Yad Vashem's New Goals: Digitizing Memories of the Holocaust

Avner Shalev, relentless chair of Jerusalem's Holocaust authority, to speak of 'noncontroversial' role of educators in keynote speech at UN ceremony marking Int'l Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Yitzhak Harrari

Even after 22 years as chairman of the directorate of Jerusalem's Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, Avner Shalev knows no rest. After overseeing construction of its "new" museum, which this year is celebrating its 10th anniversary, he is still busy with no-less significant matters.

“We are intensely preoccupied with the question of what the future holds for the remembrance of the Holocaust four or five generations after it happened, 20 years from now,” Shalev told Haaretz earlier this month, ahead of his trip to New York, where he will be keynote speaker at Tuesday's commemoration at the United Nations of International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

“Major turning points in history could not be predicted, and it’s hard to tell what man’s spirit might lead him in 20 years' time," he continued. "I don’t know either, but all our work is geared to addressing this question. We understood that if we don’t harness new technologies in the service of preserving memories, we’ll be totally absent in the future."

In this context, Yad Vashem is busy ensuring that millions of items – testimonies, photos, movies and other documentary information – will be available to the wider public. “Young people want to see the documents, drawings and testimonies on their mobile devices, without delay. We had to construct new systems in order to digitize everything,” Shalev noted.

Nevertheless, technology alone is insufficient in addressing the numerous complex challenges facing those who wish to perpetuate the memory and the lessons of the Shoah. Thus, for example, over the last few decades Yad Vashem has sought to thwart attempts to marginalize the Holocaust, to compare it to other genocidal events, and to contest the claim that it was a unique and exceptional event, incomparable to others. Where is the fine line between a legitimate academic debate and one that is motivated by anti-Semitism or hatred of Israel?

“There were deaths throughout history," Shalev acknowledged. "Death is always death, suffering is suffering and murder is murder. To our horror, after the Holocaust there were further atrocities and instances of genocide, evident until this very day. However, in order to compare different cases one must know all the facts."

He added that "the most prominent researchers view the Holocaust as an unprecedented event on several counts: its totality, involving the pursuit of every single Jew in every location; the absence of a vested interest – that is, unlike other instances which stemmed from economic or territorial considerations, the Jews in Germany comprised less than 1 percent of the population, was not conflicted with it and sought to blend in; and the huge geographical range it spanned and the technology used to perpetrate the murders.”

Shalev noted that a similar worldview to the Nazi one which dehumanized all Jews can also be seen today in that of the Islamic State (also called ISIS or ISIL). “When a 10-year-old child is sent to murder someone, he probably underwent a process at the end of which he no longer thought of his victim as human. Hatred makes people blind. In Nazi Germany Jews were not human, they were worse than insects,” he explained.

In recent years there has been a focus in Eastern Europe on the suffering of the non-Jewish population at the hands of the Nazis and the Russians, who occupied their lands after World War II. There is lively debate in countries such as Lithuania, Romania and Poland, comparing the crimes committed by communists to those committed by the Nazis, said Shalev. Comparing the suffering inflicted by various sides sometimes leads to the conclusion that the persecution of the Jews was but one chapter in the entire saga of the war.

“I tell Polish people to go ahead and investigate and study the suffering they went through, and to express their feelings, which are legitimate. However, rely on facts, not on myths. Don’t ignore the historical events that brought about the annihilation of Poland’s Jews.”

Shalev, who is well acquainted with current discourse in Poland, was referring to claims by nationalists and conservatives in that country, during the tenure of President Lech Kaczynski (2005-2010), that the number of Polish Righteous Gentiles (i.e., those who saved Jews during the war) is much larger than that officially recognized by Yad Vashem.

Shalev stressed that his institution is apolitical and that it maintains scientific standards in all its activities, while giving expression to many diverse voices, even those that don’t accord with the views of its researchers. In the course of its work, Yad Vashem attempts to differentiate between legitimate criticism of Israel and anti-Semitism, and an anti-Israel stance masquerading as based on scientific or other types of legitimate research.

“There is an ongoing discourse, some of it legitimate and academic. However, no sane person would deny that the criticism leveled at Israel’s policies is grossly disproportionate, employing Nazi terminology with an unprecedented intensity. It blends in with the new anti-Semitism, making it difficult to distinguish it from valid criticism. We attribute [this development] to the great influence of radical Islamist activists, and it is not always related to the Arab-Israeli conflict,” he told Haaretz.

At the UN, Shalev said he would speak mainly about the role of educators. “We, the educators, want to restore that human base, the divine spark, at the center of which is a person who retains his basic rights. If we build on such noncontroversial concepts," he added, "even future developments that may equip people with insane tools will be met by ethics which, although lagging behind such developments, will reveal the ways in which to resist."