National Holocaust Memorials
A transnational comparison.
The Holocaust poses new challenges for commemorative representations. How to remember the six million civilians murdered for who they were--and not for what was done to them? How to represent a tragedy that is characterized by absence, from the missing bodies to the destroyed gas chambers, the absence of names and archives? How to design a national Holocaust memorial in a country that participated in the deportation of Jews, or in a country that did not experience the Holocaust on its soil?
Among the countries that have a national Holocaust memorial, Israel, France, the United States, and Germany offer contrasting responses to Holocaust commemoration and representation.
Memorial at Yad Vashem
The first national Holocaust memorial was erected in Israel, the country that became home to the majority of Holocaust survivors. On August 19, 1953, the Knesset (Israeli parliament) passed the Yad Vashem Law, which established the authority to commemorate the six million Jews murdered by the Nazis; their destroyed communities; those who fought and struggled; and the Righteous among the Nations who risked their lives to save Jews.
Yad Vashem, located on Har Hazikaron (the Mount of Remembrance) in Jerusalem, first included a crypt with an eternal flame burning next to the names of major concentration camps. The original complex was also comprised of a sculpture garden, a museum, and an archive and research center. The permanent exhibition emphasized the role of Jewish heroes, martyrs, and survivors, in accordance with the early Zionist vision that honored the "new Jew" as a proud fighter rather than a helpless victim.
In 2005, the memorial reopened after a ten-year renovation and expansion designed by Israeli architect Moshe Safdie, whose architecture itself carries meaning: the tilted walls forming a triangle represent the star of David, and visitors zigzag between dead-end rooms, artifacts that block hallways, and narrow spaces. The new historical museum is a multi-media exhibit about the Holocaust, ending with a breathtaking view of the Jerusalem hills--confirmation of the redemptive nature of the State of Israel after the Holocaust.
Until this impressive extension, Yad Vashem was viewed as a dusty, old-fashioned museum, and it attracted mostly Jewish visitors. The huge new complex has immediately become a major tourism destination for diverse groups of visitors. The powerful effect of the new Yad Vashem is precisely the combination of thoughtful architecture, solemn space, artworks, a didactic museum, and a center dedicated to research.