After arriving late into Tel Aviv and making the quick trip into Jerusalem, we were treated to a rather average dinner by the hotel before slumping our way to bed at 23:30. Not to be outdone by twenty-two hours of travel and a morning spent in the cold sun in Korea, the body clock continued to emphasise the fact that it was still on New Zealand time, exactly 11 hours earlier than Israeli time. This had the direct result of one lying in a blackened room, staring at the ceiling, fidgeting from side to side, and praying for sleep that just wouldn’t come. After literally four hours sleep, my alarm went off and I slunk out of bed, ready for my first day at Yad Vashem.
Yad Vashem is the Holocaust memorial centre, established to immortalize the memory of the six million Jews who died as a result of the Nazi’s Final Solution. The name, as with everything important in Israel, is derived from the Jewish scriptures and is found in the book of Isaiah, “Even unto them will I give in my house and within my walls a place and a name better than of sons and of daughters: I will give them an everlasting name, that shall not be cut off” (Isaiah 56:5).
The centre itself is designed to not only immortalise the memory of the six million Jewish victims, but also document the historical nature of the Holocaust, continue research into the victims and the event, and educate people globally about the most destructive and planned genocide to ever occur in world history.
Thus, with the weight of little to no sleep, and the goal of understanding one of the most horrific events in the last one hundred years, I boarded the groups merry orange bus and steeled myself for what would be two and a half weeks of intensive lectures and activities.
Our first lecture, attended with the help of triple espresso Americanos and bleary eyes, was run by the incredibly charismatic Stephanie McMahon-Kaye. Steph’s job was to broach the immensely difficult practice of presenting the Holocaust to our students in a manner that allowed them to understand both victim and perpetrator and look at the human elements of the event. For this purpose, we were introduced to the concept of referring to the Holocaust by the Hebrew term, Shoah. The Shoah is an important idea because within our culture the Holocaust has come to refer to not only the mass extermination of the Jewish people, but also the mass killings of homosexuals, gypsies and other peoples considered inferior by the Nazis. Yet by thinking of the atrocity with a Jews and others mentality, we lose sight of what the Holocaust actually was by practice. At the heart of the Nazi plan, the Shoah was a completely planned and implemented attempt to destroy global Jewry in its entirety. In all its documentation, from the initial implementation of The Final Solution at Wannsee, to the various orders given to the officers in charge of Jewish detention and execution, the only acceptable outcome in the eyes of the Nazi party was the complete eradication of the Jewish population in its entirety. Thus, while other people groups were caught up within the mass exterminations, the Holocaust remains an essentially Jewish experience, and it is from this angle that we must approach our understanding of the event.
We must also broach the horrors of the holocaust in a humane and empathetic manner. How can we create empathy if a child’s first experience of the Shoah is seen in the photographs of the bodies at Bergen-Belsen? To do this, Steph introduced our group to the softly in, softly out approach. This pedagogy implements the idea of creating an early connection with the audience before taking them into the horrors of the Shoah, before finally bringing them out of the experience in a way that they can relate and discuss their experiences. To this end, an understanding of the Shoah begins with an understanding of the Jewish people; seeing and hearing them in a way that develops a form of kinship. This understanding then develops further when individual stories are related to the audience – the fifteen year old boy who loved sport witnesses his father’s execution before he is taken to a death camp where he stays alive by helping to remove the gold fillings of the dead. Finally, the narrative ends by drawing the students out of the darkness of the Shoah and provides positive narratives of survival or rescue stories that helps each student to see that true evil can be countered by compassion and humanism. In this way, the weight of the atrocity can be managed in a way that allows students to not only connect with and see the evils of the Shoah, but also understand that there is always hope, and it is this hope in liberation that we want all our students to fight for.
Following Steph, our two other lecturers over the following days were Rabbi Zvi Hirshfield and Rivkah Duker-Fishman. Rabbi Hirshfield was an engaging and thoroughly entertaining lecturer who opened our eyes to the historical concept of the Jewish faith and its idea of Godly covenants with both the people and the land. Rivkah was equally engaging as she discussed the historical identity of the Jews following the destruction of the Temple in 70BCE through to the middle ages. Rivkah’s sense of humour and dry wit made a very lengthy subject that revolved around historical sources and narratives extremely engaging and her ability to shine a light on Jewish persecution under both Christian and Muslim rulers was outstanding.
Surrounding the lectures were two events that really expanded on our appreciation and understanding of the Jewish landscape. At the end of the first day we took a bus tour around the city of Jerusalem. The bus tour revealed several things including the Southern Part of the city, some of the disputed settlements and a stop at the British War Cemetery on Mount Scopus. The first thing that stood out was the very mountainous nature of the land around Israel. Everything is either a valley or a hill with a sparse array of gnarled olive or Cyprus trees. Looking at the land, I couldn’t help but think about Jesus and his disciples. If those guys wandered around preaching regularly in the hills, they would have been either extremely malnourished and tanned, or extremely strong with the ability to fight off attackers. Regardless, a trip into the wilderness here requires some good fitness and a desire to walk for great distances over hard, rocky ground.
Finally on Tuesday morning, we were taken on a guided tour of the Yad Vashem Museum by Ephraim Kaye. The museum itself has to be seen to believed. After the Old City and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the museum hosts the second most amount of tourists with over one million people walking its halls annually. The museum itself forces people through a chronological journey that takes them through both the history of World War II Europe and the experience of the Jewish people during that time. Needless to say, the experience is both extremely personal and harrowing at the same time. Although I am familiar with many of the photographs and stories on display, seeing the actual clothing of victims, particularly the clothes that were worn by children as young as my daughters really brought the reality of the Jewish suffering home.
Despite the weight of the seminars and tours, the group I am with is really beginning to bond and moments of hilarity are helping to humanise the whole experience that we have engaged with. While I am running on empty, simple things like a beer in the centre of Jerusalem, or a bit of banter in the back of a bus makes the whole experience more approachable. I look forward to the following days and the new learning that will run alongside them.