Yad Vashem and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

April 21, 2020 is this year’s date for Yom HaShoah, or Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance Day.  Israel commemorates the day by sounding a siren for 2 minutes throughout the country.  During that time, the entire nation is required to stop what they are doing (including driving), until the siren stops.  “Yom” means “day” in Hebrew, and “Shoah,” which is a word used several times in the Bible, means “calamity.”

Yom HaShoah always falls on the 27th day of the Jewish month of Nissan, since that marks the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.  When the Nazis invaded Poland and started WWII on September 1, 1939, they forced all of its Jewish inhabitants to live in certain enclosed areas (ghettos) within their cities.  Since Warsaw is the capital of Poland, that city held the largest of these ghettos.  The Nazis gradually transported people from the ghettos to concentration camps, so in 1943, the remaining survivors in the Warsaw Ghetto had had enough, and revolted against the Germans.  Although the revolt was unsuccessful, it was the largest Jewish uprising during the Holocaust.  The 2002 film The Pianist depicts this tragic event.

Dr. Janusz Korczak took care of orphans in the Warsaw Ghetto. This memorial to him is in Skokie, Illinois, a town that had the largest Holocaust survivor population outside of Israel.

The two largest Holocaust museums in the world are Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C., respectively.  Israel’s museum (Yad Vashem means “a memorial and a name” and comes from Isaiah 56:5) began in 1953, five years after Israel became an independent nation.  The United States’ museum was completed forty years later, in 1993.  Both museums are free, crowded, provide tours in several languages, and incorporate the video testimonies of survivors as part of their exhibits.  Both also have amazing websites filled with primary sources such as photos, video testimonies, documents, etc.  Additionally, Yad Vashem has a database of all of the documented victims of the Holocaust, as well as a database of all of the documented “Righteous Among the Nations,” or individuals who rescued Jews during the Holocaust.  Yad Vashem has also planted a tree for every known Righteous Among the Nations, with the name of a rescuer placed on a plaque beneath each tree.  Visitors can see the trees as they walk around the Museum’s grounds.

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C.

Perhaps two of the most visceral memorials at Yad Vashem are the Children’s Memorial and the Hall of Names.  The Children’s Memorial is a separate building on the Museum’s grounds, memorializing the approximately 1.5 million children who died in the Holocaust.  It contains photos of children, and a candle placed in the center of the room, with mirrors reflecting the candle’s light throughout the space.  The Hall of Names contains books of the names of victims, as well as a domed ceiling with the photos of many victims spread across it. (The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum also has a room full of victims’ photos.) However, Yad Vashem’s main exhibit ends in hope. It ends with a large window overlooking the city of Jerusalem, which is a way of showing visitors that Hitler’s goal of annihilating the Jews failed.

The most visceral display at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum is the shoe collection.  It displays 4,000 shoes, on long-term loan from Majdanek concentration camp near Lublin, Poland.  When you hear that six million Jews died during the Holocaust, it just sounds like statistics.  However, when you see 4,000 different types of shoes piled on top of each other, the reality that each one belonged to a unique individual who died makes the numbers sink in more.

Quote located on one of the walls of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

I have also written about the third largest Holocaust museum in the world: The Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center.

Sources and Further Reading

“The Central Database of Shoah Victims’ Names.” Yad Vashem. https://yvng.yadvashem.org/index.html?language=en (accessed April 18, 2020).

Gilad, Elon. “Shoah: How a Biblical Term Became the Hebrew Word for Holocaust.” Haaretz. May 1, 2019. https://www.haaretz.com/jewish/holocaust-remembrance-day/.premium-shoah-how-a-biblical-term-became-the-hebrew-word-for-holocaust-1.5236861 (accessed April 18, 2020).

“The Righteous Among the Nations Database.” Yad Vashem. https://righteous.yadvashem.org/ (accessed April 18, 2020).

“Yom Hashoah.” BBC. April 27, 2011. https://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/judaism/holydays/yomhashoa.shtml (accessed April 18, 2020).

Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center

In 2009, the third largest Holocaust museum in the world opened up in Skokie, Illinois.  The two largest museums are Yad Vashem in Jerusalem and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C., respectively.  Why Skokie, you might ask?  Skokie used to have one of the largest Holocaust survivor populations in the world.  Whereas some Chicago suburbs restricted whether or not Jews could live in their neighborhoods, Skokie welcomed Jews.

Although the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center (ILHMEC) in Skokie opened up ten years ago, a smaller version of this museum existed since the late 1970s.  In 1977 and 1978, a group of neo-Nazis attempted to march in Skokie in order to antagonize the Jewish community there.  However, the issue went to the U.S. Supreme Court.  Ironically, both the lawyer defending Skokie’s Holocaust survivors and the lawyer defending the neo-Nazis’ freedom of speech were Jews.  Even stranger was the discovery made about Frank Collin, the head of the neo-Nazi group in the Midwest, who was trying to march in Skokie in the first place.  Collin’s father was a Jewish Holocaust survivor who had been imprisoned at the Dachau concentration camp in Germany.

The neo-Nazis eventually won the Supreme Court case, and were granted permission to march in Skokie.  However, they ended up changing their minds and marched in Chicago instead.  As a result, the Skokie Holocaust survivors started a small museum in a storefront building (which is now the Kaleemullah Masjid mosque), in order to educate people about the Holocaust.  This museum ultimately evolved into Skokie’s current Holocaust museum, which primarily contains the testimonies and artifacts of local survivors.  The attempted neo-Nazi march also inspired Skokie’s Holocaust survivors to work on having an Illinois law pass, which now requires that schools teach their students about the Holocaust.  This law eventually evolved into a broader requirement in which schools must teach about other genocides as well.

In order to fulfill the Illinois law, many schools bring their students on field trips to the ILHMEC.  While I was interning at the Museum in 2013, at least forty local Holocaust survivors alternated speaking to these students each day.  Although the number of remaining survivors continues to decline, there are still survivors who speak two weekends a month at the Museum to the general public.  You can learn the speaking schedule on the Museum’s Events page: https://www.ilholocaustmuseum.org/pages/programs/events/  In preparation for when there will no longer be Holocaust survivors with us, the ILHMEC has partnered with the Shoah Foundation (Steven Spielberg’s project that recorded the testimony of over 50,000 witnesses to the Holocaust) to create a hologram experience with a handful of survivors.  The Shoah Foundation intensely interviewed these survivors so that you can now listen to a hologram of these survivors and ask them questions afterwards.  Although it is not the same as talking with a real person, it will be a decent substitute in the future.

In addition to an authentic German train car, like the ones used to deport Jews to concentration camps, and Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal’s desk (read his book about forgiveness called The Sunflower), the Museum contains many other interesting objects as well.  The silver Judaica objects near the exit to the Museum were confiscated from Jewish homes by the Nazis, and eventually found by U.S. troops in German warehouses after the War (vividly depicted in the 2014 film The Monuments Men).  An organization called the Jewish Cultural Reconstruction, Inc. (JCR for short) formed soon after the War with the mission of finding the original owners of these objects.  Since most of the owners had perished, these items were ultimately donated to different Jewish organizations throughout the world.  The silver objects at the ILHMEC are on long-term loan from the Hebrew Theological College in Skokie, which received these objects from the JCR back in the 1950s.  Because they were kept in storage for so long, they arrived at the Museum tarnished and dark in 2013.  As an intern at the Museum, I had the privilege of polishing these special items.

Sources and Further Reading

“History.” Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center. https://www.ilholocaustmuseum.org/pages/about/history/ (accessed September 26, 2019).

“Jewish Cultural Reconstruction, Inc. (JCR).” Jewish Virtual Library. https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jewish-cultural-reconstruction-inc-jcr (accessed September 26, 2019).

Surviving Skokie. Directed by Eli Adler and Blair Gershkow. Clean Slate Productions, 2015. DVD.

Wiesenthal, Simon. The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness. 2nd ed. New York: Schocken Books, 1997.