May 2, 1997

At Memory's Center


After decades of looking toward the past, Yad Vashem is now focusing on its future in a world with many other Holocaust memorials. Box at end of text.

Over half a century ago, Jewish residents of the Lodz Ghetto sat in a dimly lit room filled with sewing machines, stitching away their numbered days. Now visitors to Yad Vashem can wander through a recreation of this room filled with documents, photographs and artifacts that offer a sense of what life was like for inhabitants of the ghettos.

In the past, the museum restricted exhibits to two- dimensional items and the occasional artifact enclosed in a secure glass case. But now visitors actually step into this display, based on survivor testimony, to get a much more vivid perspective on ghetto life.

This presentation, which is the newest temporary exhibition at the center's art museum, demonstrates a shift in approach that is at the heart of major changes at Yad Vashem.

Over the next four years the center, which now draws 1.3 million visitors annually, is to undergo a complete overhaul as part of a grand development strategy executives have titled "Masterplan 2001." The $45 million project, which chairman of the directorate Avner Shalev estimates will probably end up costing closer to $70m., includes elaborate plans to expand the historical museum and permanent exhibition to five times its current size, build a new educational and archive complex using the latest technology, step up efforts to collect survivor testimony and Holocaust documentation from deteriorating archives in Eastern Europe, and establish the world's most comprehensive Holocaust research and educational center. The transformed center is expected to draw an annual 2 million visitors, many of whom will be students, educators and scholars.

It has been suggested Yad Vashem is embarking on this project to reclaim its position as the world's center for Holocaust studies, following the success of the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, which draws far more visitors.

The recent proliferation of Holocaust museums is a result of the renewed interest in the subject, and Yad Vashem must do its part to keep up, says Shalev. He points to the establishment of new museums in Europe and the US, noting that several American states have passed laws that require educational curricula to include the Holocaust. He mentions the recent visit to Yad Vashem of New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman, who indicated an interest in establishing a Holocaust memorial in her home state.

But Yad Vashem executives claim their center never lost its position and point out that the Washington museum draws from a population 50 times as big as Israel's.

"Ninety percent of the tourists who visit Israel come to Jerusalem, and 90 percent of those people come to Yad Vashem," says historian and Yad Vashem educator David Silberklang.

"The place that is a beacon for the memory and study of the Holocaust is Yad Vashem," Shalev says.

Nevertheless, both concede the Jerusalem center has fallen behind its innovative counterparts in presentation of the subject. Though its historical archive is still by far the largest in the world, and the complex is the most popular tourist attraction here after the Western Wall, scant resources and out-of-date facilities have diminished Yad Vashem's importance as the world's epicenter for Holocaust memory.

But is it wise to embark upon such a project when many are questioning the relevance of such memorials? Masterplan 2001 is not just a marketing ploy to reach a generation that has lost interest in such matters, insists Shalev. Rather, Israeli and international interest in the Holocaust seems to have grown in recent years.

"We do not have to try so much to sell {the subject}," he says. "The dramatic change now is that people are coming to buy."

The 2001 project is essential to meet rising demand, which is more than the current complex can handle. Visitors want to know how such a thing could have happened, why it occurred when it did, and what were the responses of the Jews and the world during the war.

"People want to know, 'What does this thing mean for my life?' " Shalev says, "and Yad Vashem must be able to supply them with answers."

Perhaps the most urgent part of the 2001 program is the collection of information, testimony and documents on the Holocaust that are growing increasingly inaccessible.

The effort to gather testimony before the last of the survivors die has taken on renewed force in recent years. The Yad Vashem archives have 40,000 testimonies, the vast majority of which were recorded in writing during the first decade after the war. In the late '70s, Yad Vashem began audiotaping survivors' accounts, and since 1989 the center has collected 2,000 videotaped testimonies. The Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation, which Steven Spielberg founded in 1994 in the wake of his film Schindler's List, aims to collect 50,000 video testimonies. The master tapes will be kept at Yad Vashem and copies will be issued to the Washington museum, the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York and the Fortunoff Video Archives at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. So far, 16,000 testimonies have been collected.

The other historical resource that is becoming inaccessible, due to physical decay and bureaucratic red tape, is the thousands of Holocaust-related documents still in European archives and private collections. Yad Vashem has begun a massive effort to rescue these by sending delegations to Europe to purchase or photocopy them.

All this information needs to be housed, and land has already been cleared for the construction of a new educational center and an archive building, which will be erected behind the Yad Vashem administrative building, on the north side of the mountain. All three structures will be connected.

As the largest Holocaust archive in the world with more than 50 million pages of original records (the Holocaust museum in Washington has under five million), the Yad Vashem archive is bursting at the seams. Aside from construction of a new building, the archive will be computerized in several stages.

The data entry has already begun with the registration of the names of the Jewish victims of the Holocaust. Since the establishment of Yad Vashem shortly after the founding of the state, the institute has collected some three million names of victims, most of them on page-long abstracts that survivors have filled out in one of 17 languages. Shalev hopes that by computerizing the abstracts and establishing a sophisticated retrieval system the institute will not only make the information more accessible, but the database will be able to root out duplicates of names, which he estimates may reduce the number in the archive by several hundred thousand.

However, merely entering the data is a herculean and arduous task, both because of the number of pages and the difficulty of reading the handwriting of survivors in the different languages. The project is being accomplished with outside help; even the IDF has pledged to send soldiers to help. So far, 400,000 of these pages of testimony have been entered.

To enable researchers to access the plethora of information in the archive in a more efficient way and from remote terminals, historians and computer programmers at Yad Vashem have begun building a research database that will act as a computerized directory. The center has already begun scanning images and loading documents onto the computer database, CD-ROMs and the Internet.

The new educational center will contain 17 classrooms and resource facilities complete with the latest educational and computer technology. The new building will also house the Yad Vashem School for Holocaust Studies, which currently educates and trains more than 40,000 Israeli high-school students, 20,000 soldiers, tens of thousands of teachers and several thousand tourists each year.

Over the past two years, the number of students and teachers using the school has tripled. The pedagogical center will also house the research institute that was begun in 1993 by Profs. Yehuda Bauer and Yisrael Gutman, which brings Holocaust scholars and historians from all over the world for several months at a time.

This framework facilitates dialogue and discussion among participants that have proved a boon to Holocaust studies.

In the age of information, Shalev says, Yad Vashem must use the resources available to reach the inquiring public.

"My generation has a big responsibility to further memory of the Holocaust in a significant way," he says, pointing out that the younger generation will respond to their new, multimedia approach, which is also part of the planned changes at Yad Vashem's historical museum.

Renewal of the entire museum complex will expand the main building from its current 1,200 square meters to 6,000 sq.m., 2,400 of which have already been carved out of the Jerusalem hillside. The building will be almost entirely underground, though the exit will jut out on the northern side of the mountain, overlooking Har Nof and the Judean Hills. Final architectural designs for the historical museum will be determined in the coming weeks; the steering committee has already eliminated three of six proposed plans.

Silberklang, who has worked at Yad Vashem since 1983, says the Holocaust is a subject that needs to be approached from a variety of levels. What has already been built of the enlarged structure, he says, allows for the creation of an exhibit that can be viewed from several different vantage-points, indicative of the multifarious possible interpretations of Holocaust representations and the multiplicity of approaches to Holocaust studies. The museum complex will also include a permanent pavilion for temporary exhibitions, which today displace the art museum's exhibits.

Masterplan 2001 includes some other basic aesthetic changes as well. Built over several decades by various directors and architects, Yad Vashem lacks the cohesiveness of a well-planned site. The entrance and parking plaza will be enlarged to accommodate the expected increase in attendance, and planners hope that a more centralized complex will be less confusing to visitors, whom Silberklang confesses sometimes end up wandering around trying to figure out how to get from one place to another.

Shalev hopes to redesign the entrance to the museum complex to include an orientation center and cafeteria, though a conclusive decision on this matter has yet to be reached by the steering committee. Shalev asserts that despite the sanctity of the memorial site, Yad Vashem must ensure that it meets the pragmatic needs of its visitors.

With all this construction, planners have attempted to preserve the natural landscape atop the Mount of Remembrance, upon which Yad Vashem sits. The complex will stay open throughout the construction, which is expected to be completed in 2001.

'People today know that if they wait {to condemn genocide}, it will be too late," says Yad Vashem's director. But Avner does not delude himself about the willingness of the Western world to prevent genocide, acknowledging the calamities that have occurred in this decade alone, among them the Rwanda massacres and the war in the Balkans.

"Man is - by nature - cruel," he admits. "But if we internalize the lesson of the Holocaust, we have a better chance that democratic rule, which gives us the best possibility of preventing crime, will serve as a tool to prevent other holocausts.

"Even if we are unable to prevent genocide," he concedes, public opinion will make it increasingly difficult for nations to remain silent in the face of such horror.

As far as Israelis are concerned, Shalev sees the recent surge in interest in the Holocaust is a result of a psychohistorical process of maturation and the realization that the survivor generation will not be around for much longer.

"In the 1950s and '60s, people's energies were directed at building the state and the social fabric of the country. They were still under the direct influence of the historical, sociological and psychological processes of the difficulty of dealing with the trauma of the Holocaust." Survivors were not interested in talking about their Holocaust experiences, and pioneering Israelis largely were uninterested in hearing about them.

The first decades of the state were a stage of youthful rebellion against a Jewish past filled with persecution and suffering, he says. By suppressing the most recent, traumatic historical event of the Jewish people, Israelis were able to build their lives and families, laying the groundwork for "semiordinary" life.

However, with the passing of the 1970s and the "me" generation, a cultural search for roots ensued, which Shalev deems characteristic of the postmodernist generation and its focus on ethnicity and cultural history. Survivors began to talk about their experiences more openly and more often, as the world began to realize that the generation of survivors would not be around forever. Youth and student groups began their pilgrimages to the sites of the concentration camps in Eastern Europe, and families of survivors demonstrated a new interest in discovering their European roots.

"The Holocaust has not yet become history; it is part of our daily existence, as a basic - but not the only - element of our collective memory."

Secular Israelis come to Yad Vashem looking for what it is in the makeup of their identity that renders them Jewish. If they are not Jewish because of adherence to ritual observance, they are Jewish because of their history, and the story of the Holocaust is central to Jewish history and the Jewish psyche.

"I want {visitors} to walk out of Yad Vashem saying, 'I need to exist as a Jew,' " Shalev says. And for the Holocaust to be a meaningful part of Jewish and Israeli identity, visitors to Yad Vashem need to connect with the past, not simply view it as detached observers.

"Will the new generation regard the Holocaust in a deep way and want to learn about it and seek ways to get closer to it, finding a way to identify and empathize with it, or will they see it simply as another chapter in history?" he asks. "This is a central question."

Keeping the flame alive

Avner Shalev came to Yad Vashem in 1993 with big ideas. Having spent most of his career in the IDF and most of the 1980s in the Education Ministry, Shalev replaced Yitzhak Arad as chairman of the Yad Vashem directorate after Arad's 22 years of service.

Though new to the enterprise of Holocaust commemoration and education, Shalev approaches his task at Yad Vashem with the pragmatism and acumen of a soldier, the intellect of an academician and the passion of a missionary.

He quotes influential 20th-century thinkers as if they were his childhood friends and demonstrates an impressive mastery of modern history, which he says he acquired from avid reading.

Born in 1939 in Jerusalem, Shalev is symbolic of the changes Yad Vashem and other Holocaust institutions have undergone in recent years. More than half a century after the Holocaust, the people who are taking over the leadership of such establishments are, for the first time, not from the generation of the war.

Shalev's parents came here from Poland before the war, but many relatives who remained behind in Europe were killed during the Holocaust. He explains that it is not a biological connection that brings him to his work at Yad Vashem, but a religious, cultural and historical connection that extends to all Jews, regardless of their connections to Europe.

"The Holocaust," he says, "is part of our collective identity." THOUGH SHALEV is spearheading the multimillion dollar project with enthusiasm, skeptics point to his lack of fund-raising experience. "I have never done fund-raising, " he admits, "but I believe we will get the funds simply because we must." He explains that his predecessors at Yad Vashem did not take an aggressive view toward fund-raising, and the institution consequently never received the funds it deserved. Government officials always said how important Yad Vashem was, he says, but they never appropriated adequate funding.

This time, Shalev told the government he would not take no for an answer. The government has already pledged $15 million. The rest of the funds will come from the financial resources of the International Claims Conference, Yad Vashem societies in Israel and abroad, and private donors. If the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington can raise $200m. "at the snap of their fingers," Shalev says, Yad Vashem should be able to secure the funds necessary to complete Masterplan 2001.