(This is the first in a series of posts in which I will reflect on my “group study pilgrimage” to Israel, February 10-20. We begin at the end of the journey . . .)
“It will be the most incredible monument you have ever seen.”
That’s what Ezra, our guide, said as we stood outside the Children’s Memorial at Yad Vashem, Israel’s Memorial to the Holocaust in Jerusalem.
I have to admit I was a little skeptical. Ezra had been a reliable source of information for more than a week as he led our ecumenical group of 37 pastors around the Holy Land. He had been a font of facts and dates and compelling stories covering thousands of years of history. We had seen so much here in Israel – and in other places in our lives . . . this would be the most incredible monument?
Ezra explained some of the history of the Children’s Memorial. It was funded by Abe and Edita Spiegel whose 2 and a half year old son, Uziel, was murdered at Auschwitz.
The exterior of the memorial is intentionally unfinished. Stone and steel columns that do not complete their reach symbolize lives pitilessly shortened.
Once inside the structure, you pass the stone relief image of Uziel Spiegel. His plump cheeks and mellow smile give no clue to the horror awaiting him and 1.5 million more children.
One and a half million! How can you ever wrap your head around such a number? Of the six million who died in the holocaust, an estimated quarter of them were children.
This is not a matter for the head. Statistics and maps and chains-of-command are useful for comprehending the mechanics of the butchery, but they can become a buffer for the heart.
There are no such heart-shields here.
The path descends into the core of the memorial. It is underground. The way narrows on each side. Your experience is of cattle being herded into the slaughterhouse. Or, more incomprehensible than cattle . . .
A few more steps, and you are on level ground. Underground. Before you is a glass case where black and white images float, suspended before you. Each is an old photograph of a child. They are of varied ages, genders, and, complexions. But, you realize, they had something in common. Each one was a Jew. And something else . . . each one was murdered.
Then the path turns and you are in darkness. But in the darkness are lights. Thousands of them . . . no, there must be hundreds of thousands, maybe more than a million. The walls and ceiling and even the floor are mirrors. There are one or just a few source candles in the center of the empty space. It is impossible to tell. But brilliant points of reflected light float and flicker in the darkness. Each one represents a child.
And then you become aware of the voice. A name is read. Then an age. Then a place – a hometown. Then another. On and on the names are read. Children are remembered.
You may hear in the background the sound of a male voice choir droning a sustained minor chord. But this may be a tonal enhancement by my memory, an aural expression of the gloom and sorrow pervading the place.
For if you are like me, as you walk through this place, clutching the guide rail in the darkness, grief leaches from your heart and every other organ. You are burdened by leaden despair.
One and a half million is no longer a number. It is heartbreak.
Finally you emerge – or perhaps escape – from this space up into the light. There is a terrace there overlooking the mountains of Judea and down to the city of Jerusalem. It is a beautiful view. But one I had trouble taking in until I wiped the tears from my eyes.
Just beyond and beneath the terrace is a sidewalk. As I stood there doing my best to regain my composure, a line of young people began to file by. I assume they were a class on a field trip. They looked to be 15 or 16 years old. As young people do on field trips, even to a holocaust museum, some were acting quite silly. One young lady was riding piggyback on a young man’s back.
Thank God for them. And God be with them.
I’ve got nothing profound with which to end this post. Nothing worthy of the place or of what it represents or evokes.
The best I can do is this . . . The Children’s Memorial at Yad Vashem is an important place. It is vital to remember. But I am not sure what to do.
Perhaps it is the remembering that is the point.