Yad Vashem

Marlin Vis

Yad Vashem is located on a hill overlooking a beautiful valley outside Jerusalem. From East Jerusalem to Yad Vashem is a two-hour walk. It is a Sunday afternoon and it’s raining. Sally and I have been to worship, and now we are on our way to visit this haunting place, Yad Vashem. At the toughest point in the walk—it’s a mile and a half uphill, it’s raining, and the wind is in our faces—we wonder aloud why we are doing this.

We arrive around one in the afternoon and have lunch, a potpourri of salads and bread—delicious. Then we go into the memorial, a long, tubular, cement building into which you descend, like descending into hell. Sally and I enter along with a throng of two or three hundred young men and women—soldiers—new trainees, we discover by asking. They are dressed in the green uniforms of the Israeli military. They are unarmed.

And that’s as far as I will go with you. If you want to know more about Yad Vashem, you will have to find some other source, or better yet, you will have to go and experience it for yourself. For me to try to describe what Sally and I see and hear over the next several hours feels to me like an intrusion on a sacred place, the despoiling of a holy memory—something for which I can’t find the words.

Yad Vashem is the world’s largest place of Holocaust remembrance. Yad can mean either “hand” or “monument.” Here I think it may carry both meanings, but I have yet to learn the part “hand” has to play. Shem is “name,” and va is the conjunctive “and.” Hand and Name. Monument and Name. The phrase comes from a passage in Isaiah. Yad Vashem is devoted to remembering the names of those who were murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators.

Sally and I, along with the soldiers, spend three or four hours walking through the memorial/museum (I don’t know what to call it for sure). This is all we can handle for today. We’ll go back again.

We found our way out—no easy task—and began the walk back to our apartment in East Jerusalem. The sun was shining. Thankfully, the path is mostly downhill, and now the wind is at our backs. Heads bowed, brows furrowed, now carrying our jackets, an old married couple comfortable with silent company; we trudge back to our home.

I was thinking about guilt, maybe because I was feeling guilty. Even though I wasn’t born until after the Holocaust happened, even though my father was at the liberation of Dachau—one of the death camps—and even though I’m not German, I felt guilty. You can’t walk out of that place and not feel guilt over what was done to the Jewish people.

I was thinking about anger, maybe because I was feeling angry. And I can tell you that those young soldiers were feeling anger as well. I could see it on their faces. These young men and women were looking at pictures of their grandfathers and grandmothers, uncles and aunts, and they were angry. Their anger is not some f lash-on-and-off kind of anger. It is the deeply seeded variety, a part of their being, a fire-in-the-belly rage.

And I was thinking of the Palestinian people. Unless I’m missing something, they had nothing to do with the Jewish Holocaust, yet they are the ones who are most affected by the guilt and the anger. It is the Palestinian people who are most negatively affected by the guilt Europe and the United States carries over the Holocaust. It is the Palestinian people who bear the brunt of the rage smoldering in these young soldiers.

Jewish people need a homeland, a place of refuge; I do not dispute that, not for a minute. Walking through Yad Vashem serves as reinforcement of that strong conviction. The Jewish people need a state. The Jewish people have a state. That’s good, very good.

The Palestinian people need a homeland as well, a place of refuge. The Arab states have already taken in millions of Palestinian refugees and should not be asked or expected to take in any more. The fact is that this land is home to the Palestinians. Most Israelis immigrated to this land, or are second-, maybe third-generation immigrants. I have no problem with that, as I am a third-generation citizen of the United States. However, all Palestinians were born here, and can trace their family line back over centuries.

Go ahead and feel guilty over the Jewish Holocaust. There is a sense in which we are all to blame. It was painful to see the role the church played in the Holocaust. It was painful to note that, when Jews were looking to escape the Nazis, and then later, when refugees from the death camps were looking for a place to go, the United States would not take them in. Go ahead and feel anger over what happened to the Jewish people. It was an outrage, a disgrace.

But please remember, two wrongs do not make a right. The Palestinian people ought not be the ones to atone for the atrocities done primarily to the Jews of Europe. There has to be a both/and solution. History will judge how well we did in trying to find one.

Marlin Vis has been reappointed as Reformed Church in America mission personnel in Israel/Palestine. In early 2014, he and his wife, Sally, will serve the local Christians in the region as these brothers and sisters seek to witness the reconciling love of Jesus to their Jewish and Muslim neighbors.