On Monday morning we woke up, ate breakfast, and boarded buses to make our way to Yad Vashem. This is the Holocaust museum in Israel. The topic of the day focused on “Leadership during the Holocaust and its Ramifications on Young Leadership Today.” We did not actually go into the main part of the museum, but rather we attended a lecture, walked along the outside, and saw an exhibition.
The speaker we heard was very enticing. She began by speaking of the Jewish youth movement before the Holocaust. 10 – 15% of Jews belonged to a youth movement, and they were all asking each other how they can change the world. The leaders were around 16 or 17 years of age and once the Holocaust began they were the ones taking cause of the younger children in the ghettos while many of their parents had already died. Another form of leadership at that time were teachers.
The major question asked before the Holocaust is the same major question we’re are asking today. How did Jews survive and live in the world of chaos? Especially during the Holocaust? For more than twenty months, according to Nazi documents, the average person was consuming 177 calories per day. 100,000 people died from dehumanization, among millions and millions of others who died. So how in hell did 400,000 people survive and live through this torturous time?
We first looked at the role of women during the Holocaust. Until recently many are not getting the recognition they deserve for all of the hard work they went through. At the time they could get away more with not identifying themselves as Jewish than men, and thus they became smugglers in the ghetto for food and such for their families. Never in their lives did they imagine they would have to do this but initiatives had to be taken in order to survive. 80% of the food consumed in the ghettos was through smuggling.
We then looked at the role of Jewish medical doctors in the Holocaust. In 1942 in a ghetto in Germany a Jewish doctor invited a Rabbi, a Jewish lawyer, and two colleagues of his who were doctors and also Jewish. The four men went underground and documented their secret meeting. They all decided they wanted to document things for the future. At this point they really believed that Jews would no longer exist and they wanted to leave something behind for the world to see. They spoke of different dilemmas that they had encountered during the Holocaust as far as saving lives, who to choose, what was more crucial to work on, etc. Our speaker then asked us, “Why do we teach dilemmas? Because even in a world of chaos we still have to ask a moral question. We still want to be able to choose, we still want to be a human being.”
She then said how people usually think that if they have good leadership they will survive. But in the Holocaust, even with great leadership, too many people still died.
There was one story she told us that really stuck with me. There was a bench that twelve men shared as a bed in the concentration camp. One night some of the men came in and one of them had already fallen asleep. When they looked down at him they saw a smile on his face, meaning he was dreaming something that was making him happy. Instead of waking him up to move so they could also lay down and sleep they decided to let him continue dreaming. To let him “leave” the horrors of the camp if only for a little while. This feeling of doing something good, that is what kept them living for a little while longer.
Our speaker then spoke of after the Holocaust and for those who survived, their returning to life. Those who survived asked themselves two questions, The question of revenge and why live after? But the people did survive, and us Jews are still around today. We learned during that speech that the leadership in the Holocaust is explained differently than leadership in everyday life. Either way it’s explained though, leadership plays a crucial role in our lives.
After listening to the speaker we split off into our groups and each were given a personal tour guide. Ours writes web content and creates lesson plans at Yad Vashem. She first brought us into a room and showed us different artifacts and pieces of arks and other Jewish items that remained during the holocaust.
We then went into the “Virtues of Memory” exhibition which is a room filled with artwork created only by those who survived the Holocaust. While walking around the room I saw a quote on the wall that really struck me – Silence permeated life, and life entered silence. Another item that struck me was a painting of the underground subway in New York City. The artist felt that the subway reminded her of Auschwitz because of the noise the train would make when it was coming. She could never go down there because when she heard it she always had to leave. Notice how the transfer train is the number 6 — representing the number of millions of Jews who died in the Holocaust.
Another thing I learned that day that is interesting is that Israel was not really ready to talk about and confront the Holocaust until 1961. This year marks the 50th anniversary of when people started to be put on trial for the atrocities that they committed. Many people today are struggling because Nazis who are still alive are now in their late eighties and early nineties and people are asking if they are too old to be tried. I personally don’t care if they’re 500 years old, they should be put on trial and given the punishment they deserve.
The last thing we saw of the day was the car that the Jews rode in to go to the concentration camps. Unlike other Holocaust museums around the world, at Yad Vashem you can not actually walk into the car, but rather only see it from a distance. Our tour guide asked why we thought this was so. Vanessa gave a brilliant answer, saying how we always say “Never again” when referring to the Holocaust. If we go in them here it only serves as a reminder, and it’s again us Jews walking into a car that we should never have to enter again.