Yad Vashem in Israel, filled with belongings and pictures of victims of the Holocaust, is meant to honour the millions of Jews killed in the Second World War.
“I write these lines in a terrible state of mind. We must leave the ghetto within a few days… I don’t know if I will be allowed to be with my little sister. I can write no more. I am depressed. I have given up.”
This is the last entry in an anonymous diary penned in Lodz Ghetto from May 5 to August 3, 1944. The entries were scribbled in English, Yiddish, Polish and Hebrew along the margins of a French novel, kept on display at Yad Vashem. The Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem, meant to the millions of Jews killed in the Second World War, is a grim reminder of the horrors of war. A reminder that it is the monstrosity of mortals that turns earth into hell.
From the moment you step into Yad Vashem, a heaviness engulfs your soul.
“I want to go on living, even after death,” wrote a young Anne Frank in her diary at the extermination camp.
Pelagic Szpringer-Huczak, Poland; Jacob and Adraiana Mudde, Holland; Janina Rybak, Poland; Cornelius (Kees) Chafrom, Netherlands – endless victims that live on after their death. Their names inscribed in small metal plates below trees dedicated to the memories of lives cut short in mindless massacres. Documentaries, films, video footage, photographs collected from across the globe tell the story that the world needs to remember every single day.
You walk through belongings of victims found in death camps of Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka among others – cups, burnt combs, melted brass spoons, buttons, keys on display. Shoes of all sizes, heels that once adorned feet of fashionable Jewish women, black leather belt shoes once worn by tiny tots – all piled under a glass cover, silently speak of the Auschwitz horror each of them witnessed.
The ‘Yiddishe Mama’ song that inmates sang in concentration camps haunts you.
A Freight car that transported Jewish deportees from Mechelen transit camp in Belgium to Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp, Rusted suitcases with names, date of birth, entry port marked on them – a numbness surrounds you.
Sixteen-year-old Jewish teenager Lea Turoche has visited the memorial several times. But she says she still cannot understand the feeling inside her. She asks how or why could Adolf Hitler do it. “I think I might not have survived. It leaves me very concerned. It is important to learn from history about the horrors of war.”
Does she have German friends, or does she avoid doing so, I ask.
“My grandmother, a staunch Jew, hated the Germans. I am young and I understand that my German friend is not his grandfather, he is a diﬀerent individual,” she replies.
With neo-Nazis, white supremacists, Islamophobes, extreme right raising divisive slogans, the Children’s Memorial at Yad Vashem is the most sobering reminder of what hatred and bigotry can achieve. As you walk from the bright sun outside into the dark alley of a tunnel, you stop breathing. Starry lights faintly shine through the glass ceilings and walls as names of some of the one and half million Jewish children who perished in the Holocaust are slowly announced. One-year-olds, five-year-olds, 15-year-olds from Ukraine, Romania, Poland, Croatia and others – the names go on as you struggle to hold back tears and stand in a corner with your head hanging in shame at the darkness mankind is capable of inflicting upon fellow humans including innocent children.
Eleven-year-old Claire visiting the monument for the first time with her Jewish parents from Paris looks in a daze. “I would not have existed maybe. I feel both deep anger and pain,” says Claire.
The paintings of Peter Ginz deported to Terezin Ghetto at the age of 14, dresses worn by inmates in concentration camps, numbers that became their identity, coins, bills and blocks for preparing currency used in ghettoes, lashes used to punish the ‘impure’ – these are all stark reminders of a dark past. The hall of names that permanently preserve names of victims, most of whom never received a Jewish burial, leaves you with a sense of gratitude to be alive and be surrounded by loved ones.
“A country is not just what it does – it is also what it tolerates,” wrote the German essayist of Jewish origin, Kurt Tucholsky about the silence of the majority of Germans. Let this be a reminder to those who want to still unleash such tragedy upon humanity, who choose hate over love and also to those who suﬀered the immeasurable pain to not let their lives be shaped by fear and intimidation – but for compassion to show the way.
Smita Sharma is an independent journalist/columnist and tweets @smita_sharma.
The author was in Israel to attend a Project Interchange seminar organised by the AJC (American Jewish Committee).