land. In the same way that I can save a rock from the top of a mountain, or be amazed at the landscape where a battle had once been, I was perplexed by the sight of real people’s accounts, names, pictures, and artifacts.
It was a somber experience and fulfills the particular goal which was repeated to me, once and once again, “To not forget.”
However, there were other ways in which the museum affected my perspective. For one, I think it is sickeningly misguided to take the holocaust out of historical context. It is a part of history, and any intent to try and extract it with an emphasis or importance, I feel, is as foolish as the early dwellers of the 1900s claiming the first world war was the” War to end all Wars.”
In the words of Regina Spekter, “The world is everlasting. It’s coming and its going.”
However, imparted on this, I was disappointed by the narrative our guide continued to impart on us. Even though she explicitly reminded us once that this museum was dedicated in sole to the JEWISH victims of the holocaust, I was constantly disheartened by her perspective, which I immediately assumed was the museums perspective as well.
There was, yes, information of the holocaust as was fitting, but there was also a constant theme, an insistent focus on what was not done. A focus on who let this event happen. Our guide consecutively went from one country to another asking us whether it was kind to the Jews. What had they done to stop the holocaust and how had they helped those in need? She spoke collectively of entire nations, entire groups of people, with the somewhat spurious conclusion that, “The Dutch did not help the Jews.” She seemed dead set on convincing us that everyone hated the Jews.
Not only this, but one particular phrase really caught my attention, whereas our guide declared, “In the holocaust there were only four: The perpetrators, the victims, the righteous and the bystanders.” (The righteous being those who helped the Jews regardless of intent, except for money, and were not Jews themselves).
I could not help but severely disagree. Everyone was a bystander, except for a select few, at least in my opinion. On individual human terms, unlike the collectivity she tried to contrive on, few did anything to stop this tide of murder, even the Jews, the homosexuals, the gypsies and war prisoners in the death camps.
I guess my real reaction was that I was frankly pissed that this guide of ours had given me something to disagree with. She had made the holocaust, the single most disagreeable event in history, the one thing we could all agree was terrible and nothing more, a matter of debate.
I was angered by the fact that an opinion had somehow gotten intertwined into something that should have been clear. The holocaust was meant to be horrid, and nothing more. No contention, no debate, outside of how it should be memorialized.
Yet here it was a theme, an opinion.
It was reminiscent of my visit to Auschwitz, when I traveled to Poland only months earlier. The site there has a National museum for every victim of the camp, per standing barrack. Every building hosts its own array of sponsors and displays. Ranging from the Czech memorial to the Yugoslavian, it was particularly diverse. However, I couldn’t help but feel disgusted.
The Russian museum housed the names of Russian war prisoners who were interned there and explanations on how they contributed to planning resistance in the camp. It was all about how the Russians had also suffered, but fought back even at the camp. There were also explanations of the Soviet-Nazi war, which apparently is called, in Russia, “The Great Patriotic War, from 1941 to 1945.”
The reason for this late date, I could only assume: was because before then, the USSR had been allies of Nazi Germany and the museum wanted to diverge from that particular fact.
In a similar fashion, the Polish shrine was all about how the Polish had also suffered at the camp and at the hand of the Germans. It depicted a scene where the Poles suffered on Equal hand at Auschwitz, explaining how the invasion of Poland had taken place. Special attention was put into reminding the public that Russia had invaded Poland, WITH the Nazi’s.
The conclusion I found was that each memorial was competing with the last. They seemed to be actively working to out suffer, or out honor the other.
I guess why this troubled me was that I saw the same contention which started this bloody war in the first place. It was still alive in these politically charged shrines. They had already failed to remember the horror.
However, Yad Vashem, I would not call political. It was something else, while similar.
All these museums, all these holocaust memorials, they all had a theme, a message. Yad Vashem wished to convince me that the holocaust, apart from being horrible, proves that the Jews were alone and that everyone did nothing, the same way the Polish museum tried to convince me that the Poles were not perpetrators, but victims as well.
I don’t say that this was not true, or that this is something to debate. That doesn’t matter. It was the means, the thematic form. We were forced to see, not the holocaust, but the holocaust from Israel’s terms. I was confounded that such a thing even existed.
It seemed the holocaust had lost its tag as history, and could no longer be called that. They simply dragged it to their own side and found how it could be used, how it could be distorted. They simply wanted to find a way to use the holocaust as a way to present their theme, their perspective, and their message.
Why is it that we need this? That history should have a message, a theme like a fiction novel. How can we so blatantly deride such an event with our opinions?
When we opinionate something, it loses such an intrinsic value. It falls out of history. It becomes an opinion, a viewpoint, and a mere, immaterial human thought, tethered to a single mind. The Holocaust was meant, I felt, to be remembered as concrete as possible, as a material, real thing.
To me Yad Vashem, in part, became a distortion of what should have been an irrefutable truth, a piece of history.
It was there, and in most places where we commemorate the holocaust: something different.
I am fairly disappointed.
Written: Carlos Sevilla
Edited: Tom Sagiv
Copy edited: Emily Perotti