Blitzkoenig | Dreamstime.com
The experience of the Holocaust—the annihilation of 6 million Jews by the Nazis during World War II—is so deeply seared into the Jewish national psyche that understanding it goes a long way toward understanding Israelis themselves. Yad Vashem was created in 1953 by an act of the Knesset, and charged with preserving a record of those times. The multifaceted campus includes an archive and research facility, an energetic education department, art galleries, and numerous monuments. (The name Yad Vashem—"a memorial and a name"—comes from the biblical book of Isaiah [56:5].) The Israeli government has made a tradition of bringing almost all high-ranking official foreign guests to visit the place.
The riveting Holocaust History Museum —a well-lit, 200-yard-long triangular concrete "prism"—is the centerpiece of the site. Powerful visual and audiovisual techniques in a series of galleries document Jewish life in Europe before the catastrophe and follow the escalation
of persecution and internment to the hideous climax of the Nazi's "Final Solution." Video interviews and personal artifacts individualize the experience. Note that children under 10 are not admitted, photography is not allowed in the exhibition areas, and large bags have to be checked.
The small Children's Memorial is dedicated to the 1.5 million Jewish children murdered by the Nazis. Architect Moshe Safdie wanted to convey the enormity of the crime without numbing the visitor's emotions or losing sight of the victims' individuality. The result is a single dark room, lit by just a few candles infinitely reflected in hundreds of mirrors. Recorded narrators intone the names, ages, and countries of origin of known victims. The effect is electrifying. Also focusing on children is a poignant exhibition called "No Child's Play," about children's activities during the Holocaust. It's in an art museum beyond the exit of the Holocaust History Museum.
The Avenue of the Righteous encircles Yad Vashem with thousands of trees marked with the names of Gentiles in Europe who risked and sometimes lost their lives trying to save Jews from the Nazis. Raoul Wallenberg, King Christian X of Denmark, Corrie ten Boom, Oskar Schindler, and American journalist Varian Fry are among the more famous honorees. The Hall of Remembrance is a heavy basalt-and-concrete building that houses an eternal flame, with the names of the death camps and concentration camps in relief on the floor.
A detour takes you to the Valley of the Communities at the bottom of the hill, where large rough-hewn limestone boulders divide the site into a series of small, man-made canyons. Each clearing represents a region of Nazi Europe, laid out geographically. The names of some five thousand destroyed Jewish communities are inscribed in the stone walls, with larger letters highlighting those that were particularly important in prewar Europe.
There is an information booth (be sure to buy the inexpensive map of the site), a bookstore, and a cafeteria at the entrance to Yad Vashem.
Allow about two hours to see the Holocaust History Museum, more if you rent an audio guide. If your time is short, be sure to see the Children's Memorial and the Avenue of the Righteous. To avoid the biggest crowds, come first thing in the morning or noon to two. The site is an easy 10-minute walk or a quick free shuttle from the Mount Herzl intersection, which in turn is served by many city bus lines. The Egged sightseeing Bus 99 takes you right into Yad Vashem.
Hazikaron St., near Herzl Blvd., Jerusalem, 9103401, Israel