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Remembering the Holocaust

A Visit to Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust Memorial

Yad Vashem, Jerusalem, 12 August 2013

After my courtesy call at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Jerusalem to present a copy of my letter of credence (I am Ambassador designate until I present my credentials to the President), I visited Yad Vashem, the world center for documentation, research, education and commemoration of the Holocaust. My guide for the visit was Rob Rozett, Director of Libraries. The centre piece of the complex is the Historical Museum. It comprises a main hall, a long wedge of concrete sliced deep into a hill and forming a canopy over a series of rooms that trace sequentially the rise of anti-Semitism, Nazism and the Holocaust.

Fact is piled on startling fact: the Polish population was 3.25 million before the war and by its end 3 million had been killed, reducing Polish Jewry from 10% of the population to a mere remnant. As Rob explained, the exhibition of photos, film, archives and artefacts determinedly asserts the individuality of victims so that the human cost is not lost in the figures of fatalities that are themselves so astronomical as to become merely objective.

Listening to Rob trace the evolution of the tragedy one cannot escape the realization that there was an inexorable determination at work by the architects of the Holocaust, from the vilification and ritual public humiliation of Jews to their isolation in camps and Ghettos and their eventual transportation to the death camps. The footage of Hitler’s infamous 1939 speech predicting the destruction of the Jews of Europe displays the ferocity and clarity of his determination. He was the driving spirit of the genocide but it took many individuals and organisations to give it effect. Throughout the exhibition there are photographs of the implementers of the Shoah. Their names and faces are on lids that open to boxes containing information about their very normal lives and qualifications – husband, father, doctor, Ph.D., accountant. It is this conscious and determined effort by educated men to eliminate an entire human group that constitutes the effrontery, the grand moral offence of the Holocaust that makes it the crime of crimes.

Mysteries abound that continue to haunt. How could such a civilized country like Germany engage in such evil? Why were Jews, a mere 0.8% of population and themselves proud Germans, accepted by the vast majority to be such a threat at the mere prompting of the Nazi Party? How could so many people participate, condone or by acts of omission allow the thuggish Nazi leadership have its way in this scheme of such vast malignity? And – most frightening of all in some ways – how easily average citizens across Europe were recruited to form a cog in the butchery of millions of their fellow human beings.

Nazi determination to complete the genocide of the Jews even as the war is manifestly lost illustrated its centrality to Nazi ideology. By early 1944, the Soviet Army is rampaging on the Eastern Front toward Germany. The Allies are preparing for the invasion of Western Europe and the race to Berlin. Time is running out, Germany’s defeat is inexorable and only a matter of time. In Hungary, the Jewish community has escaped the worst of it because the Government, though allied to Germany, had refused to hand them over. Hungary is host to some 800,000 Jews. Hearing of secret Hungarian talks with the Allies, the Nazis invade Hungary in March 1944. They decide to play catch-up: deportations of Jews begin in May and, astonishingly, within eight weeks 437,000 Jews are rounded up and transported to Auschwitz-Birkeneau.

My family and I had visited the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC last year. It was personally very interesting to compare that experience with Yad Vashem. Both have in common the evocation of what the Holocaust constituted, with graphic and unforgettable images of barbarity and slaughter of individuals and families; the murder of children is unavoidably even more incomprehensible. Both too testify to the intimacy of murderer and victim – the removal of spectacles, shoes and clothes from the living, the act of killing men, women and children whether by bullets or Zyklon B, the looting of possessions and body parts, the callous burden of disposal of such large numbers of victims.

In Washington for me the most startling image was a simple one; against a plain black background, in a frameless glass case, a Brownshirt uniform was displayed, cosy light brown corduroy, swastikas on the lapels, flaring jodhpurs. This was the font of evil, a physical artefact from the scene of the crime. Many donned that uniform and later other uniforms that allowed the wearer to abrogate the normal human decencies. The truth of the uniform was that general causative explanations of the Holocaust cannot relieve the burden of moral obligation from the individuals who took part.

At Yad Vashem, the most profound occasion came toward the end. Rob had had to leave to give press interviews because on the day of my visit Hungarian war criminal Laszlo Csatary had passed away. Yossi Gevir took over and escorted me to the Hall of Names. The wall of this circular space is shelved with the black dossiers of the names of those known to have died in the Holocaust. Some 4.2 million names of the 6 million victims have been traced, authenticated and inscribed. The search goes on, aided by technology, threatened by the passage of time. Yossi explained the painstaking process of collating and verifying the names. In the centre of the Hall, below a circular handrail, a rocky funnel frames a pool of water. From your reflected image, your gaze vaults upwards to photos of a selection of photos of victims in the chimney ceiling; the space between symbolises the journey from the source of life to its end, our reflections the remembrance of the Shoah. The physical metaphor of the well is compelling but it was toward the books on the shelves that one’s gaze kept returning. The simple white letters on their black spines seem to speak in whispers.

We turned to approach the exit, up an incline to where the concrete walls that lean together to form the wedge’s apex curve outwards toward a vista of bright sky, pines and olive groves on the hills of Jerusalem receding before you. Mere consciousness of the effectiveness of the architectural intent could not suppress the sense of welcome and relief that one had exited to such light and landscape, that an unmade day beckoned with possibility. God, as someone once said, only owes us a sunrise. The rest is up to us.

Séamus Heaney once wrote that early Christian monks in Ireland would lie in their dark corbelled beehive huts for days on end, fasting and meditating with a heavy rock on their chests. One can only imagine where their Dark Age minds travelled as they sought out devils to wrestle. Casting off the rock, they would emerge into the sunlight, their spirits vaulting heavenward. Though the devils are very different, the architects of Yad Vashem brilliantly achieve a similar effect.

The Chairman of Yad Vashem, retired Brigadier General Avner Shalev, graciously met me and over coffee we discussed the Holocaust, what it said about human nature, models of remembrance and lessons for us today. As with our conversation, history and evil, capricious twists of history and inexorable tragedies, ironies and explanations return again and again to the Holocaust’s ineffable sadness, the loss of so many and so much.

There is much more at Yad Vashem than its central and incomparably dramatic and compelling Historical Museum – the exhibition pavilion, the Art Museum, the learning centres, and the location itself. My visit was only a first one but I left with an inescapable impression. The modern secular Yad Vashem complex stands in evocative power and significance alongside the other great sites of ancient Jerusalem.

Irish Litvak Connection II: Commemorating the Shoah in Lithuania

While researching the background to my blog on the very strong Jewish Lithuanian connection with Ireland, and unbeknownst to me, the Fourth World Litvak Congress was being held in Vilnius. As you will have read in the blog, most of the Lithuanian Jews who stayed there were murdered in the Shoah. My friend and colleague in Vilnius, Ambassador Philomena Murnaghan, has kindly shared the following information on the Congress and the annual Holocaust commemoration in Lithuania.

The Fourth World Litvak Congress was held in Vilnius from 22-25 September and commemorated the 70th anniversary of the liquidation of the Vilnius Ghetto on 23-24 September 1943. Jews represented a third of the population of Vilnius before the Second World War. The annual Holocaust commemoration takes place on the anniversary of that fateful day (23rd September) at the site in Paneriai forest, some 11 km from Vilnius city centre, where of the 100,000 persons executed there, some 70,000 were Jews.

The Fourth World Litvak Congress held a wide variety of events and exhibitions over the six days, including a conference on Sunday, 22nd September on “Litvaks and their legacy: Holocaust, ethical memory and enlightenment”, moderated by Prof. Leonidas Donskis, MEP. Events during the Congress sought to recapture the contribution of Lithuania’s former Jewish population to the Lithuanian nation and national development. Some of the themes included: How art helps to perceive the Holocaust; Jewish organisations in Lithuania in documents prior to 1941; Kaunas Jewish community in historical sources; Jewish musicians in interwar Lithuania. There were also tours for participants to Jewish-related sites in Vilnius and around the country.

Dr. Simonas Alperavicius, Honorary Chairman of The Jewish Community of Lithuania, was conferred with the Lithuanian Diplomacy Star, the Lithuanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ award of honour for his dedication to advancing bilateral relations between Lithuania and Israel and for his championing of democratic values throughout his life.

Philomena notes that the Congress was one of a range of events taking place in 2013, which has been designated by the Lithuanian Seimas (Parliament) as the Year of Remembrance of the Vilnius Ghetto. Bilateral relations between Lithuania and Israel have been strengthened, with visits in each direction this year, notably by the Lithuanian Foreign Minister to Israeli in May in preparation for the State Visit by the Israeli President to Vilnius at the end of July.

On Monday, 23rd September, members of the diplomatic corps took part, in large numbers as usual, in the annual commemoration of the Holocaust in Paneriai forest. Philomena has seen this ceremony grow during her time in Vilnius and reflects:

“Genuine efforts are being made to integrate study of the Holocaust into mainstream education and to engage young Lithuanians. This year, pupils from 200 schools from around Lithuania lined the path leading into the fir grove where the Memorial to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust is situated. Each student placed on the ground a candle and stone with the name of a Jewish person killed, forming a solemn avenue through which participants from the government, municipality, diplomatic corps, Jewish community and others passed on the way to the fir grove. Wreaths were laid by or on behalf of the President, Government, Seimas, the Municipality, the Israeli Embassy Riga, the Jewish community, the diplomatic corps, Jewish survivors of the Vilnius Ghetto, and the International Commission for the Evaluation of the Crimes of the Nazi and Soviet Occupation Regimes in Lithuania. Speeches were delivered by the Prime Minister, the Speaker of the Seimas, the Israeli Ambassador, the President of the Jewish Community of Lithuania (Faina Kulkiansky), and by the International Commission. A moving personal account was given by one of the very few remaining survivors of the Vilnius Ghetto, Fania Branncovskaya, and a haunting poem was read by the Headmaster of a local Jewish school. The event concluded with the reading of Kadesh by a member of the Jewish community and the playing of the Vilnius Ghetto ‘anthem’.”

Thanks to Philomena for sharing this and to the Deputy Head of Mission Seadhna MacHugh for tweeting the blog on the Irish Litvak relationship to the Embassy’s followers in Lithuania.