Shoah Souvenirs: Should the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial Have a Gift Store?

The museum sells Holocaust books but also bottle openers and tourist T-shirts with military logos and pictures of ibexes drinking iced tea. Is there a problem with that?

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The Yad Vashem gift shop, situated next to the main building at the Holocaust memorial and museum in Jerusalem.
The Yad Vashem gift shop, situated next to the main building at the Holocaust memorial and museum in Jerusalem.

When Amit Hadar, an industrial design student in his fourth and final year at Jerusalem’s Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design, was asked in class to create a product that would respond to something troubling in Israeli society, his mind turned to a recent visit to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial and museum.

It wasn’t the museum’s large permanent exhibition that bothered Hadar. His visit to the shop outside, operated by the Steimatzky bookstore chain, shocked him, however.

The shop “had a few items related to the Holocaust, but then a large number of other things,” Hadar said. “Coffee cups and maps of Israel — those I could accept. But then there were the T-shirts: one advertising Maccabee beer, another with the logo of the Israel Defense Forces and the words ‘Guns ’n Moses.’ Then things like camel dolls — it was like the Shuk,” the open-air market in Jerusalem’s Old City.

Hadar, 30, decided to use his school assignment as an outlet for the discomfort he felt in the shop. He recalled a popular photograph of three Israeli F-15 fighter jets during a 2003 flyby over Auschwitz — a show of Israeli might he had also considered a tasteless blend of militarism and Holocaust memory. So Hadar designed a napkin holder showing a cutout of an F-15 fighter jet flying over the notorious silhouette of the extermination camp’s gate, the one known for saying “Arbeit Macht Frei” (“Work makes you free”).

The F-15 over Auschwitz napkin holder designed by Amit Hadar, which he surreptitiously placed in the Yad Vashem gift store.Credit: Amit Hadar

He made several copies of the napkin holder and, together with a friend, “smuggled” them into the gift shop at Yad Vashem. He left them on a shelf, next to a variety of coffee mugs. In an especially subversive twist, he copied the bar code from another item and affixed it to his Auschwitz keepsake. That made it possible for his friend to take the napkin holder to the check-out counter and pay for it. The cashier, she reported, didn’t seem to notice anything awry.

When I visited the Steimatzky shop at Yad Vashem a few weeks later, I could find no sign of the F-15 napkin holder — which could mean it had long since been discovered as an infiltrator and removed from display, or perhaps that the other units that Hadar had planted had actually been purchased. Hadar himself had moved on in the interim and didn’t seem too interested in knowing the fate of the other samples.

Hadar hadn’t been kidding when he told me the gift shop was well stocked. Here are some of the things I saw during my survey last month: Books — both the full line of Yad Vashem publications about the Holocaust and titles from other publishers about the Shoah and other Jewish-related topics; a display case of More brand Dead Sea products (Black Peel-Off Beauty Mask, Aloe Vera & Chamomile Cream, and the like); little Hasidic-Jew dolls, with bobbing heads, marked “Jerusalem”; coasters emblazoned with an image of Menachem Begin and the words “Love Is Possible”; Jerusalem bottle openers; dozens of different Hanukkah menorahs and other Judaica, the more pricey models stored in a locked case; Sea of Galilee potholders; Israel shot glasses; cookbooks with names like “The Gefilte Manifesto” and “Fress”; and a plethora of T-shirts, including the one featuring the logo of Maccabee beer that had set off Amit Hadar, but also others — one from the Mossad, another with an image of an ibex relaxing at the Dead Sea with an iced tea in hoof and a pint-sized shirt with the words “Someone who [heart] me went to Jerusalem and bought this shirt.”

This list is very partial.

Is this something to be upset about? Is there something unethical, disrespectful or just plain tasteless about a gift shop at the national Holocaust memorial carrying so many items that are unrelated to the somber mission of Yad Vashem? I began thinking about the delicate question of how a nonprofit Holocaust memorial institution decides where to draw the line between good taste and the need to generate extra revenue.

Unfortunately, neither Yad Vashem nor Steimatzky was interested in engaging in such a conversation with me. I couldn’t get beyond the spokesperson at either place, or beyond the most general of responses to my questions.

Items for sale at the Yad Vashem gift shop in Jerusalem.

In the case of Yad Vashem, I received only a written statement explaining that the institution, which had more than one million visitors in 2018, had decided that “visitors’ services — such as the cafeteria, bookshop and souvenir shop and transportation services — would be operated and managed by an external vendor, since Yad Vashem “does not have the expertise to operate them in-house.” In the case of the gift shop, Steimatzky had won the most recent tender for a three-year contract to operate it.

The statement further explained that, in all its contracts with vendors, “Yad Vashem has the full right to veto products that are not suitable for the nature of the place.” Which I guess was an indirect way of saying the Yad Vashem directorate does not object to the sale of Rubik’s Cubes or “Follow Me to the Paratroops” shirts on their premises. Fair enough.

At Steimatzky, no one was even prepared to go on the record. I was told, however, that the bookstore chain views Yad Vashem as more than a Holocaust memorial — it’s also “a place of hope, and of the beginning of Israel,” and that the company and management of Yad Vashem work together “to find the right tone” for the items on sale, confirming that the latter could nix any product it deemed unfitting.

Steimatzky added that the T-shirts sold at Yad Vashem were actually selected and provided by a local studio.

An ersatz postcard for the Steimatzky gift shop at Yad Vashem, with some of the items for sale.Credit: Amit Hadar

‘Standard of dignity’

Still hankering for a more substantial discussion, I turned to a few individuals whose work, I knew, touched on these issues.

Michael Berenbaum is a Holocaust scholar and professor at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles. Among his many past roles, he was the project director at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum during its establishment (1988-1993) and later directed its research institute (1993-1997).

During the planning for the U.S. Holocaust museum, he said in a phone conversation from California, the initial hope was to create “a great Holocaust bookstore, where you could get all of the books in print on the subject.” That was before the age of online stores, where customers have become accustomed to deep discounts on books. But even then, he says, it quickly became apparent “that we couldn’t make an economic go of it without some element of merchandising.”

Nonetheless, it was important, he says, “to maintain a standard of dignity befitting the place. It’s the same reason that you don’t want to have someone sitting outside Auschwitz with a ‘My parents went to Auschwitz and all I got was this lousy T-shirt’ stand.

“Every bookstore has to wrestle with the question: What is appropriate to elevate the place, to maintain the standards,” Berenbaum said. And that’s a judgment that becomes a little more complicated if you’re working with a contractor,” such as Steimatzky, which is entitled to make a return on its investment.

Berenbaum didn’t offer a judgment on the Yad Vashem shop, but did note that when he visits the museum, he uses the opportunity to pick up copies of Yad Vashem Publications’ newest books. He calls the press the institution’s “hidden treasure.”

In general, he said, he believes that each institution should “figure out what is an authentic thing for it to sell. What it is that gives the bookstore a certain poignancy and a certain power.”

As an example of merchandise appropriate for a Holocaust museum store, he mentioned a mezuzah that he found at the Polin Museum of the History of Polish Jews, which opened in Warsaw in 2013. It’s an item so special that “each time I go, I buy it for somebody,” he said.

Mezuzahs created by the Jewish design firm Mi Polin.Credit: Mi Polin / Aleksander Prugar

That product is a line of mezuzahs created by the Jewish design firm Mi Polin. The Warsaw company offers 100 different mezuzahs (parchments inscribed with Hebrew verses that Jews put on their home’s doorposts), which are copies, cast in bronze, of the impression left behind from an original that used to hang in the homes of Polish Jews murdered in the Holocaust.

When the mezuzahs were removed from those homes, the Mi Polin website says, what remained was “nothing but traces of emptiness and loneliness.”

Berenbaum says his reaction to the product was: “My God, that’s exactly what I want to buy at this bookstore. Because it’s what we call zekher ledavar [a reminder of something absent]. It’s emptiness where presence had been.”

It’s an expensive reminder, however. Each of Mi Polin’s mezuzahs goes for more than $200 on the company’s website.

Inside the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum and memorial in Jerusalem.Credit: AP

Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett thinks what is sold at Holocaust museum stores is “an opportunity to create a relationship with the visitor.” A professor of performance and Jewish studies at New York University who has served as a consultant for more than a dozen Jewish museums, including the Polin museum, Kirshenblatt-Gimblett says that “one of a museum’s greatest assets is its ability to touch visitors emotionally and literally.”

She says objects “have the potential to move visitors, both emotionally and physically. That’s what’s at work in creating objects that visitors can take home with them. It’s an opportunity to create a relationship with the visitor, but it requires more imagination than just stamping some standard thing on objects like key chains, tote bags or magnets.”

She mentions a perpetual calendar she has from the Plantin-Moretus museum of the history of printing design in Antwerp. “They made it using old lead type and fonts. It’s a quintessential expression of that museum, and I live with it every single day.”

Museum stores offer the opportunity “to create one object that is such a quintessential expression of the institution itself that it functions in a special way,” she says, calling the mezuzah designed by Helena Czernek of Mi Polin “absolutely brilliant.”

But Kirshenblatt-Gimblett also has no problem with simple objects — coffee mugs, note paper, posters — that carry a museum’s logo, as long as they are tasteful.

“We wouldn’t put a photograph of the Stroop Report on a mug,” she suggested, facetiously, referring to the report on the destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto prepared for SS head Heinrich Himmler by German police general Jürgen Stroop in 1943.

Anthropologist Jackie Feldman also has no problem with a Holocaust museum stamping its brand on merchandise. A professor at Ben-Gurion University, Feldman studies pilgrimage and tourism, and wrote his doctorate on the trips Israeli youth take to Poland, but more recently has done comparative studies of museums. Although he is critical of much about Yad Vashem (mainly regarding what he sees as its tendency to try to control the narrative surrounding it), he believes it deserves credit for the sensitive placement of its shop.

Unlike so many other museums, where the visitor is forced to pass through the gift shop before departing, Yad Vashem’s store is in a separate structure from the exhibition spaces, and Feldman says he has spoken with people who have visited the site without even seeing the shop.

Feldman’s colleague at Ben-Gurion University, Noam Tirosh, a lecturer in the communications department, has also done comparative studies of Holocaust museums (looking, in his case, at their respective treatment of the question of German resistance to the Nazis). He said he sees something positive in the presence of a souvenir shop at a site that otherwise comports itself as a holy site. “Questioning the sacredness of the Shoah,” he observed, “has the possibility of liberating us from some of the troubling aspects of Holocaust remembrance.

The F-15 over Auschwitz napkin holders designed by Amit Hadar.Credit: Amit Hadar

“Clearly, you don’t expect to be able to buy bottle openers for Maccabee beer at a place like Yad Vashem,” Tirosh added. “There is something offensive about that. But there’s a certain danger in Yad Vashem being a holy place. And the fact the store has become something of a secular element within a site that is considered holy can serve to liberate the place.”

Amit Hadar is also realistic in his expectations of Yad Vashem. His maternal grandmother survived the Holocaust by fleeing Poland for the U.S.S.R. There, she joined the Red Army and met Hadar’s grandfather. The visit to Yad Vashem that led to the design of the napkin holder was part of his preparation for a family trip to Poland this spring.

He has no objections to the idea of a gift shop at Yad Vashem, just as he isn’t opposed to a café on the premises. “I think it’s fine to eat a good croissant,” after you emerge from the tunnel at the end of the museum, he said. “It may be the best revenge.”