Thoughts from the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum

At its core, the idea of one man killing another is among the vilest sins. Conceptually, it seems to be the most unnatural of acts, but ever since Cain raised his hand against his brother Abel, it is something that has come all too naturally to all too many.

There are times when we are reminded of the horror of one person killing another—when the familiar, stale idea of murder is colored, when the grim reality of the worst that man is capable of is brought to our doorstep and we can do nothing but face it for what it is. Sadly, many become victims of this disgusting thing, and sometimes—even more tragically—it happens on the largest of scales. The Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem is a heartbreaking reminder of one of the worst atrocities in human history. It is a memorial to the black hole left in the world after the cruel and merciless murder of over six million Jews because of the hatred and racism of the German Nazis during World War II.

Although the scale of the Holocaust brings it more attention, it is also a difficult number to comprehend. As an American student studying in Israel, I had learned about what had happened during the Holocaust in my childhood. I knew the history. My head was full; I knew the numbers, the stories, the knowledge, the facts. But I didn’t know what it meant. I knew the facts, but I didn’t know how personal they were. I knew the numbers, but I didn’t have a frame of reference. I didn’t understand the breadth and depth of the horror. I still don’t. I believe I never will. I can’t.

Six million. The population of my hometown is 65,000. In America, we remember the most destructive conflict in our history, the Civil War, which claimed the lives of 613,000 people. That still doesn’t approach the magnitude of the Holocaust. Any context I have falls dramatically short of giving me a proper perspective. Only the Hall of Names could come close to bringing the reality of that number to life. A circular platform sits in the middle of a giant room, and shelves surround the platform. Binders are stacked on the shelves, thousands of binders, each binder containing thousands of names. Each name is a Jewish person killed in the Holocaust. Each person is a story. Each story represents the tragic destruction of a life, a story abruptly ended, a candle extinguished. Currently, they have collected over three million names for the database, just over half of all Jews who were killed. The binders bring a sliver of that harsh reality to focus. Where before, the magnitude was too large, too colossal to grasp, this helps clarify it. Of course, I can never comprehend the true scale, and although this doesn’t get my arms completely around this monolithic reality, it at least helps me find the corners and edges.

But the idea that resonated with me the most was the empty shelves, the spaces without binders, the names we don’t have, the stories we don’t know. Almost three million people, whose names we will never learn, whose stories we will never hear, whose sacrifices we will never understand. We will never know many of them—no trace is left, entire families murdered. The darkness of the empty shelves is its own kind of tribute to them. To the Unknown. The Nazis succeeded in their goal to wipe them off the history of the earth, but they ultimately failed, because we remember them still.

In circumstances like these, it is natural for one to ask questions. How is such brutality possible? How is man capable of such horrible things? Such things happen when man unlocks the worst of his depravity, when he convinces himself that those he is killing are not worth being kept alive. It happens when man reduces another man to less than human, when they make them “varmint,” as Hitler said, “who need to be destroyed.” It happens when Christian Wirth, an SS senior officer, so deludes his perception of people that he looks down at a pile of corpses in the Treblinka death camp during the Final Solution and asks, “What shall we do with all this garbage?” Such self-deception is the only way man can be capable of such acts. Such hatred is the only thing powerful enough to drive men to want to destroy everything about what they consider to be an inferior race.

But despite the darkness that closed in around them, many Jews found hope. They found solace and meaning deep inside the blackness of Nazi camps. They found a shelter in their art. One Holocaust survivor said that “one’s longing for art, for music, for literature increases when one is miserable.” Many Jews turned to their creativity as a retreat, a “haven from the reality surrounding them.” It was something the Nazis couldn’t take from them. There were poets such as Abramek Koplowitz and Wladyslaw Szengal, who depicted the horrors they experienced for posterity. There were artists like Felix Nassbaum, Jacob Lifschitz, Esther Lurie and Josef Schlesinger, who drew the faces of Jews in the Kovno Ghetto, preserving their history. There were young writers like Petr Ginz, a fourteen year-old killed in 1944, who left behind stories, poems, articles, and paintings, depicting his “rich and singular inner world, his dreams and hopes.” And there were people who kept diaries, like Dawid Sierakowiak and Anne Frank, who recorded their experiences in ways that break our hearts. We are saddened when we wish such bright lives had not ended so soon, but we cling to what they gave to us, and what it gave to them.

In his grim depiction of life in Auschwitz in the book Night, Elie Wiesel describes the power of art and the resiliency of man in the darkest of times. As living men were piled on one another in Gleiwitz, as they struggled to survive the cold dark night, Wiesel heard a fellow, dying Jew playing a violin. Wiesel says it was as though the man’s “soul was in the bow,” like he was playing as if he would never play again. He beautifully played a concerto by Beethoven—a German—in defiance to the Nazis, and he played it in the darkness of a Holocaust night to an “audience of dead and dying men.”

Despite their efforts, despite their most determined hatred and most fanatical killing, the Nazis were wrong. They claimed that the Jews were a lesser seed, an obstacle on the road to Aryan domination, incapable of creativity and positive contribution to the world. But they were wrong. Not only were they wrong, they failed. Six million Jews live in the land of Israel today, and that doesn’t include the many more scattered all over the globe.

The message of Yad Vashem is not only a one of sadness and death, it is also one of hope. We remember the pain and the murder; the scope of human depravity and the danger that comes when it is fully realized. But we also remember the fortitude of those Jews who survived and live on, and the faithfulness of the God who preserved them.

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