Top Holocaust Educator Slams Israeli Way of Remembrance

Ahead of Holocaust Memorial Day, director of Ghetto Fighters' House Museum, says high school trips to Poland, March of the Living emphasize wrong messages.

Karni Am-Ad
Karni Am-Ad
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Participants of the March of the Living walk in the former Nazi Death Camp Auschwitz Birkenau, Poland, April 8, 2013.
Participants of the March of the Living walk in the former Nazi Death Camp Auschwitz Birkenau, Poland, April 8, 2013.Credit: Reuters
Karni Am-Ad
Karni Am-Ad

The main closing ceremony on Holocaust Memorial Day will be held, as in the past 66 years, at the Ghetto Fighters’ House Museum on Kibbutz Lohamei Hagetaot. About 10,000 people, including survivors and their descendants from all over the country, residents of the north and members of youth movements, will watch the ceremony on May 5 along with a ceremony to be dedicated this year to the Jewish child in the Holocaust, entitled “Mommy, is it okay to cry now?” The ceremony will also mark the 20th anniversary of the Yad Layeled Children’s Museum.

All the elements of the ceremony – torches and wreaths and flags, speeches by VIPs – will be repeated this year, too. President Reuven Rivlin and Nir Meir, secretary general of the United Kibbutz Movement will be the guest speakers. Torches will be lit by author Uri Orlev and Maj. Gen. (res.) Yossi Peled, among others.

But museum director Dr. Anat Livne, who will also speak, is critical of the ceremony. “In official ceremonies and mass gatherings people connect only on the emotional level,” she says. “I feel that the overly ceremonious nature in recent years has created a feeling that we’re not allowed to think critically about the Holocaust and its lessons.

“To my regret, the ceremonies have become a substitute for the real things we should do in connection with the memory and the narrative of the Holocaust,” she continues. “From the time I started working as the pedagogical coordinator of the museum Center for Humanistic Education, I suggested finding worthy substitutes for the mass gathering. And meanwhile I would be happy if we could reduce the pathos and perhaps eliminate the speeches and the torch parade.”

Calls for change

Recently there have been more calls to change the agenda of Holocaust Memorial Day. Not surprisingly, the social networks are sending out a manifesto calling to use the money for the ceremonies, estimated at several million shekels, for the survivors.

But when the director of one of the three leading Holocaust museums says the same thing, it’s definitely surprising and thought-provoking. In an interview, Livne notes that the gathering has become too massive and triumphal, and that the central ceremony lacks the humanistic messages of Holocaust Memorial Day. These, in addition to the heavy budgetary burden, require a change, she says.

Livne emphasizes that she is expressing her own opinion, which doesn’t represent that of the museum management and most of its employees, but her senior position lends considerable weight to her words. “For 30 years I’ve been working in education, history, and teaching the Holocaust,” she says. “I’m speaking after carefully examining the situation.”

In effect you want to cancel the gathering that has become a central motif of the museum’s activity in past decades. What substitutes are you recommending?

“A memorial event that begins with a modest ceremony centered on study and thinking. For the first time there will be a discussion entitled ‘A different gathering on Holocaust Day.’ We’ll talk in small groups of survivors and their children, as well as friends of the museum from the kibbutz and the surroundings, about texts related to the Holocaust and to shaping memory. The participants will ask themselves the meaning of the responsibility to remember – and the moral implications of the worst disaster in the history of mankind. How does one remember out of social and humanistic responsibility? We will also sing together and hear the testimonies. There will also be similar discussion groups in the evening, called ‘Memory in the Living Room,’ in quite a number of communities.”

But don’t you consider a central ceremony attended by thousands of people, with the flag and the symbol and the torch, of any importance?

“I’m aware that the experience of the ceremony is important to many people, but as an educator I think it’s not the main thing. Memory should be transmitted in different, more significant ways. It’s hard not to get excited at the lighting of the torches and the ceremony, and I’m aware that it remains with the observer for a long time afterward. But what will remain for the coming generations? What will happen after the last of the survivors leaves us? Only the films and the books will remain as shapers of memory and identification. There won’t be any more firsthand testimonies. The memory of the Holocaust is liable to be exploited for emotional manipulation only. That’s why we have to reconfigure the day itself, as early as possible.”

And still you’ve been working for months on the ceremony.

“We’re very involved in the content with producer Roni Aviram, and are trying to do it with dignity. You won’t see major preoccupation with suffering or victimhood but rather with how people dealt with the difficulties in the Holocaust, children too. We were meticulous about the words of the songs and the texts.”

Will you also invite Arab residents of the Western Galilee?

“I invite everyone, including Arabs, but I wouldn’t demand it of them. It’s important to me that our Arab neighbors learn about the Holocaust and its human lessons, to conduct a dialogue with them about the universal and human meaning of the Holocaust and its uniqueness, and to listen to them and the way they encounter the subject.”

Prohibitive cost of ceremony

Livne is disturbed not only by the content but by the high cost of the ceremony – 500,000 shekels ($133,000) that come out of the museum’s tiny budget. “Government bodies provide about a fifth of the budget and the rest comes from donations. It’s hard for us to allocate half a million shekels for one evening, and of course it comes at the expense of developing permanent and changing exhibits, training educators or professional conferences. This sum endangers our future.”

She also strongly criticizes the trips to Poland and the March of the Living every year on the day itself. “Such a trip is important only if it’s part of an entire process of guidance, study, in-depth involvement in the memory of the Holocaust. The moment it becomes a mass project, mechanical, wholesale and without genuine internalization, the trips should be eliminated. The way it’s done today, both in the high schools and in the army, is not to my taste at all.”

Could you explain further?

“The trip to Poland shouldn’t shape Israeli identity, it should teach about the Jews in Poland before the Holocaust, their fate and the influence of the Holocaust today on young Poles. The connection to Israeli identity could be done better here in Israel. I’m in favor of a significant and moving trip in Israel that could be an equally good substitute.”

And the March of the Living, the journey on foot from Auschwitz to Birkenau on Holocaust Memorial Day?

“I’m opposed to this journey, I don’t identify with it, because it’s designed to wave Israeli flags and to make declarations, and less to internalize and to learn. It’s more a superfluous demonstration of strength and less one of identification with the victims and with loss.”

Are you aware that your words could anger your colleagues and traditionalists on this subject?

“I assume so, but I must express my opinion. They’ve already heard me and I still haven’t been fired. Apparently there are other things that make me suitable for the job and the museum, which is my second home.”

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