I am a self-proclaimed peacenik, a dove of the first degree. And yet when I consider World War Two, I look at history through the eyes of a non-Jew and know some wars were worth fighting. To find myself, a blue-eyed Catholic of Austrian descent, at Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem was to walk a dark and frightening rite of passage.
I took in the haunting photographs, the archives, even the actual arm bands and ghetto cobblestones, but nothing moved me more than the art. Art often provides the most powerful access to reality. Yad Vashem’s shouts, “We are not the last.” It whispers, “This is an abomination we will not abide.”
Yad Vashem’s art created after the Holocaust includes sculpture like Elsa Pollak’s “All That Remained” – a life-sized pile of shoes mounded in a gallery. This sculpture stopped me cold. I couldn’t help but call to mind the old adage, the appeal for empathy: “Walk a mile in my shoes.” But these shoes nobody will fill.
On the grounds of Yad Vashem another sculpture depicts human forms – skeletal, tangled, their mouths open in a cry almost audible. Another sculpture shows a line of huddled people naked and hairless, ribs jutting, bodies melting.
A cubist sculpture introducing Yad Vashem’s photography exhibit portrays a Jewish mother extinguishing the Sabbath candles on her breasts. My Israeli guide pointed out that those Jews who died in the Holocaust translated into multiples of Jews never born.
These 3-D works molded and cast the nightmare that was.
Even more gripping, however, were works created during the Holocaust. That art could be forged in the volcano of fear bears witness to the power of creativity. In environments that might have snuffed every spark of artistry, paintings were painted, sketches sketched, illustrations drawn that captured the humanity of a people robbed of life. In the ghettos, even a sunflower could become subject matter of forbidding force.
In my reporter’s notebook, I jotted notes about Moritz Nagel’s 1943 watercolor of the Theresienstadt Ghetto. I had written the title “Mourning in the Ghetto,” but is the painting’s title actually “Morning in the Ghetto?” At Yad Vashem, the breaking of day and the breaking of hearts seems indistinguishable.
No bright colors in Nagel’s palette. A white sky. Faceless people. The shadow of a barren tree.
In my notebook, I scrawled our guide’s words: “They didn’t see fruit for years.”
My visit to Yad Vashem bore fruit in the form of a deepened sense of the Holocaust. The six-candle menorah serves as the symbol of Yad Vashem, symbol of the 6 million slaughtered Jews, and a symbol of my own sixth sense that non-Jews can never fully grasp the Holocaust.
As a junior high student, I checked out books on the Holocaust from the library of my Catholic school. In them, I found that Adolf Hitler was not German, but Austrian – born of my mother’s motherland. And a baptized Catholic, like me. I learned that the Church, my Church, for all her piety, had too often failed to intervene.
Hitler persecuted Catholics, as well. But for Catholics to get their minds around the Holocaust, we would have to hearken back to our first centuries. Even then, the persecution of early Christians was unorganized, sporadic and cannot compare to the systematic savagery of the Final Solution.
In the face of the suffering the Jewish people have experienced, I stand aware but reverently silent because I have known but a small part of it through books, through movies, through Yad Vashem. What I have learned has left me bewildered, my tongue heavy with so much to say, yet so little. No words of apology or consolation could ever be enough.
My solidarity is not altogether silent, though. There is this message you have read, in which I can say to you this: Some of us – most of us, I pray – not only will remember. We will never forget.