Wide-eyed and scared like rabbits caught in a car’s headlights, rows of Jewish faces stared back at me. I had seen similar photographs at Auschwitz where many people were slaughtered like cattle by the Nazis. The experience had broken my heart into pieces and I had wept a cloud of tears at the horror of one man’s cruel abuse of another. Here at Yad Yashem, the memorial to the six million Jews who were killed in the Holocaust, my heart felt the same pain for their tragic loss.
Our guide had told us that the Allies’ leaders of World War II and the Pope had known what was happening at the time but had ignored it; each too busy fighting his own battle. How true this was, I don’t know, but surely the average European citizen had not known about the carnage that was going on under Hitler’s direction? After all, the Jewish men and women hadn’t realised when they were getting into the cattle trucks that they were being transported to the death camps, had they? They had thought they were being taken to another city.
As a girl in my teens, I once had a nightmare about a death camp where I gave up my life for another to avoid the furnace. In my slumber, I smelled the sweet, acrid smell of burning human flesh, which years later I recognised when I smelled it again coming from a hospital incinerator, when working in a hospital laundry for a summer. Why I had that nightmare and why it was so realistic I don’t know, but I felt that awful fear that these frightened faces expressed in their head shots around the time when they were stripped, robbed of their hair and dignity and were branded with their death camp numbers on entry.
At Yad Yashem, the crowds are herded through the museum’s rooms that shoot off from the angles of a zig zag design, leaving no escape. The ultimate room is a cone of faces in an exhibition of family photographs starkly contrasting with the earlier criminal head shots. Here happy, smiling people look down upon you, reminding you of their previous lives which are filed in the circular wall behind. No one could ever deny the existence of the Holocaust, if they inspected this room.
The most poignant section of Yad Yashem is the memorial to all of the children who died in the Holocaust. We walked past square, stone pillars, staggered in height to the dark entrance. Like the blind leading the blind, we turned a corner where we could see thousands of lights suspended in the darkness. Evocative music played as a voice read out all of the names of the young who had been killed before their time. Was some Tolstoy among them? Had an undiscovered genius missed her chance to shine? Or had a budding artist or musician been cut off before he had chance to flower? We shall never know.
Never have so many meant so much to so few. Let’s hope and pray that nothing like the Holocaust ever happens anywhere again.