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Can you feel a Holocaust victim’s pain?

The emphasis on empathy at the New Holocaust History Museum in Jerusalem makes a visit emotionally draining, but intellectually vacuous.

Nathalie Rothschild

Topics Politics

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I recently visited the New Holocaust History Museum at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. It is a powerful monument to the way in which history in general, and the immense atrocity of the Holocaust in particular, are today discussed and understood through emotionalism.

Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority, was established in 1953 by an act of the Israeli Knesset. Where the old museum had a stronger focus on Jewish resistance in the Warsaw ghetto, the uprisings in Sobibor and Treblinka extermination camps, and the struggle of survivors to get to Palestine, the new museum presents personal accounts of the Holocaust. This makes a visit to the museum emotionally draining, but intellectually vacuous.

The shift towards a focus on personal experiences is explained by Naama Galil, who wrote the texts for the exhibits: ‘We want to show what [those who experienced the Holocaust] created, what they were thinking and feeling when this was happening to them. We want to give back their faces. Whereas in the older museum the photographs were meant to symbolise the greater event, in the new museum they are also meant to look into your eyes and make the visitor think.’ (1)

It is of course important that the truth of what happened to the victims of the Holocaust is revealed, and that we do not forget their horrific experiences during the Nazis’ calculated and systematic programme of complete extermination of the Jewish people. But the new museum at Yad Vashem shows that, today, the individual and the particular have become the starting points for understanding history – and that this can actually obscure rather than reveal the enormity of what occurred.

The museum is concerned with preserving the memory and history of the Holocaust, but often this history fades through the preoccupation with present concerns. For example, the new content of the museum reflects a shift in the role played by the Holocaust in Israeli society – it has gone from being a subject that was either ignored or which served as an event that Israelis defined themselves against, to one through which a sense of vulnerability is expressed, serving as a reminder of the necessity of the State of Israel to the security of the Jewish people (2).

So in his speech at the opening of the museum in March 2005, Ariel Sharon said: ‘The state of Israel is the only place in the world where Jews have the right and the strength to defend themselves by themselves. It is the only guarantee that the Jewish people will never again know a Holocaust.’ (3)

The museum urges us to be introspective, to consider how we would confront moral dilemmas or how we would feel if our friends and families were being systematically murdered. The emphasis is on ‘me, here and now’ as much as on ‘them, there and then’. But can you really feel a Holocaust victim’s pain?

The museum is designed to give visitors a ‘multi-sensory’ and ‘multidimensional’ experience. The 4,200 square metre museum, which is mainly located underground, consists of a claustrophobic concrete tunnel which cuts through a mountain. The front of the museum structure protrudes from the mountain and is suspended over a valley. The rear opens on to a magnificent view of Jerusalem. The ceiling is a narrow skylight, the floor is on differing levels and there are varying amounts of light on different parts of the exhibition.

Where the old museum started with the Nazi atrocities, the new one starts with a video projection showing scenes from Jewish European communities before the war. The video screen is positioned so that visitors start the tour with their backs against the rest of the museum and the linear narrative they are about to follow. When forced to turn around, visitors must take in the road that lies ahead. But the beginning and end point of the museum are always within view.

There are galleries with different themes on either side of the walkway, and because there are impassable gaps along it, visitors are forced to take the route laid out for them. These gaps are also displays that are filled with original artefacts: books, TV screens with witness accounts, and more. One of the exhibits tells the story of Nazi book burnings. In the pile of books there are works by Marx, Freud, Jack London, Thomas Mann, Einstein and other ‘Jews, Leftists and German enemies’. Inevitably, Heinrich Heine’s famous dictum, ‘Where books are burnt, human beings are also destined to be burnt’, is quoted on a sign next to the pile.

The museum is comprehensive; plenty of information is conveyed through around 100 video screens showing personal testimonies and short films, large displays, drawings, panels with posters, quotes, photographs and poems. One could easily spend hours taking in the overwhelming amount of information.

But because the museum designers and curators have imposed a multi-sensory experience, the focus is as much on the individual visitors to Yad Vashem as it is on the Holocaust victims whose stories are told. Visitors are urged to feel the pain of the victims, listen to their stories, look them in the eyes, and even touch the things they touched when shut into ghettoes and interned in extermination camps.

Throughout the museum, personal belongings of Holocaust victims, including shoes, scarves, torah scrolls, bags and jewellery, are on display. There is a strong emphasis on the ‘original artefacts’, as in the gallery ‘Between Walls and Fences’, which is largely dedicated to giving visitors an experience of life in the ghettoes. But it is not so much the small items, like a doll cradle or a handwritten letter, that provide visitors with the reality feel in this gallery. Rather, it is the life-size replica of the Warsaw Ghetto’s Leszno Street, which comes complete with cobble stones and a tram track stopping at a blown-up photograph of the street with a video screen at its centre that shows moving images of life in the ghetto.

At the entrance of another gallery is a replica of the Arbeit Macht Frei sign that still stands at the entry to Auschwitz and, like the Jews that dismounted from the cattle cars at Auschwitz, visitors must walk beneath it. There is also a section of one such cattle car on display, as well as original wooden barracks from Auschwitz and original Zyklon B canisters.

As I walked out of one of the last galleries, I still had the voices of the Jewish youth filmed in the 1930s ringing in my ears. The video shows the youth singing what later became the Israeli national anthem, Hatikvah – ‘the hope’. I then noticed that the hard concrete floor had been covered in a grey fitted carpet and that it was slanting slightly upwards towards the bright exit and that magnificent view of Jerusalem.

The museum is emotionally overwhelming but it sheds little light on the socio-political circumstances in which the Holocaust occurred. Learning about the past should involve an awareness of what differentiates it from the present. That way we can also comprehend social change and construct a positive vision of the future. If we are to approach history only through individual stories and particular experiences, and to consider what those stories mean to us personally, then only a fragmented and patchy historical awareness will take shape.

Nathalie Rothschild is part of the Institute of Ideas’ Debating Matters team. She chaired the session ‘The Holocaust: The Last Moral Absolute?’ at the Battle of Ideas Festival last year.

Read on:

Diminishing the Holocaust, by Brendan O’Neill

(1) High Holy Days, North Suburban Synagogue Beth El

(2) See Tom Segev’s comments in ‘This is ours, and ours alone’, Guardian, 15 March 2005

(3) World leaders at launch of Holocaust museum, Guardian, 16 March 2005

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Topics Politics

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