The Structure of Memory

Esti Ahronovitz
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Esti Ahronovitz

"The eyeglasses have arrived," Haviv Peled-Carmeli, senior artifacts curator at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Heroes' and Martyrs' Remembrance Authority in Jerusalem, tells Avner Shalev, chairman of the institution's directorate, whom she catches touring the new Holocaust History Museum a few days before its official opening this week. "I have to see," Shalev says, and picks his way nimbly between and over the electrical wires and cables of the workers who are scrambling to have the building ready for the inauguration. Lying in a black display box are a pair of round spectacles with thin frames; the left lens is broken, but still in place.

"These are the glasses that Janusz Korczak wore," Shalev says, explaining that the item was acquired on loan from a small museum in Warsaw that is devoted to the life work of the Polish-Jewish physician, author and educator, who in 1942 was deported to Treblinka and perished along with the 200 children of the orphanage he ran.

Yad Vashem has undergone a major transformation in the past decade. The area in which visitors used to park their cars in a disorderly jumble with the buses has become a broad European-style plaza. From here the visitor proceeds to the entrance - a large concrete-and-glass structure that is suffused with light. The new museum is accessed through a passageway that crosses a wooden bridge. This extraordinary prism-like structure, designed by the Israeli-born architect Moshe Safdie, penetrates the mountain on which Yad Vashem is located from one side and thrusts out of it on the other.

A visit to the new museum begins underground and the course is like a journey through time: from the rise of Nazism to the concentration of the Jews in the ghettos and their deportation to the death camps. The historical continuum is presented through the eyes of those who experienced the horror, who wrote, painted and preserved objects; their testimonies are shown on screens. The journey ends on an open balcony that affords a breathtaking landscape. This is the place to pause for a moment, to breathe deeply and feel the cool Jerusalem air wash over you.

The exterior change undergone by Yad Vashem is only a small part of the face-lift that has affected the historic institution, which was established in 1953 by an act of the Knesset. In the past decade it has gone from being a meagerly funded and donation-starved governmental entity into an institution that raises some $10 million a year. The education department, which had five employees, has metamorphosed into the International School for Holocaust Studies, which has a staff of more than 100 and trains teachers around the world. The small unit that engaged in researching the Holocaust has burgeoned into the International Institute for Holocaust Research, while the Yad Vashem Archives - which has the world's largest collection of Holocaust documents - has been moved to a new and fitting structure. Yad Vashem was late in entering the computer age: Only recently the Central Database of Shoah Victims' Names ("Shoah" is the Hebrew word for Holocaust) went online, containing, so far, the names and details of half of the six million Jews murdered by the Nazis and their henchmen. (This and much more in English can be accessed at

This revolution is being led by Avner Shalev, the first Yad Vashem chairman who is not a Holocaust survivor, but has been identified with the institution for many years. He was appointed to the post after serving as head of the culture directorate in the Education Ministry, before which he had an extensive army career, at the height of which Shalev was chief education officer. He is frequently described as a controversial figure - stubborn, tough, an avowed centralist - though even his detractors (and there are many) concede that he is the fomenter of the revolution at Yad Vashem.

`Troubles of the rich'

Work went on until the small hours of the night ahead of the official opening of the new museum. The last items were brought to their designated places and the sound of the drill and the hammer was heard throughout the structure as the lighting infrastructure was installed. Shalev, who is also the chief curator of the museum, followed the work closely. A tour of the new building with him was repeatedly interrupted by members of the staff, who wanted to exchange a word with him or show him an exhibit.

About 1,700 dignitaries were invited to the opening ceremony on Tuesday: Survivors, donors and 41 official foreign delegations, including United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan, presidents, prime ministers, foreign ministers and other ranking officials, announced that they would attend. To coordinate the event, Shalev met several times with Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom and President Moshe Katsav.

"I have troubles of the rich," Shalev says, smiling. "Imagine what a headache I have created for the Prime Minister's Bureau - nine heads of state, and each of them wants to meet with Arik [Ariel Sharon]."

Shalev was not exactly a hero of Israel's cultural community when he arrived at Yad Vashem. In 1982 he was appointed head of the culture directorate of the Education Ministry, where the minister was the late Zevulun Hammer, from the National Religious Party. Shalev was in charge of determining and distributing government allocations to the country's culture and art institutions. More than 300 bodies, including museums and theaters - as well as Yad Vashem - were dependent on what he decided and lobbied him vigorously. Shalev effectively decided what the Israeli public would see and hear in the realm of culture. Naturally, those who got less than they expected were upset, and in the newspapers of the time Shalev was described as a "commissar," a "dictator" and even as "the Ceausescu of Israeli culture." His opponents accused him of causing culture in the country to atrophy, though Shalev himself viewed his activity as a long overdue cultural revolution.

It was with this record that he arrived at Yad Vashem in 1993, when Shulamit Aloni (Meretz), who replaced Hammer as education minister in the government of Yitzhak Rabin, chose to dispense with Shalev's services. "When I told Shula Aloni that I wanted to direct Yad Vashem, she told me, `Be careful, the survivors will be the death of you,'" Shalev recalled this week in his office. "But not only have they not been the death of me, I think they are fond of me. I am not one of them - I am not a survivor - and that is really the gist of the story. I realized that this was the 11th hour in terms of the survivors still being with us and that we had to take advantage of that fact. I understood that we had to ready ourselves for the reality of a generation that takes an interest in the Holocaust, but that lives in a world without survivors. All the work here is geared to that moment, to the day on which we will have to speak to my grandchildren, a generation that will not meet even one person who lived through the war and can be asked what he felt when the war ended."

This is a large-scale undertaking on a national scale. Were there times when you were apprehensive, when you asked yourself, "Am I doing the right thing?"

Shalev: "There is not a moment when I did not feel that."

When he took over, the staff at Yad Vashem very soon understood who the boss was. Shalev brought in a few of his own people, such as Ishai Amrani, an old army buddy, who became director general of the institution.

"Shalev has an army background," notes a former senior official at Yad Vashem, "and a military background is necessarily centralistic. True, he delegates authority, but the final decision is that of the commander - of Shalev himself."

"That's as it should be," Shalev comments, "because otherwise the institution will become drowsy. Regrettably, in many areas the institution was in fact drowsy. I have great respect for what was done here in the past, but the tremendous potential of the institution was not fulfilled. To go forward you have to make decisions."

The veterans who didn't agree with the new management approach were forced out. Among those who were dismissed were the head of the education department and the director of the museum.

Shalev: "When I got here, the difficulty was to harness people and persuade them that change was needed - and every change has its opponents - even before the substance of the change was known. That was the case both among the survivors and among the staff. There were staff members here who flowed like the Volga - slowly, quietly. The place was run like an antiquated government ministry. There was vitriol that emanated from people who did not like what I did and who were forced to leave."

The Americans get angry

Shalev sought to preserve the status of Yad Vashem, both in Israel and internationally. An example of his tactics is the struggle he waged against the plan to establish a museum of tolerance in Jerusalem. The initiative came from the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, for whom that city's Museum of Tolerance acts as an educational arm. At the beginning of the 1990s the Wiesenthal Center proposed the establishment of a $200-million museum of the same kind in Jerusalem, to be designed by the noted architect Frank Gehry. Shalev, who did not want competition for the expansion plan of the Yad Vashem Museum, used all his prestige as chairman to block the scheme.

In 1998, after the Jerusalem Municipality had allocated land for the project in the city center, Shalev met with Ariel Sharon, then minister of national infrastructure, and got him to veto the arrangement, arguing that it was wrong to give land to an institution that would not be under public supervision. The Wiesenthal Center did not let up, though, and after much friction agreed to sign a document stating that the museum they would build would not deal with the Holocaust or with anti-Semitism. Only then did Shalev relent and the land was made available.

"The subject could have been approached from all kinds of angles," says a senior figure in the Wiesenthal Center. "Shalev opted to fight. Our feeling is that he wants to have the last word in everything related to the Holocaust, and that is really the heart of the matter. He thinks that he alone owns the truth, and that is a pity."

Shalev identifies with, and is identified with, the institution he heads and with the subject he is responsible for. He issues a public response to every media event that has to do with the Holocaust. When the Jewish settlers in the territories used an orange Star of David - evoking the yellow patch Jews were forced to wear by the Nazis - in their struggle against the disengagement plan, Shalev termed their action irresponsible. When the right-wing activist Nadia Matar declared last year that Yonatan Bassi, the head of the disengagement directorate, is the modern version of the Judenrat - the councils created in Jewish communities of Nazi-occupied Europe under Nazi orders - Shalev stated that it was wrong to use the remembrance of the Holocaust to promote political positions. When a show on cable television hosted an actor who played Hitler in a medley of children's songs, Shalev fired off a sharply worded letter of protest to the station's manager.

Shalev, 66, was born in the Yishuv (the pre-state Jewish community in Palestine). His parents, Dov and Sarah, were married in Poland and immigrated to Palestine before the war. His mother never stopped mourning for her sister, who perished in the Holocaust. The Holocaust was never mentioned in the house, but food was never thrown out. Shalev attended the Tichon Hadash high school in Tel Aviv, where he developed his love for art and museums in the lessons given by the school's legendary principal, Toni Hale.

For many years, though, that remained no more than a hobby. He started his army career as an education officer, and the turning point in his life was a meeting with the chief of staff, David Elazar, in 1972. Elazar appointed Shalev, then 32 and serving in the information unit of the chief education officer, to be his bureau chief.

Shalev went through the 1973 Yom Kippur War with Elazar, and then through the bitter experience of the Agranat Commission of inquiry, which found the chief of staff responsible for the failure in the war's opening stages. Since Elazar's sudden death 29 years ago, Shalev has viewed himself as his defender.

"My service alongside Dado [Elazar's nickname] projects on my being here, at Yad Vashem," he says. "I know how to look at the work of historians, because I was in the war and I saw history beginning to document it."

Using a mini-tape recorder, Shalev recorded radio communications in the High Command war room in Tel Aviv during the war and made them available to the writer Hanoch Bartov, who used them to update his biography of Elazar in 2002.

Five years after the war, Shalev was promoted to brigadier general and appointed chief education officer. He was only 38. All told, his army career spanned 25 years. When he arrived at Yad Vashem, some of the staff remarked sarcastically that he would soon start giving them marching drills. Now, with the opening of the museum, the criticism is focusing on its size and bombastic character.

"I don't even want to think about the expenses Yad Vashem has today on gardening, waste removal and thousands of square meters to maintain and clean," says a person who is involved in this profession. "On the other hand," he adds, "Yad Vashem will not be built again. And in another 30 years, what is now considered bombastic and arrogant will already be outdated."

Many critics say that Shalev's real purpose is to restore to Yad Vashem the leading position it had and then supposedly lost to the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. Shalev rejects this outright. "When I came to Yad Vashem I was told that the museum in Washington was taking shape. I went there to see what they were doing. I was very impressed by the large building, the modern entrance. They have always presented themselves as Yad Vashem's aunt. In an interview there, I said that we, Yad Vashem, are the mother and they are the little girl. That riled them. But I still say that there is no comparison between Yad Vashem and the Holocaust Museum in Washington. We are giants, they are dwarfs. So their museum has a large building, but our museum is only one layer of the Hill of Memory. We have a vast archive, tens of thousands of testimonies, we are a tremendous research junction. Yad Vashem's research capability is many times greater than theirs. There is no comparison."

Is there competition between the two institutions for exhibits?

"Each institution collects its own exhibits. We have collected thousands of them. They came to Israel in the 1980s with a great deal of money and got people to part with objects. There was the occasional tussle. All in all, I see the competition as something positive. In the Washington museum you see the Americanization, they are inclined toward exaggeration, but that is not our taste. Still, each looks at the other and wants to progress. When I took over here, I remember Yitzhak Arad [Shalev's predecessor as chairman] telling me that he was alone in the world, that in his time no one competed with Yad Vashem - a privilege I would no longer have."

Why did you make yourself chief curator of the new museum? Do you have the know-how?

"What did you study to become a journalist? In my military service I was responsible for Army Radio; people with no training worked there and it was the fount of Israeli journalism. Curating is exactly the same. I am a museum freak; I have learned and know more about museums than others do. I also studied history. Today I have experts in every field and I am actually like the editor-in-chief of a newspaper - I am responsible for the correct dosage. Like an editor who knows he has a good article and has to know where to sharpen it and where to add material."

Aren't you concerned that people will be so impressed by the structure that they will miss the message?

"Visitors here do not come only for the museum. The complex we have built on the mount consists of various layers. A high-school student goes first of all to a classroom and also, as long as it is possible, to meet witnesses who will tell their story. After we open the student's eyes, he will go to the museum. As for the museum itself, I think it conveys an experience of engaging the subject that transforms the visitor from a passive to an active state. You start to work, to use your imagination, to fill in the information, and it grabs you."


In 1988 the press reported that Yad Vashem was liable to be closed down due to a budget shortfall. To this day, survivors who meet Shalev continue to ask about the institution's financial situation. In 1993, Shalev found a situation of "heartrending degenerative poverty" at Yad Vashem. The irony is that he himself, as head of the culture directorate, was in charge of funding the institution. In 1992 the government allocated NIS 7 million to Yad Vashem (NIS 14 million in today's terms); this year it will receive NIS 34 million from the government. But the real revolution was in external fundraising. In the 1980s the Friends of Yad Vashem raised $200,000 in a good year. Of late the institution has been raising more than $10 million a year.Redesigning it cost some $100 million ($16 million from the government budget, $25 million from the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, the rest from donations). This, it is said, is Shalev's true contribution to Yad Vashem.

"For years," he explains, "Yad Vashem received from the government much sympathy, but precious little money. To change that situation a revolution had to be fomented in the attitude of the government. When I left the army I learned that in Israel everything is political. For a cause to get what it deserves, its proponents have to make themselves heard. To exert influence. The survivors, who are a tremendous force, were unable to realize their potential, because they didn't ask the state for anything. I arrived from within the system and was familiar with the rules of the game: Without exerting pressure there will be no funding. I told Beiga [Avraham Shochat], the finance minister at the time and a friend of mine, that if the government didn't give money I would do battle, and if a crisis erupted, I would leave. I had no intention of leaving - I intended to win."

How do you raise money for Yad Vashem from donors abroad?

"I am a shy person. I am not cut out for schnoring [asking for money] and I never asked for money in my life. But I understood that if we didn't ask for money, we would not be able to exist, so I went to raise funds. The bottom line was that this was my responsibility. I was behind a project that was extremely costly and which we could not get involved in without money. For that project I had to obtain more than $10 million a year. Imagine what would have happened if I had been stuck without money. I am not a gambler, but I admit I took a risk.

"We raised the money from both Jews and non-Jews. In every place we created a core of trustees, friends, and through them we built an infrastructure of donors from France, England, Venezuela, Australia and of course the United States."

How did it work in practice?

"I come to Mr. X. who is a wealthy individual, meet with him, invite him to tour Yad Vashem, and at the end I tell him that there is another project that has to be done and we need money. He asks how much and I talk about amounts in excess of a million dollars."

So you hooked up with the `schnor' culture?

"No. Absolutely not. True, I made a lot of friends, and I am continuing to do it, but I still find it very difficult."

It was recently reported that the archive of Hannah Szenes - one of the parachutists sent in 1944 by the leadership of the Jewish community in Palestine on a rescue mission to Nazi-occupied Europe - was falling apart in the hands of the family and that no state authority in Israel was willing to take it over. If Yad Vashem has so much money, why didn't you step in?

"They want us to take the entire generations-old family archive. Even though we only collect material from the period after 1933, we agreed to take the collection and catalog and preserve it. However, the family has all kinds of demands to which, in my view, no archive will agree. They want us to hire someone for two or three years who will translate every piece of paper from Hungarian into Hebrew, and we cannot cope with that. We, too, have an order of priorities. We would very much like to have the archive. We have renewed the negotiations with them and I hope we will arrive at an arrangement."

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