I In the Beginning
Yad Vashem, the center of Holocaust research and remembrance located in Yerushalayim, has always been the gold standard by which all other Holocaust museums have been measured. The massive complex of libraries, archives, memorial groves and exhibits is visited daily by thousands of Jewish and non-Jewish tourists and students from Israel and abroad, totaling millions of visits each year. As a result of its prominence, Yad Vashem has an enormous impact on the world’s perception and understanding of the Holocaust.
In 2005, Yad Vashem opened its new Holocaust History Museum, featuring state-of-the-art exhibits that were crafted with great effort and expense to document every aspect of the Holocaust, from the roots of German anti-Semitism in the Middle Ages through the rise of Nazism and the ensuing years of persecution and, finally, the near-annihilation of European Jewry. The museum’s curators creatively arranged artifacts, photos, film clips and videotaped testimonies of survivors, both chronologically and thematically, so that the visitor is transported back in time to this most devastating period of modern Jewish history.
Yad Vashem has garnered well-deserved accolades for this new facility. Why, then, has a steady rumbling of criticism been coming from some Orthodox Jews?
The purpose of this article is to clarify why many Orthodox Jews are deeply disturbed by the Holocaust History Museum, and to document the efforts that have been made, thus far, to correct the omissions and distortions in Yad Vashem’s presentation of the Orthodox Jewish experience during the Holocaust.
II Four Points of Contention Between Many Orthodox Jews and Yad Vashem
The first point of contention between Orthodox Jewry and Yad Vashem was the inclusion in the Holocaust History Museum of photographs of women who had been forced to disrobe prior to being executed. The indecent nature of those pictures caused many Orthodox visitors to regret having come to Yad Vashem. Some of them reported to me that the presence of those photos convinced them that the museum was not an appropriate venue to bring their children.
A source who wished to remain anonymous informed me that when he questioned Yad Vashem officials about these photos, they responded that these were necessary to document the brutality of the Nazis. This source countered that the cruelty of the Nazis was very well portrayed with other pictures that were not indecent. Yad Vashem, however, insisted on keeping the indecent photos in place. Over a year after opening the Holocaust History Museum, the photos were finally removed after this source asked Yad Vashem officials how they would feel if one of the women appearing in the photos had been their own grandmother.
A second point of contention is the gross underrepresentation of Orthodox survivors among the videotaped testimonies that appear throughout the museum. There are approximately 50-60 video monitors of varying sizes in the Holocaust History Museum, which continually play prerecorded personal testimonies of survivors. When the Holocaust History Museum first opened in 2005, only one of the dozens of men, and none of the dozens of women, speaking on these videos were identifiably religious. Chassidic and Chareidi survivors were not represented at all. This denied visitors the opportunity to hear from survivors who view the Holocaust from a Torah perspective. After all, the purpose of a museum is to present an honest and complete picture of its subject. If any museum omits a significant segment of its theme, it is simply not doing its job.
According to Dr. Michael Berenbaum, former director of the research institute attached to the U.S. Holocaust Museum, “50%-70% of those murdered by the Nazis, were traditionally religious Jews.” To adequately represent all survivors, therefore, a majority of those videos should have included testimonies from religious survivors.
A third point of contention is the inadequate portrayal of what has been termed the “spiritual heroism” of the Holocaust victims and survivors. The countless examples of Jews in the ghettos and concentration camps who risked their lives to study Torah and observe mitzvos are almost completely ignored. Ruth Lichtenstein’s Witness to History, for example, contains numerous examples of the myriad acts of self-sacrifice and adherence to Judaism under the most challenging conditions, as does the groundbreaking research of historian Esther Farbstein. In addition, Rabbi Yosef Elias’ Tragedy and Rebirth, I. Cohen’s Destined to Survive and the Agudah-sponsored film Faith Amid the Ashes provide further evidence of this spiritual bravery, which could fill in the gaping hole of this major chapter of the historical record of the Holocaust presented at the museum.
When the Holocaust History Museum opened, a few tashmishei kedushah, such as tefillin, a tallis bag and a sefer Tehillim were displayed without any significant description beyond identification. Since then, a shofar and a handwritten machzor were added, together with brief descriptions of the mesirus nefesh displayed by their use. These represent a miniscule drop compared to the ocean of examples that could and should be added to present a truly accurate account of Orthodox life during those most trying times.
By paying so little attention to the spiritual heroism chapter of the Holocaust, Yad Vashem discounts it and thereby perpetuates the negative stereotype of “the ghetto Jews going like sheep to the slaughter.” Spiritual heroism is an active, legitimate form of resistance that is no less noble than the more glorified forms of physical resistance.
The fourth point of contention is that the Holocaust History Museum includes a distorted and wholly inadequate presentation of Orthodox Hatzolah leaders and their rescue work.
When the Holocaust History Museum opened, for example, only a small, unidentified photo of Rav Michoel Ber Weissmandl zt”l was displayed. There was no reference made to his extraordinary rescue efforts together with the Sternbuchs, the Rothschilds and others, despite the fact that this dramatic chapter in the annals of the Holocaust has been exhaustively documented by historians. Rav Weissmandl’s own heart-wrenching book, Min Hameitzar, clearly chronicles those rescue efforts, which were unfortunately thwarted, at times, by misguided fellow Jews.
Later, I saw that that small picture was replaced with a slightly larger one, accompanied by the following text: “In the course of negotiations over the summer of 1942 [Rav Weissmandl’s] Working Group paid ransom money to Dieter Wisliceny, Eichmann’s delegate in Slovakia. For various considerations, the deportations were halted in the autumn of 1942 but the Working Group believed this was a result of their bribes.”
This wording implies that Rav Weissmandl was duped by the Nazis, a charge that has been challenged by many Holocaust scholars. Even if there is a dispute about this, by what right does Yad Vashem have to choose sides and come down on the side of disparaging an Orthodox hero?
Finally, no mention is made, whatsoever, of the heroic and tireless work of Rav Aharon Kotler zt”l, Rav Avrohom Kalmanowitz zt”l, Mike Tress zt”l, and the volunteers of the Vaad Hahatzolah and Zeirei Agudath Israel, who raised funds and applied political pressure to rescue countless lives from otherwise certain death. Nor was there any reference to the historic march on Washington, D.C., of over 400 rabbonim on Erev Yom Kippur, 1943, or the kindertransports organized by Rabbi Dr. Solomon Schoenfeld zt”l that rescued over 10,000 Jewish children. Would the Tower of London Museum remove its display of the Crown Jewels? Would the Library of Congress leave out the Declaration of Independence? Would the Metropolitan Museum of Art omit paintings by Rembrandt? For Yad Vashem to omit this chapter of Holocaust history is even more egregious.
III Unfavorable Coverage in the Media and Yad Vashem’s Responses
Since the opening of the Holocaust History Museum, numerous articles have appeared in both the religious and secular Jewish press in the United States and Israel criticizing it on one or more of the grounds set forth above. The initial response of spokespeople for Yad Vashem was to acknowledge the need for changes to its exhibits and to ask the public to exercise patience until such modifications could be made. Ten years have passed, however, and the changes are negligible.
Moreover, in subsequent exchanges with representatives of Yad Vashem, the tone of the responses to critique has turned far more defensive and closed to dialogue. Accusations were leveled that those raising legitimate questions about the museum’s exhibits were “intent on driving a wedge between Jews” or seeking to “ignite the flames of controversy and sinas chinom among the Jewish people.” Obviously, such rhetoric adds much heat, but precious little light, to the issues at hand.
On several occasions, Yad Vashem officials have responded to the paucity of elements in the museum reflective of the Orthodox Jewish Holocaust experience by highlighting the Orthodox-related content in online material and publications and the existence of an “ultra-Orthodox department in Yad Vashem’s International School for Holocaust Studies” as evidence of an interest in serving the Orthodox Jewish community. Further proof that Yad Vashem caters to all segments of Jewry could be found, they said, in the “thousands of chareidi educators and visitors who have attended seminars and tours at Yad Vashem in this past year alone.”
While those statements are true, they obscure the main point of this article that omissions at the museum represent historical distortions in the record of the full Holocaust experience. In addition, the attendance at the museum of large groups of Orthodox visitors does not imply satisfaction with the exhibits any more than Orthodox ridership implies approval of subway advertising. Furthermore, as a result of the diminished presentation of the Orthodox Jewish perspective and experience during the Holocaust at the Holocaust History Museum, many members of the Orthodox community feel – after visiting the museum – that the memory of their relatives who were victims or survivors has been tarnished.
IV Improvements at the Holocaust History Museum
There is no denying the fact that improvements have been made at the Holocaust History Museum at Yad Vashem, although it is difficult to assess the role that the criticism in the Orthodox Jewish press has played in bringing about those changes. As mentioned above, the indecent photos have been removed and a few, paltry examples of spiritual heroism have been added. Undeniably, the most dramatic improvement to the Holocaust History Museum since it opened, however, has been the addition of the videotaped testimony of Sinai Adler, a bona fide, bearded, black-hatted, black suited and unmistakably Chareidi survivor. He appears in an emotionally gripping, inspiring and yiras Shomayim-laden presentation.
While this testimony does convey an unabashedly Torah perspective on the Holocaust, it is so outnumbered by the opposite that its impact is minimal. Moreover, the overwhelming imbalance stands as a brazen disregard for Yad Vashem’s own stated mission to present an accurate historical record of the Holocaust.
The Orthodox community itself, however, has heard and responded to the unmet need for Holocaust remembrance highlighting the Orthodox Jewish experience and perspective. Mrs. Ruth Lichtenstein’s Project Witness, for example, has produced riveting video documentaries and published a groundbreaking Holocaust history textbook, Witness to History, which not only records all of the decimated Orthodox communities, but also showcases the countless acts of spiritual heroism in the ghettos and concentration camps where the flame of Torah study and observance was kept burning. Furthermore, the Kleinman Family Holocaust Education Center is collecting artifacts and memorabilia to be included in the first American Holocaust museum under Orthodox auspices, scheduled to open next year in Brooklyn, NY.
Unfortunately, the changes made at Yad Vashem fall far short of what is needed. As the premier Holocaust museum, Yad Vashem dishonors the memory of the six million kedoshim by presenting an incomplete and partially distorted record of Churban Europa.
In the past ten years, many Orthodox visitors to Yad Vashem have shrugged their shoulders and have walked out feeling disheartened and thinking, “There is nothing we can do. Yad Vashem is a secular organization. They wouldn’t listen anyway.”
The small changes that have been made at the museum thus far, however, prove how wrong those people were. Torah Jewry, therefore, has a moral obligation to continue to express its full throated opposition to the current exhibit – through phone calls, letter and articles (such as this one) – until all of the necessary corrections are made in order to truly honor the memory of the kedoshim, Hashem yinkom domom.
We owe it to them. We owe it to ourselves. And we owe it to our children.
Dr. Meir Wikler is a noted psychotherapist and family counselor in full-time private practice with offices in Lakewood, NJ, and Brooklyn, NY. He is also a popular speaker and THE author of ten books published by ArtScroll, Feldheim and Menucha Publishers.
Yad Vashem was presented this article and invited to share a response for publication. This is their unedited response to Dr. Wikler’s charges:
As the World Center for Holocaust Remembrance, Yad Vashem strives to present the story of the Shoah to a global audience in a broad fashion while focusing on the Jewish personal perspective.
For over six decades, Yad Vashem has dedicated itself to giving a name and a face to all of the six million victims of the Holocaust. While the plight of one specific population group is not highlighted over others, the testimonies, artifacts and images on display in the Holocaust History Museum at Yad Vashem conveys the story of human spirit and the extreme sacrifice European and North African Jewry paid during the tragedy of the Holocaust, without prejudice or regard to religious background or association. Many of the video segments in the museum tell the personal stories of the valiant efforts Jews went through in order to preserve their religious identity and keep their tradition alive under unbearable circumstances. In addition to the Museum Complex in Jerusalem, Yad Vashem has an unparalleled and comprehensive website featuring a range of online exhibitions highlighting individuals and communities destroyed during the Shoah, including specific ultra-Orthodox communities from Europe.
With the support of Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, Holocaust survivor and chairman of the Yad Vashem Council, as well as other rabbinical figures, Yad Vashem has developed a mutually respectful and productive relationship with the leading admorim and rabbonim from the ultra-Orthodox community. Each year, Yad Vashem hosts hundreds of leaders from the community, as well as yeshiva and seminary teachers and students, who participate in many cooperative programs, including educational seminars. In addition, the Shoah Victims Names Recovery Project works in full cooperation with Agudas Yisrael of America and Ginzach Kiddush Hashem of Bnei Brak, as well as many other organizations in the Chassidic and Litvish communities in Israel and abroad. Yad Vashem is also a popular site for ultra-Orthodox tourism in Israel, and thousands come to visit the campus each year.
For many years, Dr. Meir Wikler has been determined to censure Yad Vashem, despite its clear engagement with the ultra-Orthodox community, as well as its rich legacy that was so tragically decimated during the Holocaust. Dr. Wikler, who does not seem to represent the mainstream Haredi community, is unfortunately conducting a single-minded campaign to sully all of the efforts carried out by Yad Vashem’s dedicated staff and supporters worldwide to commemorate all of the six million Jews – men, women and children – who were brutally murdered by the German Nazis and their collaborators.