The Long Road to the New Museum

The memory of the Holocaust in Israeli society traveled a long road before its formulation as the heart of the consensus of the national experience, and it appears that it is still one of the few topics that unite Israeli society.

It is impossible not to sense that the Holocaust Museum in Washington, which opened more than 10 years ago, acted as a spur and role model for the impressive museum opening at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem today. The construction of the museum in Washington is the museum that Israel - and with historical irony, Germany as well - once opposed. Germany was appalled at the idea that in the heart of Washington there would be a museum that would serve as a permanent reminder of the moral abyss; Israel, including many among the survivors' organizations and the management of Yad Vashem, expressed the concern that the primacy in the memorialization of the Holocaust would pass from Israel to the United States, where they would not make a point of stressing its Jewish uniqueness.

Ultimately, the museum in Washington had an enormous influence on instilling the memory of the Holocaust and its moral implications in the United States, and afterward in the rest of the world. The fact that the great power integrated the lessons of the Holocaust into the national museum Mall in its capital created a standard that was followed around the world, with the establishment of dozens of museums and hundreds of memorial sites.

Thus, alongside works of literature, films and television series, and by means of diplomatic support and pressure on the countries of Europe to deal with their responsibility for the crimes against the Jewish people, the United States played a very important role in teaching the lessons of the Holocaust during the 1990s. The general atmosphere helped Yad Vashem to raise the resources and to put its energies into the huge project that would stress Israel's historical dimension in the shaping of the international and the national memory of the Holocaust.

Before the museum was even built, a school for Holocaust studies was established at Yad Vashem. The educational and research activity at Yad Vashem will be even more important in the future when the institution will no longer be a site of pilgrimage and part of the protocol for statesmen and very important personages visiting from abroad. The events to mark the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz - a liberation that was first marked at the United Nations - were perhaps the final chords of memorialization at the most senior international level.

The memory of the Holocaust in Israeli society traveled a long road before its formulation as the heart of the consensus of the national experience, and it appears that it is still one of the few topics that unite Israeli society. The relative silence that continued for about 30 years after the Holocaust was broken only by the Eichmann trial in 1961, when David Ben-Gurion made it clear that the memorialization of the Holocaust has both an educational and a national message: "The importance is in the fact of the trial and not in the punishment, in order to show people in Israel and throughout the world how millions were murdered - only because they were Jewish - and to recognize Israel as the sole heir of the murdered Jews."

Still, even after the trauma of the trial, it took more than a generation for young Israelis to replace the statements about "like sheep to the slaughter" with the deep study of the testimonies about the helplessness of the victims, and about the heroism in everyday life in the ghettos and the death camps.

The new museum reflects the change in direction in the Israeli approach that has begun to put the emphasis on the struggle of the Jewish individual during the Holocaust. The perception that is encapsulated in the statement "Every person has a name," which became a part of the memorialization only after 40 years, has its concrete expression in the Hall of Names and in the exhibition that combines the screening of dozens of personal testimonies by survivors with pictures of the victims.

The museum also recognizes the importance of Jewish existence in the Diaspora, and contrary to the Zionist narrative of the previous generation, it recognizes the need of young people in Israel and of hundreds of thousands of immigrants who have come here to look for their roots and personal identity in a way that was cut off by the Holocaust. Thus, in many respects, the exhibition and the contents of the museum resemble those at other museums in the Diaspora, and the message of the Holocaust has become universal. The uniqueness of the museum is above all its location, and the architect of the museum, Moshe Safdie, has made a point of stressing this in the long and oppressive structure that presents the horrors but culminates in a moment of wonder as the light and the landscape of the hills of Jerusalem are revealed.