NEW YORK — Though it lasted a bit longer than planned, U.S. President Donald Trump’s short stop at Israel's Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial museum on Tuesday was little more than a vanity drive-by, say some Holocaust survivors.
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Before the president’s arrival, Israeli government and Yad Vashem officials attempted to impress upon his administration that a visit to the Holocaust museum, research center and shrine required an hour at minimum. And though they ended up staying closer to 30 minutes, Trump's visit remained scheduled for just 15.
While there, the president wore a black satin yarmulke and spoke earnestly about the horrors of the Shoah, quoting Elie Wiesel (whose name he mispronounced) when he said, “for the dead and the living we must bear witness.” Trump urged people not to be “bystanders to barbarity” and to “resolve to confront evil wherever it threatens.”
According to Sarah Wildman, a writer and granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor, the president’s remarks “appeared heartfelt” and “tried to make up” for the series of serious missteps his administration had made in regard to the Holocaust, which began when his International Holocaust Memorial Day statement failed to mention Jews.
The note Trump left in Yad Vashem’s guestbook was “bizarrely chipper,” Wildman wrote, referring to the strange tone Trump's note in the Yad Vashem guestbook struck when he wrote: “It is a great honor to be here with all of my friends – so amazing and will never forget!” Many on Twitter mercilessly contrasted Trump’s note with the more profound and literary notes left by Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama during their visits in the past.
Trump’s entire visit to Yad Vashem, Wildman told Haaretz, reflected a fundamental misunderstanding of the role the Holocaust plays in contemporary Jewish consciousness.
“Yad Vashem is a symbol of the centrality the Holocaust has in Jewish identity globally,” she said. “The administration didn’t recognize that by arranging a 15 minute stop through. It’s not just about laying a wreath but understanding that the people lost were part of our society and are no longer here. We are literally missing them. To understand why and how, you have to take the time to learn,” she said. “That’s something the administration missed by not taking more time.”
“To learn anything you don’t go to Yad Vashem for 15 minutes,” said Roman Kent, one of America’s most distinguished remaining Holocaust survivors. In his opinion, a visit of such brevity was “just for showjust to say, ‘I’ve been there.’”
People go to Yad Vashem to gain an understanding of the 6 million Jews who were murdered by Nazis, and “also about the behavior of the world” during the Shoah, he said. Kent, who was born in Lodz, Poland, and lived through imprisonment and privation at Auschwitz-Birkenau, is currently the chairman of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors. According to him, the president “has a good understanding of one thing and one thing only: that’s Mr. Trump.”
Not every Holocaust survivor and descendant interviewed agreed with judging the value of the Yad Vashem visit only by its length, however.
“You don’t measure a tribute by the amount of time” someone spends at a memorial, said Abe Foxman, the former head of the Anti-Defamation League who, as a young child during the Holocaust in Poland, was hidden by his nanny. “Is an hour or two enough? He was in Israel 30 hours all total,” he noted.
“The fact is that that was a place he visited. The optics were very moving. [So were] the things that he said. And he took his family,” said Foxman, who now serves as director of the Center for Anti-Semitism at New York City’s Museum of Jewish Heritage: Living Memorial to the Holocaust.
“So I don’t think it matters,” Foxman said, referring to the length of the visit. “He said all the right things, he showed a sense of sorrow and anguish and articulated it.”
Fred Mulbauer, born in Stavna, a town in the Carpathian Mountains, was rounded up by Nazis when he was 13 and survived the camps at both Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen. Today, at 87, he now lives in Miami Beach and is pleased with how President Trump comported himself in Israel, including at Yad Vashem.
“He spoke nicer about the Jews and Israel than anyone I remember in a long time,” said Mulbauer, who volunteers at Miami’s Holocaust memorial, where he shares his wartime experiences with visiting schoolchildren.
“I have mixed emotions." Mulbauer added, however. "He doesn’t keep his promise about moving the (U.S.) embassy to Jerusalem.”
Asked how he feels about Trump’s sharing Israeli intelligence with Russian leaders last week, Mulbauer said that Trump is “a very intelligent man, yet he is stupid. He was trying to ingratiate himself with the Russians. He definitely didn’t do it to hurt Israel, that I am sure of.”
“All in all he is hopeful,” for Israel, Mulbauer offered.
While Mulbauer might sound like a serious Trump fan, when Haaretz asked him if he had voted for Trump in the elections he confessed that he did not - but only because his lady friend threatened to leave him if he did.