Yad Vashem Was the First, and Now It's the Latest

When Yad Vashem first opened in 1957, very few museums in the world even mentioned the Holocaust. Today, as the new Yad Vashem museum opens, there are at least 250 Holocaust museums and memorials worldwide.

Amiram Barkat
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Amiram Barkat

When Yad Vashem first opened in 1957, very few museums in the world even mentioned the Holocaust. Today, as the new Yad Vashem museum opens, there are at least 250 Holocaust museums and memorials worldwide - in Israel, the United States and Europe, but also in such far-flung places as Australia, Argentina, South Africa and Japan. Almost all are less than 10 years old.

But among Israelis and Jews who deal with memorializing the Holocaust, this development has evoked mixed feelings. On one hand, these institutions play an important role in combating ignorance of the Holocaust among non-Jews. But at the same time, there are fears about the messages that will be sent by these institutions' exhibits.

Noah Flug, chairman of the Center of Organizations of Holocaust Survivors in Israel, says that interest in the Holocaust is growing from year to year.

"The events marking the 60th anniversary of [Auschwitz's] liberation attracted much more interest worldwide than did previous events marking the 50th and 40th anniversaries," he notes. Today, he says, Auschwitz serves as a symbol not only of the murder of the Jews, but of racism and hatred of the other in general.

But Professor Israel Gutman, formerly the chief historian of Yad Vashem and an Auschwitz survivor, sees a troubling aspect to this development. As Auschwitz has become a universal symbol, he says, the fact that almost all of the 1 million people murdered there were killed because they were Jews has been virtually forgotten.

Israel Singer, president of the World Jewish Congress, warns that if non-Jews take over the job of teaching the Holocaust, this will lead to a distortion of history and a loss of the Holocaust's status as a Jewish event. Non-Jews, he argues, are less likely to protest comparisons between the Holocaust and, for instance, the slaughters in Rwanda or Kosovo.

"Therefore, in my opinion, Yad Vashem must remain the most central and most authoritative body, from which the `Bible of the Holocaust' will go forth to the rest of the world," he says. "Otherwise, you'll see that in the end, the Jews will become the guilty parties."

Over the last few years, Holocaust museums and memorials have opened in Paris, Budapest, Warsaw, Ukraine, London and on the site of the Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria. In Moscow, a large Holocaust museum is currently being planned, with the support of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

In addition, there has recently been a spate of new Holocaust museums in the U.S. The movement began with the opening of the federal Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., which quickly became one of the capital's most popular tourist sites, attracting some two million visitors a year.

That museum has the largest budget of any Holocaust memorial in the world, four times the size of Yad Vashem's budget. But the Washington Museum has since been joined by large Holocaust museums in major cities such as Los Angeles, New York and Detroit, as well as by smaller ones in unlikely places such as El Paso, Texas or Terre Haute, Indiana.

According to Professor Dan Michman, Yad Vashem's chief historian, the motives for the opening of Holocaust museums are different in America than in Europe. In eastern Europe, he says, such museums are an expression of national feeling in the post-Soviet era. In central and western Europe, they stem from a coming to terms with these countries' own role in the Holocaust. But in the U.S., such museums are usually founded by local Jews who want to educate their non-Jewish neighbors about the Holocaust.

In 1997, for instance, three Jewish residents of Richmond, Virginia, decided to found a Holocaust museum in their city. At first it consisted of five rooms in a local synagogue, whose chief exhibit was a German cattle car of the kind used to take Jews to the death camps. In its first year of operation, the museum attracted some 10,000 visitors from all over the U.S., some of whom donated money or objects related to the Holocaust.

The, two years ago, the Virginia legislature made it the state's official Holocaust Museum and donated an entire building for its use. For symbolism's sake, the new building will be inaugurated on Israel's official Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Day.



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