My mother and I had the privilege of visiting Yad VaShem’s new historical museum on the first day it was open to the public at the end of March. Any one aspect of the Holocaust is enough to fill a museum: The Nazi rise to power and the anti-Jewish legislation, the ghettos, the children, the camps, the partisans, the righteous gentiles or the world of pre-war European Jewry, now lost forever. Trying to survey all of this and more under one roof is overwhelming and I had to take several breaks to clear my mind, as I was repeatedly overcome with emotion.
The Holocaust has always been a major influence on my identity. My mother left her hometown in the Czech Republic in 1939. She saw the Nazis march into Prague from the Dutch Embassy window. Detained by the Gestapo when he applied for exit visas, my grandfather was released only after my grandmother confronted a Nazi officer. And so, my mother left Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia, traveling through Germany to Holland from which she, together with her family, set sail for the United States of America.
As I walked through the new museum at Yad VaShem with my mother, I contrasted it with the former museum that I had visited many times. It seemed that a different attitude seemed to pervade these halls. Walking between numerous groups of young men and women in Israeli Defense Forces uniforms, sprinkled with guests speaking languages from around the world, I noticed that we have matured. Israelis and Israel’s Holocaust memorial museum speak with a clearer identity and from a position of strength, no longer victims or survivors. A new generation has come of age. For example, one exhibit simply displays an aerial photograph of the largest death camp under the title “Why wasn’t Auschwitz bombed?”
From a similar perspective, that of critical hindsight which raises unanswered questions of the Diaspora, the museum presents pre-war German Jewry in a well-furnished room typical of the period. Interviews with survivors are screened on the wall. They tell of an assimilated culture. “We were a part of everything that was German,” one man remembers. As I listen, I think of some of my American friends as he continues to describe his Judaism, “My father taught me that we were Jewish, although he wasn’t religious. We went to synagogue on the holidays – on Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. Half a day was enough, but he went.” The more I hear, the more parallels I can draw with the culture in which I grew up, “In my parents assimilated home, Judaism was neither denied nor emphasized.”
I am continually amazed that the Nazis came to power in a democracy. The Nazis were elected! My feeling is echoed in the interviews – The hardest thing was that German Jewry was so much a part of Germany and Nazism was a blow to them from within, not from an outside occupier. As one man put it, “The feeling was there is no way that the Germans will continue to do these things. It is only an episode.” However, after Kristallnacht, the tide turned and it was clear that as comfortable as Jews had become in Germany, as assimilated and as successful as they thought they were, suddenly they were isolated and alone. One man remembers his mother calling her non-Jewish friends. He recalls, “she had more gentile friends than Jewish friends – no answer. No one answered.”
Living in Israel today, I sometimes question the wisdom of raising my children in an almost exclusively Jewish environment. I wonder if they will fear or respect non-Jews when they grow up. As an American, I had very few encounters with non-Americans. Yet, the tolerance I was taught for different groups within American society expanded as I traveled and encountered other nationalities. Just as I met kids from many ethnicities in America, my children meet Jews from around the world, each with different backgrounds and cultures. However, here, we are all members of one family and although we may have diverse pasts, we have come together to build one common future in Israel.
Some have said that Israel was the UN’s answer to the Holocaust. My generation in Israel and the new museum at Yad VaShem asks questions of the Diaspora with pride and confidence that would not be possible without a Jewish State. One only needs to walk down Israeli streets today and hear the sudden increase in French-speaking residents to know that no matter how comfortable and successful Jews may be around the world, Israel is their eternal home.
However, conveying an appreciation of the potential danger to Jewish survival to the next generation is a challenge both in Israel and in the Diaspora, although from different perspectives. An Israeli educator told me that she once introduced the subject of the Holocaust to Israeli school children. When she asked if there were any questions, one boy raised his hand and innocently asked “Where was the Israeli Air Force?”