Think of the Holocaust. It’s a rather intense topic, especially for a museum, right? Having previously visited the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., I was ready for a gloomy experience as we pulled through the thorny gates of Yad Vashem, Israel’s national Holocaust museum in Jerusalem.
Literally translated as “Hand and name,” Yad Vashem aims to do just that through its exhibits…Put personal stories behind Holocaust victims and survivors. Once a gloomy museum like the one in D.C., (don’t get me wrong, the museum in D.C. is phenomenal, but it’s rather depressing to visit it) Yad Vashem has undergone a total transformation in recent years into a striking complex. Situated atop a hill that also bears Mount Herzl, Israel’s National Cemetery, you could dedicate an entire day to remembrance.
What’s particularly striking about the new Yad Vashem is the design. The museum itself is underground, cutting through the hill like a knife. The long structure is shaped like a triangle, with a small line of windows along its apex.
The Museum: An Architectural Tour
If there’s one place to have a guide, I’m glad it was here. As we crossed the thin bridge that leads to the museum’s door, Malakai, our guide, equated it to the process of entering a black hole. And indeed, as you make your way through the door you are entering what appears to be a dark void, a chilling indication of the sorrows waiting inside.
But when you enter the museum, you find a long hall and a path that weaves its way through side exhibit rooms. And on the other side, you see a stream of light pouring in. “That,” Malakai told us, “is the future.”
As you proceed along the exhibits, you begin to notice that the floor arcs downward, with its lowest point at the center. This happens to coincide with the 2 exhibit halls that covered the Death Camps, perhaps the lowest point in the whole Holocaust story.
Heading towards the light, there is one final stop after all of the exhibits…the cavernous Hall of Names. This two story room is filled floor-to-ceiling with books bearing testimonial pages of those lost. Looking up, you see a dome covered with faces of victims. Looking down, you see a large hole chiseled into rock with a dark void of water at the bottom. Reflecting the faces from above, it’s a beautiful representation of those lost who we will never know about.
And as you walk out the exit, the triangle bursts open to reveal a striking view of Jerusalem. This is the future. This is hope. This is a reminder why the State of Israel exists. So that Jews can be safe from persecution.
The Children’s Memorial
One nice thing about the museum is that it’s not so gloomy. It tends to focus more on the “heroes” of the Holocaust who started uprisings, hid out, saved people, or did incredible things in the face of difficult circumstances. That’s not to say, though, that the site is completely devoid of gloom…
The most poignant piece on the site is the Children’s Memorial. As you enter a dark, windowless room, you are immediately disoriented. You find yourself surrounded by candles (though in reality there is only one flame, reflected over and over again) and you have no idea which way to walk. All you hear is a voice announcing a name, an age and a country as the list of children killed in the Holocaust is read.
It’s a gut wrenching experience to pass through the memorial. And lest you be a basket case for your whole visit to the site, you’d be well advised to visit the memorial after the museum.
A Must Experience
Yad Vashem is seriously one of the most incredible museums I have ever been to. It’s an incredibly moving experience, situated on a huge, beautiful campus, filled with remembrance sculptures and halls and many other touches. And best of all? It’s completely free to enter! This a place you simply must experience while in Jerusalem!