Israel’s official memorial to the victims of the Holocaust is located four miles west of the Old City on the slopes of Mount Herzl, adjacent to the Jerusalem Forest. It is a green and peaceful place; the voices of the visitors are understandably subdued, and on the spring morning of my visit, the loudest sound was that of birdsong.
“Yad Vashem” is a phrase taken from the Book of Isaiah, which means “a place and a name.” The first memorial was established as early as 1953, but the current museum was dedicated in March 2005. It is an extraordinary building: a 600-foot-long triangular concrete “prism,” illuminated throughout its length by a skylight, that slices through the tranquil landscape. Its central corridor is interrupted by a series of impassable gaps, which oblige visitors to zigzag through underground galleries on either side. Each of these is devoted to a particular theme or chapter of the Holocaust.
Standing at the entrance, I felt rather intimidated. And when I emerged three hours later, I did indeed feel exhausted and emotionally drained. It is not the artifacts themselves — the piles of shoes, the barbed-wire fence from Auschwitz — that are the most affecting. Rather, it is the personal stories of 90 individuals, and in particular the video testimonies of Holocaust survivors, that are especially harrowing. The journey through the museum begins with a 10-minute video projected onto its 40-foot-high eastern wall. This shows grainy black-and-white footage of ordinary life in Jewish communities during the first decades of the 20th century — a portrait of the world that vanished. The final section of the museum is the Hall of Names, which contains short biographies of each Holocaust victim. This is still a work in progress, but the circular repository has sufficient space for 6 million biographies in all.
In addition to the museum, the 44-acre site contains several other structures, including a Hall of Remembrance with an eternal flame, and a heart-rending Children’s Memorial created within an underground cavern. And at the top of a steep, wooded hillside, there is an original cattle car, identical to those in which millions of Jews were transported to the death camps. It stands at the end of a stretch of railway track, overhanging a precipice.