The ‘Jewish narrative’ in the Yad Vashem global Holocaust museum Amos Goldberg

pg 189 – At first, it was a minor institution that competed with other national memorial sites, like the Shoah Cellar in Mount Zion in Jerusalem15 and the Holocaust memorial sites at the kibbutzim of Yad Mordechai and Lohamei Hageta’ot (Ghetto Fighters). Gradually, it
became the central Israeli national Holocaust memorial site and also one of Israel’s most significant national symbolic sites. Its location is very meaningful in this regard. It is situated in west Jerusalem on Mount Herzl (named after Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern political Zionism)—the Israeli national ‘Mount of Remembrance’. This site encompasses, alongside Yad Vashem, also the national military cemetery, Herzl’s tomb and the official burial site for the nation’s great leaders (‘Helkat Gedolei Ha’Uma’) among them Yitzhak Rabin, Golda Meir, Ze’ev Jabotinsky and many others.

pg 189  – (YAD VASHEM) by the 1990s it was second in popularity among tourists to Israel only to the Wailing Wall

190 – It has become—together with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC (USHMM), the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin, and Auschwitz itself— an international Holocaust ‘shrine’ of pilgrimage. These four ‘shrines’ serve as anchoring sites for the new Holocaust ethical memory that has become a fundamental component in the current identity of the West.

192 – The display deliberately and most self-consciously depicts a very
concrete focal point. As stated on the Yad Vashem website and in other official
publications, and as patently evident in the display itself, the museum presents
the story of the Shoah from a uniquely Jewish perspective.

192-193- The first one is dedicated to the Jewish world in Europe before the Shoah, which
is portrayed by a very sophisticated and impressive video-art exhibition. This
seems to express the idea that the visitor should not encounter the Jews only as
victims of the Holocaust but as human beings who had lives and histories prior
to the war. They are not merely objects of German genocidal history but rather
a subject in their own right. Following this installation, visitors are introduced in a
very moving and overwhelming exhibition to the individuation principle of the

pg 193- Modernity racism, former genocides, colonialism and imperialism, the development of discourses and practices of exclusions in the sciences, totalitarianism, fascism, the First World War, the Weimar Republic, mass society, modern nationalism the modern nation-state and so on are all omitted. However much significance one attributes to antisemitism
in understanding the Holocaust, it is obvious that it alone cannot provide a sufficient
historical background. After all, if hatred of Jews/Jew hatred is such an old phenomenon as it is presented in the exhibition, why did the Holocaust occur in the middle of the twentieth century? Consequently, an explanatory gap is introduced into the narrative from the outset.

pg 194 – Here again, one can sense the aporia that pierces the narrative. Why does the persecution
worsen? How were the decisions regarding the Jews made? How does one
phase evolve into the next one? How were all obstacles overcome? None of these
questions are addressed in the museum. This escalation is not explained and is presented
as a natural continuum. The visitor gains the impression that this mass evil
operates according to some internal logic shorn of an external context. The very
minimal and elementary references to the war function here as mere general background
and in no way provide even a partial historical context.

pg 195 – the museum makes every effort to get the visitor to acknowledge that the road to the‘final solution’ was anything but complex. It is portrayed as determined and as
already decided upon at a very early stage, although it is never explicitly said.

pg 196 – ‘These [the stages leading to the final solution] did not follow explicit orders descending from the apex to the base of the pyramid. Rather, there was a complex interrelationship of “green lights” from action coming from above and initiatives taken from below, combining to produce a spiral of radicalization’. [Kershaw, Fateful choices, p. 454.]

pg 197 – This omission is not just a misrepresentation; it is an anti-representation. Because the museum represents the deeds without the doers, and thus, even if unintentionally, it elevates the event to the mythic sphere; it portrays the event divorced from its worldly ‘causes and effect’ dimensions and from the human sphere of reasoning and explanations. The events are a ‘given’, revealing some eternal truth about the world—
that is what defines a myth. The Holocaust as presented in the museum lacks its
earthly dimensions. A ‘historial’ approach is very much missing. This omission of any serious reference to the perpetrators is a striking curatorial policy. Because the premise, seemingly shared by the museum’s ‘implied narrator and imagined uninformed addressee, is that the Holocaust is an unprecedented if not a unique event, it is one that does not lend itself intuitively to reason. It is a huge and catastrophic historical question; and this is why we build, visit and honour such a museum to commemorate this event. Such a premise calls for an explanation, a desire to understand, to start filling the gap of ‘disbelief’44; how did that happen? And precisely this question is avoided altogether in the museum. Hence, one can conclude that the museum not only fails to fill in these gaps, but that its dense, linear, perhaps even teleological, determinist and certainly very authoritative narrative actually discourages such gaps from erupting.

pg 198 – When one enters the museum, one is literally disconnected from the earthly, everyday
world. The logic that functions here is not the one that functions there. One has
to cross a bridge and go underneath the ground to a place where the gaps in the
narrative are taken for granted and lose their disturbing nature. Only there is the
visitor invited to confront the Holocaust.

pg 200- This ‘something
else’ is disconnected from earthly meaning and is elevated by the means I just
mentioned to the sphere of a sacred and authoritative myth. But what is its nature?

pg 200 -One can also mention the fact that except for three, all video testimonies are in
Hebrew.55 Obviously, this is due to the fact that Yad Vashem made use of its own
rich video testimony archival resources, which are mostly in Hebrew. But nonetheless
this gives the impression that Hebrew is the only Jewish language of the
victims and survivors whereas in fact only a tiny fraction of the Jews in Europe
spoke Hebrew during the Holocaust. Many of them, particularly from Eastern
Europe, spoke Yiddish and other languages as well. The focus on Hebrew is therefore
a Zionization of the ‘Jewish perspective’ that excludes other spoken
languages and perspectives (except for Yiddish which appears here and there on
the display but not in the videos).

pg 201 – The answer is that except for a very mild hint at the radical, problematic case of Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski, the head of the Lodz ghetto Judenrat, nothing in the
display gestures to these issues that so strongly emphasized and intensively discussed
in writings from the time of the Holocaust. These aspects are excluded
in order to construct a glorifying and heroic image of Jewish life in the Holocaust.

(The woman on the train Night – ellie wiesel , the nicking of the bread at the concentration camps)

pg 202 – Thomas Elsaesser has claimed, the role of the victim became a desirable position of universal acceptance and recognition in contemporary societies. In a world devoid of legitimate heroic action and convincing emancipatory narratives, the victim seems to
become the only viable moral social position—he has become the new hero of this era.66 It is an era that gave rise to what Eva Illouz calls the homo sentimentalis in a culture that has adopted a fundamentally therapeutic narrative of the self. She regards this as one of the most prevailing features of current Western culture.67 ( why we identify with the victims_ [[Eva Illouz, Cold intimacies: the making of emotional capitalism (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2007).]]

pg 203 – Yad Vashem is not a place serving only mourning. It is a place of humanity. Here, we must recall the lessons of history for a purpose. And the purpose is that the lessons learned must be passed on from one generation to the next, and we must understand, all of us, that we should never allow genocide in any form to happen again. We must learn our lesson from the Holocaust: Despising or dehumanizing any religion or people should not be permitted. Genocide, ethnic cleansing, racism, antismitism, Islamophobia, Christiana-phobia [sic], xenophobia are all historical yet contemporary evils that we all share a solemn responsibility to combat.[[]]

pg 205 – ‘Though we feel horror at the images, we can comfort ourselves
with the secret satisfaction deriving from our own sense of moral goodness in
recognizing that horror. The cultural circulation of Holocaust horrors can all too
easily become moral kitsch’.85 [ Poole, “Misremembering the Holocaust’, p. 38]

pg 206 – LaCapra warns us: ‘It
may remain within a quasi-sacrificial scapegoat mechanism whereby the
victim of the past becomes the redeeming figure of the present with whom
one identifies.’90
What is more, this ‘quasi-sacrificial scapegoat mechanism’ is already implicitly
and on a structural level (though not in its content) at work in the museum itself
through exclusionary relations to any ‘otherness’ of what the museum presumes as
the ‘Jewish narrative’. By that, it unintentionally repeats within itself this sacrificial
exclusionary logic. Every otherness of historicity that interferes with the
closed and self-contained (one may even say narcissistic or even chauvinistic) narrative
is radically reduced or removed altogether.91 The result is a mythic narrative
of antisemitism and victimhood that cannot be penetrated by history but only
invites or even demands identification. Its political lesson is displayed in the
last hall of the exhibition dedicated to the aftermath of the Holocaust. Almost
nothing is said about the survivors who emigrated to countries such as the
United States, Canada, Australia or South America. Nothing is said about
the majority of them, those who decided or were forced to stay in Europe in the
first years after the war (except that they were still persecuted, as in the 1946
Kielce pogrom) but much is made of their emigration to Palestine and the establishment
of the State of Israel.


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