Memory Palace

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APRIL 18, 2005

Memory Palace

It was the prophet Isaiah who gave Yad Vashem its name. "And to them
will I give within my house and within my walls a memorial and ...
an everlasting name"--which is precisely what the site of
remembrance in Jerusalem for the six million victims of the Jewish
catastrophe in Europe is trying to do. A name and a history for
every one of those murdered by the Nazis and their numerous
collaborators: the pious and the free-thinking; the wise and the
dumb; the beautiful and the plain; scholars and shoemakers;
seamstresses and skiers; serious folk and slackers; the poor and
the rich and those in the middle; men, women, young children--at
least one and a half million of the latter. No exceptions made,
except by luck or the special bravery of the doomed. Yad Vashem was
not the first monument in Jerusalem to the European hell: A
terrifying cave of artifacts and plaques was established on Mount
Zion a few years after the war. But it was Yad Vashem that
introduced the combined ideal of a memorial and a name, of
commemoration and scholarship. It was first imagined during World
War II and formalized immediately after the war at an international
Zionist conference held in London. The project was put into the
hands of the National Council of the Jews of Palestine, the
singularly democratic authority that had been preparing the Yishuv
for sovereignty. It opened in 1957, the first such institution
anywhere, on a richly forested hill overlooking the western
outskirts of the city in the Jewish state that--had it been
permitted by the great powers to exist 15 years earlier--would have
systemically absorbed the stalked Jews of civilized Europe.The original installation, heavily didactic and built almost
entirely around photographs, had hardly any architecture. It felt
like a bomb shelter, or a cave carved out of the earth. It did
adjoin a handsome stone memorial hall, enclosing a stark floor map
of Europe punctuated by the eternally horrifying names of death
camps: Bergen-Belsen, Auschwitz, Treblinka, Sobibor, Majdanek, and
so on. An eternal light is all that illumines the macabre
cartography. All of this still stands, as does the Avenue of the
Righteous, sided by trees planted to honor some 18,000
gentiles--not all that many of them, when you think about it--who
risked their lives to rescue Jews from Moloch. It is from this
route of Christian heroes that visitors make their way to the
shattering experience.

Now the Israeli-Canadian architect Moshe Safdie has built a new Yad
Vashem on the same sacred site. Safdie had previously designed and
set in place a memorial centered around an actual railroad car that
ferried Jews from the ghettos to the lager (historians tell us that
the train schedules were indispensable to the success of the Final
Solution, a theme explained in the new exhibits) and a children's
memorial centered on a single lit candle that, through mirror and
magnification--and a recorded recitation of the known names of the
perished--hauntingly conveys the magnitude of the disaster. But, in
mid- March, he unveiled an amazing new structure, a space at once
primordial and highly modern, to hold the terrible evidence that no
one wanted to confront at the time--not Franklin Delano Roosevelt,
not the pro-Zionist Winston Churchill, and not the non-Jewish Jews
who owned The New York Times--that the Jewish people were being
snuffed out. The 200-meter-long structure is a three- dimensional
cement triangle, which burrows through the mountain revealing the
building's beginning and its end, both of which are brilliantly
cantilevered into space. Safdie's signature command of natural
light--in this case, light from a narrow skylight running along the
structure's apex cutting through the alp--illumines the entire dark
journey, through the deep prism itself and the historical galleries
undulating on the sides. You cannot skip one gallery for another,
one part of the narrative for another. Safdie has cut angular
trenches through his chronological passageway, and one of the first
is filled with books- -by Einstein, Freud, Werfel, Zweig, and the
other Jewish degenerates--that the Nazis gathered for the burnings
visible on the adjoining video screens. (It was not long before
people were gathered for burnings.) And, at the end of the dark
journey, you emerge in the clear sunlight on the Jerusalem hills.
From five feet back, and ten, all you see is sky. And then you are
quite literally free. You are over land, the land of Israel. But
the voyage is always curtained by the concrete.

Over the land of Israel: There is a Zionist dimension to the exhibit
at Yad Vashem, and it is altogether apposite. Middle-class
liberalism in Europe demanded of the Jews that they assimilate,
and, when they did, they were resented. Social democracy denied the
Jews their peoplehood. Communism saw the Jews as enemies and even
made an alliance with Adolf Hitler and then prepared its own
onslaught against them. Religious Judaism (with some exceptions)
instilled among Jews a debilitating passivism. Only the Zionists
grasped that Europe was doomed soil for the Jewish people. A few
European Jewish communities experienced an exodus during the 1930s,
and almost all of those who went were Zionists. Thessaloniki is one
instance. In 1935-36, 15,000 Salonician Jews emigrated to Palestine
and built the port of Haifa. Some 50,000 Jews stayed behind, of
whom fewer than 2,000 survived the war. This surely was among the
highest "kill ratios" of the entire Holocaust.

The exhibit at Yad Vashem starts with an exquisite magic lantern
video presentation of old footage--the home movies of the
martyred--by Michal Rovner. Here you see those who were alive just
before they would be dead. The footage moves from east to west, in
a meshing of map and landscape, from right to left, as in a Torah
scroll. I cannot get out of my mind the young girls beckoning the
visitor into their lives with the gentle inward waving of their
hands. I cannot forget their smiles. I bitterly note their
astonishing diversity. This building may be the most moral
statement made by architecture in our time. Its rendering of the
life of the murdered is searing and subtle. You can almost wear
their shoes, look through their eyeglasses, read their poems of
despair. You almost feel what it was like trying to get bread in
the Warsaw ghetto or being trapped in Budapest when the Germans,
already almost completely vanquished, mobilized themselves for
their last great massacre of Hungarian Jewry in Auschwitz. And then
you come to a photograph of Heinrich Himmler, and you listen to a
recording of a speech he made to SS officers in 1943:

It is one of those things that is easily said. "The Jewish people is
being exterminated," every party member will tell you. ... And then
along they all come, all the 80 million upright Germans, and each
one has his decent Jew. ... And none of them has seen it, has
endured it. Most of you will know what it means when 100 bodies lie
together, when there are 500, or when there are 1,000. And to have
seen this through, and ... to have remained decent, has made us
hard and is a page of glory never mentioned and never to be
mentioned.

It was not just six million who perished. It was an entire culture
that was put to death. Still, consider the raw numbers. At Yad
Vashem, three million dead men, women, and children are
individually recorded in the archives, some even with pictures. My
mother, who came from a Polish village called Levertov, had six
siblings, one of whom survived (he went east to Russia). His
daughter and grandchildren now live in the United States, and a son
and his family live in Israel. The five who perished were all
married and had children, perhaps four or five each. My father, who
came from the same shtetl, left eight brothers and sisters at home,
and pleaded with them to come to the United States (which wasn't so
easy) or go to Palestine. All of them were married with the usual
number of children. Only one of these children, a daughter of one
of my father's sisters, got out, taking the underground route to
Palestine, running the blockade, and ending up on a kibbutz in what
is now Israel. Still alive at 90, she has two children, five
grandchildren, and three great- grandchildren. So here is the
disaster writ small: Had her 30- or 40-odd cousins lived, how many
of the family line would still be alive? How many more Jews would
be alive if the six million had not been slaughtered?

There was one discordant note in the opening ceremonies, and it was
the participation of Kofi Annan. He had taken time out on his way
to Jerusalem to pay homage at the Ramallah grave of Yasir Arafat, a
certified legatee of the anti-Semitism of the Nazis. How
diplomatic! The secretary-general's very presence evoked the
offending memory of his predecessors: U Thant, who removed U.N.
troops from the Sinai--a decade-old barrier to war between Israel
and Egypt--on the command of Gamal Abdel Nasser, which unleashed
the Six Day War; and, most grotesquely, Kurt Waldheim, whose
personal role in the Final Solution to "the Jewish problem" was
suppressed by the great powers and the U.N. bureaucracy. And what
were Annan's qualifications for this ceremony? Well, he is an
expert on genocide, an expert of a certain sort. In his diplomatic
practice of the 1990s, in various U.N. posts, he became a
genocide-denier, since he refused to act against the extermination
wars in Bosnia, Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and
Sudan. If the history of our time is written honestly, it will
record that Annan stood passively by as the new exterminators went
to work. Shame will be his memorial, his everlasting name.

By Martin Peretz

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