Warsaw Ghetto, August 2, 1942
“We have no information about the fate of those who were expelled… Nothing we hear is based on exact information.”
From Chaim Aharon Kaplan’s diary
I copied this quote with the reference, from a wall in The Holocaust History Museum at ‘Yad Vashem’ – a place all humans need to visit before they die. It grabbed my attention because of its relevancy to current events in Syria, and the way the world reacts to those events; a way that makes the promise and oath “never again” sound like a hollow declaration.
But why should I care? I’m Israeli, Israel and Syria are enemy states. Israelis were killed fighting Syrians and those who returned from Syrian captivity can tell you horrible stories about the cruel ways of the regime. Why should I care? because I find it impossible not to, and I’m not the only Israeli who feels that way.
What is even more frustrating is the stupid hypocritical global political entanglement that forces Israel to stay foot – which is far from our nature. There is help for the few who are lucky enough to get it. There are quite a few Facebook pages around the idea ‘Israelis for Syrians’ that try to extend the reach of stories coming out of Syria, organize demonstrations in front of embassies, break the silence we know too well – kills. There are Israelis who go as far as sneaking into Syria in order to provide help, risking their lives while breaking the Israeli law. So what if at the same time we see them as enemies? there is no contradiction in that. I wish there was more we could do.
Walking through the museum, it’s difficult not to notice visitors’ reactions: besides the difficulty to take in the horror and scale, and the surprise in suddenly feeling something delicate, that place tosses into one’s mind an endless list of questions and those questions don’t go away. They echo in your brain again and again, rolling from one side to the other in a desperate search for answers that will not necessarily appear.
Then I found myself following a group of Israeli teens. They listened to their guide very closely, while she presented possible answers to some of the most daunting questions, like for example “why did ‘ordinary people’ take part? why didn’t they stop the murdering?”. They led a vibrant discussions, debating the various theories, suggesting more possibilities, dissecting their thoughts in an attempt to understand, at least something.
That reminded me of a question someone asked me years ago at a conference in the US: “How, although surrounded by enemies that seek to destroy you, can you educate your children to believe in peace?” Looking at that group of teens and what they were doing, I was looking at the answer to his question: you place them into the narratives of humanity, the brightest, the darkest and everything in between, you guide them a little, elicit the more difficult-to-speak-up questions and let them figure it out through their own curiosity – to understand, at least something.
My personal experience in this visit to ‘Yad Vashem’ was a realization about that list of questions lurking unanswered – growing. Here are a few thoughts for you to ponder upon:
See the quote at the top about the lack of exact information – it was written by a Jew in Warsaw Ghetto, 1942. But now, 61 years later, with all the atrocities happening in Syria, who claims they don’t have enough exact information and uses this claim as an excuse for doing close to nothing?
Back then, just like now, regimes, governments, administrations – had information. One of the most devastating exhibits in the museum, something I’ve seen before numerous times and every time it makes me want to blow something up out of rage, is this photograph and others like it. Enlarge it and you’ll see it’s labeled accurately. They knew exactly what was going on, and they did nothing about it.
You could think it was because those under the “prisoner” label were Jews. Such a ‘noble’ though, but let me remind you – Syrians are not Jewish. So what’s going on?
Then you have the UK, which in September 2007 gave its residents this ‘gift’:
“Government advisers are to call for the annual UK Holocaust memorial day to be ended because it is too exclusive and can be offensive to minorities other than Jews.”
Kids in the UK no longer need to understand, not even something. Neither does the British Parliament. That’s a sure path to teach a nation there is no need to believe in peace. It’s the fast-track to neglecting ‘the other’, as if they are some distant, irrelevant problem of their own.
Those who were murdered left something behind them; an object they were carrying in their pocket or hid somewhere, a note they gave to someone, a work of art they left behind. All those bits and pieces are researched to find the story and life they were connected to, for us to know and remember. Yet the most profound part of the monumental undertaking called ‘Yad Vashem’ – ‘Shem’ meaning ‘Name’ in Hebrew – has to do with the act of collecting what turns human dust particles – real and metaphoric – into names; names of people who once lived. If there is a name, there are other people connected to that name – family, friends, partners, children, someone they met, someone who saw them once, who can tell about them, who can stand witness to their existence.
Some of the exhibits are almost impossible to look at, many stories are unimaginable on any scale. You can never guess what will grab you or make you just stand there, emotionless. But eventually, as you proceed through the museum, time and stories to reach the Hall of Names, the stronger sense is of life. Why? because we’re looking.
Looking the other way is not going to help the people in Syria. The children who live there now, if they manage to stay alive, will be those who’ll rebuild Syria in the future. If you want them to believe in peace – don’t turn around and walk away. Get interested in their story.