Obama visit Israel 2013
U.S. President Barack Obama visiting Yad Vashem, March 22, 2013. Photo by Emil Salman
Text size

On August 19, 1953, the Knesset passed the Yad Vashem Law, by which it established the Martyrs and Heroes Remembrance Authority to oversee Holocaust commemoration in Israel.

The idea for a memorial in Israel to the Jewish victims of the Nazi regime was first raised officially in 1942, which was not only a half-dozen years before Israeli independence – but also a time when most of those victims were still alive.

The proposal came from Mordechai Shenhavi (1900-1983), a Russian-born founding member of Kibbutz Mishmar Ha’emek (although in 1942, he was living at Kibbutz Beit Alfa). He brought it up at a meeting of the board of the Jewish National Fund in September 1942.

Even at that early stage, almost two years before World War II was to end, Shenhavi saw a need to create an institution in Palestine that would, in his words, “perpetuate the memory of the century’s greatest catastrophe within the framework of our Zionist enterprise.” He also saw the institution he proposed as answering an important challenge facing the JNF, which he noted at the time, “needs a new cause that can turn into a pipeline for large sums,” as quoted by Tom Segev in his 1993 book “The Seventh Million.”

A monument and a name

The name “Yad Vashem” (“a monument and a name”) was taken from Isaiah 56:5, in which God makes a promise regarding “the eunuchs that keep My sabbaths … and hold fast by My covenant,” saying that “unto them will I give in My house and within My walls a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting memorial, that shall not be cut off.”

Rather like eunuchs, who were denied the opportunity to bear children, the six million victims of the Holocaust were at risk of being “cut off” from Jewish history. In fact, since the beginning Yad Vashem has had as one of its goals trying to collect and make known the name of every Jew murdered by Hitler.

To date, it has reached some 4.3 million names, all of which are accessible via a database uploaded by Yad Vashem to the Internet.

Vast complex versus forest

According to Segev, the JNF did not respond with great enthusiasm to Shenhavi’s idea, which envisioned a vast complex, to be situated in the Upper Galilee, including a memorial forest, cemetery, research institute and museum, plus resort and sports facilities. Rather, it came up with a proposal of its own for a Jerusalem “Martyrs’ Forest,” with seedlings dedicated in the names of Holocaust victims, and “memorial huts” where survivors could contemplate those they were mourning.

Shenhavi succeeded in having the JNF limit itself to a forest, with no huts. He also came to a compromise with a proposed Shoah memorial in Paris, which agreed that the Israeli institution would be the exclusive repository of victims’ names.

By 1950, Shenhavi also came up with the idea that the young state would grant retroactive citizenship to all the Jews murdered in the Holocaust. The Yad Vashem Law of August 19, 1953, does indeed have a clause that offers those “members of the Jewish people who perished in the days of the Disaster and the Resistance the commemorative citizenship of the State of Israel,” but this was never realized in a collective manner.

Yad Vashem opened to the public in 1957, on a section of Jerusalem’s Mt. Herzl that was dubbed the Mount of Remembrance. From early on, it included a museum and a research institute, and over the years added a children’s memorial, a monument to Righteous Gentiles, an art museum and many other departments. In 2005, a completely new museum, designed by Israeli-American architect Moshe Safdie, opened to the public.

Twitter: @davidbeegreen