When Yad Vashem in Jerusalem opened its new wing, known as The Holocaust History Museum, in 2005, it was much ballyhooed as a state of the art, multi-million dollar Holocaust museum to top all others. While praise for the new museum wing has poured forth from dignitaries and laymen, the unified opposition of so-called ultra-orthodox, or Haredi Jewry, has stuck out like a sore thumb. Why have Haredim been so upset?
While Jewish religious life before World War II is illustrated at the museum, the testimony of haredi survivors is largely missing.
According to some experts, between 50% - 70% of those murdered by the Nazis, were "traditionally religious Jews." There is no reason to assume the percentage of survivors who were religious was any less. But in the rooms of Yad Vashem only one of the 50-60 video monitors playing taped testimonies of Holocaust survivors shows a Haredi Jew. By choosing to record and display taped testimonies of mostly secular Jews, Yad Vashem is giving a distorted picture of the religious affiliations of the survivors. This gives the false impression that few ultra-orthodox Jews survived the Shoah.
The spiritual heroism of the Holocaust is almost completely overlooked. The abundant examples of incredible courage to study Torah and perform mitzvot despite unspeakable suffering and incredible hardships are relegated to footnote status and all but eliminated from the museum. The clandestine yeshivot and Torah study groups in the ghettos, the lighting of candles on Channuka, the blowing of the shofar on Rosh Hashana and the daily donning of tefillin in the concentration camps - all under the penalty of death - are not mentioned at all.
The massive rescue work of Haredi Jewry has effectively been purged from the historical record of the Holocaust as presented by Yad Vashem. Rabbi Michoel Ber Weissmandl, for example, and the heroic efforts of his Working Group, are impugned and dishonored. Instead of crediting them with successfully delaying the transports from Czechoslovakia by bribing and outsmarting the Nazis, the paragraph written about them makes it sound as if they were the ones who had been duped.
Yad Vashem's responses to queries on this subject have been disappointing. At one meeting, the Yad Vashem representative requested that the discussion be kept “off the record.” The institution's written responses to published critiques have attempted to obfuscate the issue. The spokesperson cited, for example, the online services available to the Haredi community. They also pointed to the special Orthodox division of their tour guide training school and they emphasized how many Orthodox students make use of Yad Vashem archives for research purposes.
Yad Vashem’s underlying motives for all of this are open to speculation. Some Herdim believe that Yad Vashem feels that dealing more favorably with ultra-Orthodox Jews is antithetical to their secular, Zionist agenda. Others see this as a reflection of the anti-Haredi bias of some segments of secular Israeli society. And still others suspect that Yad Vashem simply suffers from the, “We know best,” mentality, so prevalent today in Jewish establishment circles.
However, there have been a few improvements made to the new Museum wing. For example, the immodest pictures of victims which were originally on display when the museum opened have since been removed. In addition, while the new building opened with no videotaped testimonies from any Haredi survivors, now there is one.
Unfortunately, these changes fall far short of what is needed. As the premier Holocaust museum under Jewish auspices, Yad Vashem dishonors the memory of the six million by continuing to present a distorted and incomplete record of the Shoah. No, not all those who perished in or survived the Shoah were Haredim. But many more Haredim did survive than the 2% represented by the one videotaped testimony currently on display.
In spite of the extremely rare but highly publicized Haredi use of Holocaust imagery against the State, the overwhelming majority of Haredim today take Shoah remembrance seriously. Yad Vashem, however, is seen by many as irrelevant. As a result, Haredim have authored their own Holocaust history books, developed their own curricula to teach it to their children and are building their own museums to memorialize the martyrs.
If many ultra-Orthodox Jews see Yad Vashem as irrelevant, why are some so outspoken in their criticism of the new Holocaust History Museum? Millions of visitors, both Jew and non-Jew, stream through Yad Vashem each year. The vast majority of them would never visit a Holocaust museum under Haredi auspices. Yad Vashem needs, therefore, to make further corrections to the new building for those visitors. And world Jewry must insist on it.
Yom HaShoah observances are designed to memorialize the martyrs. Nothing would honor their memory more, however, than being remembered as they would have wanted. We cannot save a single life that was lost in the Holocaust. We can, however, protest the distortions at Yad Vashem that dishonor the memory of religious victims because they can no longer do that for themselves.
Dr. Meir Wikler is a Brooklyn based psychotherapist, author and lecturer.
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