It rose to the sky, the concrete triangular pyramid structure. My steps slowed. It beckoned and yet filled me with trepidation. I knew its contents. I had been in the smaller Holocaust museum forty years ago when Israel was close to celebrating its thirtieth anniversary as a nation.
In our apartment in Jerusalem, Israel, and the young mother of a five-year old son, I had watched on Israeli television the movies filled with the horror of the mass murders of the Jews. I had seen the suppressed sorrow in the tear filled eyes of survivors. I had heard my neighbor say her five-year old son did not want to live. “He is too young to watch,” I said.
“We must never forget,” she replied. Those words were the crux of the Holocaust Museum in the Holy Land.
I experienced three Yom Hashoah (Day of Remembrance) observances in the years 1975 to 1978. It was as if dark clouds descended and covered the country in black. I sensed the grief and depression. My spirits plummeted. Memorial services were held and as if that was not enough, a few survivors committed suicide each year. Even at that, daily reminders existed. My husband and I knew a German Jewish woman who had endured the horrors. She wandered the streets mumbling incoherently, agitated and alone. She sometimes came into the bookstore Jim managed. He made tea for her and read verses to her from a German language Bible. It calmed her for a while. My neighbor’s husband had to have a fresh loaf of bread in the house each day. It consoled him, helped deter the memories of hunger during World War II.
So here I was in 2017 at the new Holocaust memorial building with a small tour group of twelve. Our guide, who remained outside, was a Jewish Israeli. My husband, son, his partner and I entered a violent sea of emotion. The only relief to the gray concrete floors, walls and ceilings in the vast stark space were the numerous galleries or alcoves, each with different displays of artifacts with explanatory plaques or videos commemorating the time period. We started together, made our way separately, and at times joined together to view and read.
I was surprised when I saw pictures of German Jews before the war. Smiles on their faces, dressed well, successful business owners, musicians, doctors and scientists who referred to themselves as Germans. Unusual because most Jews refer to themselves as Jews first and after that they name their country. They were shocked when Hitler came to power and started denouncing them. They were not of the pure race he wanted to create.
The container on the concrete floor with glass on the top and sides showed a pile of old shoes obtained from the concentration camps at the end of the war. Each pair represented a human being who had been seized by Hitler’s regime and ended in the gas chambers in the concentration camps. The shoes were old. The memories? Painful and fresh as if they had happened to me.
My husband and I stood with our son in a gallery reading an array of pieces about various aspects of the Holocaust. My eyes caught the words, “Fifteen to twenty thousand homosexuals died in the camps.” I pointed out the words to my husband and then my son. It felt like my heart plummeted to the hard, unfeeling concrete floor. I asked my son, “Do you know about this?” He nodded his head and said, “Yes. The pink star is a symbol among the gay community.” He didn’t say more, but I sensed his sadness. I wanted to cry and to talk, but there wasn’t time and it wasn’t the place.
I was appalled. Jewish and non-Jewish gay men were targeted. They were abused by the regime on the streets, jailed and killed. Some experienced having their testicles boiled in water and some had their nails pulled out. Like the Jewish heterosexual community who had to wear armbands with a gold Star of David on it, the homosexual people had to wear pink stars. In the camps they often suffered more heinous abuse than others. Hitler wanted people who procreated the Aryan race. He targeted minorities. Had my son and his partner lived in that day, they too would have experienced the unimaginable. As a mother, my heart grieves. As a believer in human rights, my heart grieves. As a believer in the good of people, my heart grieves.
A bright spot in the museum was the gallery of the Righteous. It commemorates the many non-Jews who aided Jews during Hitler’s regime. Pictures of the gentiles and stories of what they did to hide the hunted and help them escape abound. Jews lived in many countries across Europe and as Hitler made his sweep of the nations, individuals and families put themselves in danger to help the Jews. Many of the righteous died in the camps. I’m grateful this is included. But unfortunately, most countries turned a blind eye to the plight of the Jews and would not accept refugees until after the war—after more than six million people died. Have we of the twenty-first century learned anything?
Time was running short. Soon we had to make our way to the tour bus. But before we left the building, we sat and watched the video of a survivor. She was free of the camps and was rescued by American soldiers. Tears flowed as she told her story. “I was emaciated and sick. I asked the soldiers, why now? What for? I want to die.” Her questions and feelings are valid. How do we as human beings make the journey from darkness to light? From evil to good? Many rely on their faith in a supreme being. Others immerse themselves in good deeds, family and friends. And others bury the memories so deeply they never speak of them again. But all are haunted by nightmares, neurotic behaviors, loneliness and betrayal.
We left the museum and experienced the sunshine of a spring day. I was ready to make my way to the bus, my emotions raw. And then my husband said he wanted to go to the children’s Holocaust memorial housed in another building. We entered darkness, could not see. Then our eyes adjusted. Candles reflected off mirrored walls in the form of millions of tiny lights representing one and a half million Jewish children who perished in the genocide. As we walked, translucent pictures of the children appeared. Their names, ages and country of origin were broadcast in English, Hebrew and Yiddish—one by one, star by star.
When we returned to the bus, I stood by our driver and guide, Tomer, a moment. He told me to sit down. I gripped his shoulder with my hand and squeezed hard. In Hebrew I said, “It hurts me so much. I’m so sorry.” He replied without looking at me, “It happens. It’s life.” I knew his response would be something like that. I had encountered it forty years ago. Israelis have a tough attitude. They can come across as having no feelings. But they do. They care deeply about their country, about their culture and faith, and when I lived there, I experienced their love for me. I hope Tomer felt my love for the Jews.