Tuesday, November 28, 2006

To never forget

The last two days have been dedicated to a Shoah (Holocaust) Seminar, and so naturally I feel I should dedicate an entire entry to it, partly so you can know what we did and also as a way for me to reflect personally. The Seminar was devised by Ilana a teacher at the Machon who had studied the Holocaust under Elie Wiesel, a distinguished Holocaust survivor and writer. The seminar started yesterday morning at nine, in my opinion it's a very bad idea to start a seminar dedicated to the Holocaust with the wonderful prospect of an extra hour's sleep. Nevertheless when the time came to get out of bed it was as hard as if it was eight.

I am pretty sure however that you are not particularly interested in what time I woke up but the seminar itself. The morning was spent in talks about Britain's relation with strangers and particularly the Kindertransport, a group of about 20,000 German Jewish children who were taken out of Germany in 1938 and were brought to foster homes in England. The morning session was certainly interesting but lacked any real emotional touch, I was pretty sure that would come in the afternoon with the trip to Yad Vashem.

Yad Vashem is the Holocaust Museum and is the main centre for Holocaust education in Israel, if not the world. Yad Vashem has been around for many many years but a couple of years ago a new museum was opened on the site to replace the old one which had been around since the fifties. The new museum designed by the well known Israeli architect Moshe Safdie is carved into the ground and in the shape of a large glass triangle. Many different reasons for the shape have been suggested for the design including the idea that the triangle is the strongest physical shape and that it represents an arrow going through the heart of the Jewish people.

Before going into the museum we were introduced to our guide, who handed out ear-pieces to each of us. Once we had put them in our ears and spent the inevitable five minutes pretending we were in the secret service we proceeded to the museum. By way of the ear piece our guide was able to talk quietly into a small microphone and we could all hear perfectly. It was these earphones that without a doubt ruined the Yad Vashem experience for me. By having a guide hurrying the group along it meant I was unable to take in the staggering amount of information before me, and it also meant I had a constant conflict between the information in front of me and the information in my ear. In fact I was unable to engage until I entered the final room, the halls of records.

The halls of records is a circular room filled with shelves. On two-thirds of the shelves are boxes and in each of these boxes are a group of records of someone killed in the Holocaust. In these boxes there are about three million people listed. Looking at the boxes as they went all around the room above and below me, for the first time in my life I truly understood what six million means. It is such an unfathomable number that it takes some sort of physical representation to make you fully realise the horror of what happened. Outside the museum there is a viewing platform that looks down onto Jerusalem, symbolising the hope and result of this terrible tragedy. I turned away from this beautiful view vowing to return whilst I am sill in Jerusalem and to dedicate an entire day to it.

At Yad Vashem there are several other monuments beside the museum, because of time constraints we are only able to visit two. The first we went to is the Children's memorial, this is an underground memorial in which there are several candles in the centre, which are reflected by a thousand mirrors giving the impression of millions of candles, representing the 1.5 million children killed the during the Shoah. At the same time names, ages and birthplaces are read out in English and Hebrew. On tour this memorial had had the biggest emotional affect of me and I have left with a tear in my eye, this time around I attempted to summon similar emotions but was unable to do so, I put this down to the lack of novelty in the memorial.

In the evening the entire Machon snuggled into one of the classrooms and watched a film called "Out of the Ashes' about Dr. Gisella Pearl, a Jewish Hungarian woman who attempts to resettle in America following her survival of Aushwitz. The film shows us a unique perspective as she had been a doctor in Auschwitz and was able to see the mad experiments of Mengele, who the film depicts with a warm charm, which made the man seem truly terrifying, particularly when considered in juxtaposition to the terrible things that he did with those fell under his knife.

We began today with a panel debate on the necessity of Shoah education and its importance today, whilst the talk was very interesting I found myself drifting off once to often, and so do not really feel I can give a proper summary of what was said. The next talk was on the relationship between Israel and the Holocaust, and I am sorry to say that the same thing applied to this talk. The next session was a workshop on the position of God in the Holocaust, and here I very much engaged for two reasons. First because it was in a much smaller group and second because I was absolutely enraged by what we were discussing. We were shown the opinions of two Reform Rabbis who highlighted the two opposite ends of the scale, one who said that we must abandoned the traditional opinion of God as an all-powerful good God would not let the Holocaust happen, and so we must turn to Jewish paganism, and if you think that was bad the second one said that God was very much part of the Holocaust as it was necessary step in the evolution of the world to move away from medieval isolationist Jewry and into the modern world, and for that six million Jews must die for what to me is an inevitable step in the history of mankind. I was infuriated by what I heard and let it be known, my own conclusions are that the only world the Holocaust can occur in is a godless one.

After lunch we had a talk from a survivor from Hungary called David Frankel, a former teacher at the Machon and now an established Israeli judge. He spoke with great freedom about his past in occupied Hungary, the concentration camp of Bergen-Belsen and his life in Israel afterwards. He spoke with great passion about his experiences and about his beliefs on the subject, which as you can imagine were very strong. Undoubtedly the best way to relate to the Holocaust is to listen to survivor's first hand, and it is a great shame that this opportunity will not be available to future generations.

The Seminar was concluded with a Tekes (ceremony), designed by a group of Machonikim of which I was one. We had spent many sessions designing and preparing the tekes and I am very pleased to say it went off almost perfectly. People were lead into a room which had on its perimeter and its diagonal dissections tables chairs which connected different tables. The tables represented different communities which suffered greatly at the hands of the Nazi's, I had Budapest. Everyone was given a chance to look at the different communities whilst in the background there played a video depicting Jewish life and traditional Jewish music. Then all went dark and onto the screen came a series of anti-Semitic messages from the time of the Nazi's, this was followed by a piece of music called Different Trains, using music to depict the horrors of the Holocaust, then after a brief moment of silence and darkness a short video called the Return to Life was played, which talked about life after the camps. We then broke into discussion groups to process the previous two days. After twenty minutes of discussion we reconvened around a single candle to give our own small reflections on what we had learnt from the seminar. We closed the ceremony singing the Hatikva, the Israeli National Anthem, but also a song of hope, a song that was sung as a last act of defiance by those who lost their lives in the Nazi gas-chambers.


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