Nestled among the trees of the Jerusalem Forest, the Yad Vashem Mount of Remembrance campus, founded in the early 1950s, has become the site most associated with Holocaust commemoration in Israel and the world. Since its establishment as the Jewish peoples center for Holocaust remembrance, it has expanded to include much more than memorials and the monumental state-of-the-art museum complex that draw approximately a million visitors annually. It is the repository for the names of millions of Shoah victims, as well as those non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the World War II, the central archive of information about the Holocaust, and vast numbers of artifacts, artworks, testimonies, photos, films, and documents. Above all, Yad Vashem is focused on the continued global impact of its International Institute for Holocaust Research and International School for Holocaust Studies.
Harnessing modern technology
Focusing on the future, Yad Vashems Chairman, Avner Shalev, views education as the main vehicle for infusing remembrance with meaning and inspiration. Speaking about the challenges facing his institution, Shalev stresses that Holocaust remembrance must not become mere ritual. The major challenge today is to ensure that young people will be able to deal with the Holocaust; that it will be significant for them, that they connect to it, that it helps build their identity as human beings and as Jews, he says. To do that, we need to speak in their language. This means harnessing modern technology.
And Yad Vashem is doing just that. Its latest venture is e-Learning, starting with an online university level course on the History of the Holocaust. Developed as a cooperative effort with Tel Aviv University, this MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) – the first of its kind – will be launched on the Coursera and FutureLearn platforms, Shalev announces. And over 20,000 students have already signed up – more than a month before the course is slated to open.
Online learning, which builds awareness and arouses curiosity, is not something new for Yad Vashem. Our website already offers many on-line courses, primarily based on documents and short video lectures. E-Learning is much more sophisticated, incorporating the systematic use of images and the most outstanding professors, Chairman Shalev explains. This is not a one-time course, he goes on to emphasize, but a new channel for us. We are now building a course on how to teach the Holocaust and interest has been expressed in other courses as well, he notes.
Accessibility is the name of the game
Contrary to what would seem intuitive, interest in the Holocaust is growing despite the passage of time and the numerous atrocities taking place across the globe and vying for public attention. Yad Vashems website provides evidence of this tremendous surge in public interest. In 2014 alone, there were 14 million visitors to the site, Chairman Shalev reports. This figure is astounding – and growing steadily. Website visitors come from 200 different countries. We are curating content especially for mobile devices, as well as seeking new ways to make visual materials, such as testimonies, documents and other collections even more accessible, he adds.
Yad Vashem has enlisted top high-tech companies such as Google and HP to look for the most efficient way to make these repositories accessible online. The name of the game is accessibility, says Shalev. Yad Vashem is active on social media: it has tens of thousands of followers on platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram and Pinterest, which offer instantaneous opportunities to communicate ideas, share content and connect to a broad and diverse public.
Yad Vashem has been putting technology to use for some time now, Shalev points out. We have digitized millions of Holocaust-related documents, photos and testimonies from our archives, as well as over 4.5 million individual names of Holocaust victims. They are increasingly becoming accessible on our website, which is available in seven languages, including Arabic and Farsi. This digitization process continues.
A new heritage building
In yet another venture, its major project for the next four to five years, Yad Vashem aims to put advanced technology to use to preserve its vast treasury of Holocaust era art and artifacts. A new custom-designed building will house these collections, the largest in the world – collections that continue to grow as survivors and their children contribute their cherished mementos to Yad Vashem.
We have reached a critical moment, explains Chairman Avner Shalev. The purpose is to tell the story of this heritage through visual materials, artwork and documents, artifacts and personal effects, even gloves, watches, toys. This may be viewed as part of the trend of personalizing the experience of learning about the Holocaust, where items such as a childs teddy bear or drawing can say so much to a museum visitor. The most sophisticated, up-to-date conservation and climate control methods will be used to store these effects and preserve them for generations to come, he stresses, adding that the material will also be catalogued so that it can be easily accessed and viewed, and serve Yad Vashems educational enterprise as well.
Creating memory with meaning
Technology, of course, is only a means to further Holocaust education and create memory with meaning for future generations. During Shalevs tenure, Yad Vashem opened its International School for Holocaust Studies, where some 300,000 students from around the world attend intensive study days and seminars every year. We have 40 classrooms that are filled every day with Israeli high school students, along with 80,000 army officers and soldiers, 40,000 Birthright participants and others who attend our seminars each year, Shalev explains.
Shalev singles out one of Yad Vashems most important challenges: developing special programs for training educators to teach the Holocaust. Aside from Israeli teachers, Yad Vashem hosts seminars for over 70 groups of teachers from around the world annually. They study in homogeneous groups. Teachers from the Netherlands face problems quite different from those encountered by educators in Lithuania or Romania, where students confront them with difficult questions. Yad Vashems professionals work together with these senior educators to develop a curriculum and adapt it to the problems and processes they are dealing with in their countries today.
Recent years have seen increased participation by highly educated faculty from universities in China and other countries in East Asia such as Korea. They have shown tremendous interest and created fascinating encounters, Shalev recounts. We also have special groups that come to us for week-long seminars, such as priests from Poland and France, and journalists from Spain and Germany. They look at the problems facing us today – refugees, xenophobia, the new anti-Semitism – and want to find out how the world dealt with such crises then. Gleaning from Yad Vashems tremendous storehouse of information, they learn about the sequence of events leading up to the Holocaust, what happened during that period, and what ordinary people, the victims, the bystanders and the Righteous Among the Nations did. This is a fascinating process, he asserts.
The Shoah is not a closed chapter in human history, Shalev concludes. As Yad Vashem focuses on the future, We must ensure that the Holocaust is never viewed as merely another historical event. The increased interest worldwide in this darkest of chapters in human history is bolstering Yad Vashems resolve to strengthen Jewish continuity, to fight racism and anti-Semitism and to create memory with meaning for future generations – thus leading the effort to educate humanity towards a more responsible and tolerant existence.
The New Art, Artifacts and Archival Collections Repository
During the Shoah, an entire universe was shattered and dispersed in myriad directions. The remaining scattered fragments vary infinitely in size, shape and texture – from personal effects to those that served entire communities; from paintings and drawings created in the face of death to childrens toys; from Torah scrolls that miraculously escaped destruction to the crude work tools used by camp prisoners; from Schindlers List to ration cards; from personal photographs to official documents. Each fragment tells its own story, which when interwoven with others helps recreate the rich and extensive tapestry of Jewish life in Europe and North Africa before the war, the events that led to its destruction, and the lives that continued despite the unfolding devastation.
As the Jewish peoples national commemoration authority and the world center for Holocaust research, education, documentation and remembrance, Yad Vashem is the natural home for these items. Indeed, Yad Vashem houses the largest collections of Holocaust art and artifacts in the world, as survivors and their children continue to entrust it with their treasured objects for eternal safekeeping.
In light of the growth of its collections as well as changes in preservation standards, Yad Vashem is planning to construct a new state-of-the-art repository, a Heritage Building that will allow for proper storage of these effects, as well as conservation laboratories. Through their proper preservation in the Heritage Building and appropriate display by Yad Vashem, these irreplaceable collections will continue to give the victims back their voice and their identity.