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).

Church of the Holy Sepulchre

One of the most popular tourist destinations in Jerusalem is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, located where many Christians believe Jesus was crucified, buried, and resurrected.  It was built during the reign of Constantine the Great in the 4th century A.D., destroyed several times, and rebuilt or enlarged several times.  Currently, the Church is closed, due to the COVID-19 outbreak.  The last time the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was closed to the public was in 1349, also due to sickness: the Black Plague. 

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is the domed building to the left.

I have been inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre several times, but still consider it as confusing as a maze.  Therefore, I unfortunately cannot provide directions on how I arrived at any of the interesting places that I have seen there.

Several different church groups have a section of the Church allotted to them.  These are the Greek Orthodox Church (they are easy to identify because their priests have ponytails), the Roman Catholic Church, the Armenian Apostolic Church, the Coptic (Egyptian) Orthodox Church, the Syrian Orthodox Church, and the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.  The latter four are known as “Oriental” Churches, each using liturgy in languages unique to themselves (Armenian, Coptic/Egyptian, Aramaic, and Ge’ez, respectively). 

The most crowded part of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is a small building inside the high-domed Church, which is allegedly over Jesus’ tomb.  You must stand in line to enter this little building, known as the Edicule, where a priest directs the visiting pilgrims.  I did not enter the Edicule, so cannot share more information about it.  There are other ancient tombs nearby the Edicule, which you can find by entering a nearby doorway.  The Church of the Holy Sepulchre also includes a stone where the cross was said to be, and a variety of different relics (I remember a bone being one of them, but do not remember more).

Since the early Christian church endured enormous persecution when it began, nobody can be sure if the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is over the actual place where Jesus died.  However, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is built over ancient tombs that may date to that period.  Jesus is believed to have been buried outside of Jerusalem’s city walls.  Since the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is inside the walled Old City of Jerusalem, this may seem confusing.  However, the current walls of the Old City were built during the 16th century under the Ottoman Empire.  I was told that the Church of the Holy Sepulchre would have been outside of Jerusalem’s city walls during the Roman era.

Tombs inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

I had the opportunity to go on the top of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre’s smaller dome, because I had a wonderful professor who received permission to take her class up there.  This dome was part of the section of the Church owned by the Greek Orthodox Church.  In addition to going on top of the dome, we also went into a little room below it, where people work on repairing broken icons that churches send to them from all over the world.  My professor also took us to a part of the Church’s roof that is accessible to the public, and is the section owned by the Ethiopian Church.  Additionally, she took us to a water tunnel beneath the Church.  However, I, unfortunately, cannot remember how to find any of those places.

The roof of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre’s smaller dome.

Whether you are Christian or not, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is worth the visit.  If you are lucky, you will hear a church procession singing beautiful liturgy.  You will also smell spices, probably frankincense, throughout the entire building.  However, you must also be prepared to see visitors lighting candles and kissing various objects, which may be strange to people who do not follow those traditions.

A view of the Christian Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City from the roof of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

Sources and Further Reading

Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Church of the Holy Sepulchre.” https://www.britannica.com/place/Holy-Sepulchre (accessed April 10, 2020).

Vaiciulaityte, Giedre. “The Muslim Keymaster of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre Closed Its Doors for the First Time Since the Black Plague in 1349.” Boredpanda. April 8, 2020. https://www.boredpanda.com/church-of-the-holy-sepulchre-key-master/?utm_source=google&utm_medium=organic&utm_campaign=organic (accessed April 10, 2020).

Hanukkah in Jerusalem

In the United States, Christmas has become a very commercialized holiday.  Sometimes, as early as September, you can already find Christmas-related items at the store.  Amidst these Christmas items are often a few items related to the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah (sometimes spelled Chanukah, because it has the guttural “H” sound).  However, Hanukkah is actually considered a minor Jewish holiday.  The most important Jewish holidays are the ones found in the Bible, especially Leviticus 23, whereas, the story of Hanukkah occurred after the Old Testament had already been completed. There isn’t a Hanukkah museum, but I had the privilege of experiencing Hanukkah at its birthplace, Jerusalem.

The reason for Hanukkah’s popularity in the United States is that it falls around the time of Christmas.  It became a way for the Jewish community to not feel completely left out around Christmastime.  However, unlike Christmas, it never falls on the exact same day each year, because it follows the Jewish calendar, which is lunar, not the Gregorian calendar, which is solar.  It still falls around December, though, because the Jewish calendar has a leap month every few years, which helps keep the months on a similar timeline. (The Muslim calendar, on the other hand, is lunar, but doesn’t have leap days or months, so its holidays can occur at any time of year.)

Whereas most of Israel shuts down during the major Jewish holidays found in Leviticus 23, life typically continues as normal during Hanukkah.  On the first night of Hanukkah, I went to the Western (or Wailing) Wall in Jerusalem. This was a retaining wall surrounding the Second Temple and was built by King Herod the Great in the first century B.C. It is the only structure remaining that had a connection with the Jewish Temple, which the Romans completely destroyed in A.D. 70. The reason why I went to the Western Wall at night is because Jewish holidays begin at sundown. This is because the creation narrative found in Genesis 1 repeatedly says, “And there was evening and there was morning the first day,” “second day,” etc. for each of the six days of creation, implying that the day began in the evening.

While at the Western Wall (which is considered the holiest site in Judaism, due to its proximity to where the Temple once stood), the chief rabbi of Jerusalem lit the first candle of a giant menorah (the Hebrew word for “lamp”).  Afterwards, people danced in the street, and one group even projected a slideshow of images related to the Hanukkah story, with the “Pirates of the Caribbean” soundtrack playing in the background!  I was especially pleased to see that the surrounding bakeries were all selling sufganiyot (jelly doughnuts) as well.

A Hanukkah menorah at the Western Wall in Jerusalem in 2010.

The reason for lighting the menorah and eating sufganiyot is connected.  The story of Hanukkah comes from the first and second books of Maccabees, which are two books found in the Apocrypha.  The Apocrypha is Jewish writings that date to after the timespan of the Old Testament, but before the Roman occupation of Israel.  Some of it is history, and some of it is not.  Judaism never recognized the Apocrypha as divine canon, although the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches did and added it to their Bibles (the Protestants later removed it from theirs). 

The books of 1 and 2 Maccabees describe how the Seleucid Empire, a remnant of Alexander the Great’s Greek Empire, tried to Hellenize Israel and make the inhabitants worship their gods.  In order to do this, the Greeks, under the leadership of King Antiochus IV Epiphanes, desecrated the Jewish temple and sacrificed a pig within it.  However, a group of Jews under the leadership of a man named Judah Maccabee (Maccabee was his nickname and means “hammer” in Hebrew), fought and overcame the Greeks.  After that, Israel remained independent for a brief period of time, until the Romans arrived. 

After Judah’s victory, the Jews tried to rededicate the Temple.  The Hebrew word for “dedication” is “Hanukkah,” so the holiday is also known as the Feast of Dedication. (The New Testament even references it in John 10:22.)  The rest of the Hanukkah story actually comes from later tradition.  According to the story, the people were upset when they realized that the 7-branched menorah (or lamp) that was supposed to always continue burning in the Temple, was no longer lit.  They tried to find some oil to relight it, but only found enough oil that would last for one day.  However, the light ended up lasting for 8 days, just long enough for them to replenish their supply.  That is why a menorah is lit on Hanukkah each year, and why the holiday lasts for 8 days.  Additionally, that is also why a Hanukkah menorah (also called a Hanukkiah) has 9 branches instead of 7 branches, like what would have been found in the Temple.  Each of the 8 branches represents one of the 8 days of Hanukkah, while the extra middle branch is used to light each of the other 8 branches.  For each night of Hanukkah, a new candle is lit, until all are completed on the 8th day.

A common Hanukkah tradition among children is to play with a spin top called a “dreidel.” Historically, the four letters found on a dreidel stood for the phrase “A great miracle happened THERE.” However, Israeli dreidels now say, “A great miracle happened HERE” On the left is an American dreidel, with the Hebrew letter “shin,” which stands for the word “there.” On the right is an Israeli dreidel with the Hebrew letter “peh,” which stands for the word “here.”

Finally, the reason why sufganiyot (doughnuts) are eaten on Hanukkah, is because they are an oily food, so are a way to remember the miracle of the oil.  Israel’s sufganiyot are much more delicious than the ones in the United States.  This may partially be because Israel has a wider variety of flavors than just the traditional jelly-filled ones.  For example, there were some donuts that were topped with pistachio, halva, and even sweet popcorn.  Fried potato pancakes are also a popular Hanukkah dish, because they are oily. 

Sufganiyot at Roladin Bakery in Jerusalem.

Sources and Further Reading

Encyclopaedia Britannica, s.v. “Hanukkah.” Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2019. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Hanukkah (accessed November 30, 2019).

Rude, Emelyn. “Why Jelly Doughnuts Are Eaten During Hanukkah.” Time, December 7, 2015. https://time.com/4138749/sufganiyot-jelly-doughnut-hanukkah-history/ (accessed November 30, 2019).