Yad Vashem (Hebrew: יָד וַשֵׁם) is Israel’s official memorial to the victims of the Holocaust. It is dedicated to preserving the memory of the dead; honouring Jews who fought against their Nazi oppressors and Gentiles who selflessly aided Jews in need; and researching the phenomenon of the Holocaust in particular and genocide in general, with the aim of avoiding such events in the future.
Established in 1953, Yad Vashem is on the western slope of Mount Herzl, also known as the Mount of Remembrance, a height in western Jerusalem, 804 meters (2,638 ft) above sea level and adjacent to the Jerusalem Forest. The memorial consists of a 180-dunam (18.0 ha; 44.5-acre) complex containing the Holocaust History Museum, memorial sites such as the Children’s Memorial and the Hall of Remembrance, the Museum of Holocaust Art, sculptures, outdoor commemorative sites such as the Valley of the Communities, a synagogue, a research institute with archives, a library, a publishing house, and an educational center, the International School/Institute for Holocaust Studies.
A core goal of Yad Vashem’s founders was to recognize Gentiles who, at personal risk and without a financial or evangelistic motive, chose to save their Jewish brethren from the ongoing genocide during the Holocaust. Those recognized by Israel as Righteous Among the Nations are honored in a section of Yad Vashem known as the Garden of the Righteous Among the Nations.
Yad Vashem opened to the public in 1957. Its exhibits focused on Jewish resistance in the Warsaw ghetto, the uprisings in Sobibor and Treblinka death camps, and the struggle of survivors to reach Israel.
In 1993, planning began for a larger, more technologically advanced museum to replace the old one. The new building, designed by Canadian-Israeli architect Moshe Safdie, consists of a long corridor connected to 10 exhibition halls, each dedicated to a different chapter of the Holocaust. The museum combines the personal stories of 90 Holocaust victims and survivors, and presents approximately 2,500 personal items including artwork and letters donated by survivors and others. The old historical displays revolving around anti-Semitism and the rise of Nazism have been replaced by exhibits that focus on the personal stories of Jews killed in the Holocaust. According to Avner Shalev, the museum’s curator and chairman, a visit to the new museum revolves around “looking into the eyes of the individuals. There weren’t six million victims, there were six million individual murders.”
The new museum was dedicated on 15 March 2005 in the presence of leaders from 40 states and former Secretary General of the UN Kofi Annan. President of Israel Moshe Katzav said that Yad Vashem serves as “an important signpost to all of humankind, a signpost that warns how short the distance is between hatred and murder, between racism and genocide”. According to Jonathan Kis-Lev, in recent years the Museum was visited by a growing number of Palestinians, as part of efforts of various organizations to bridge the gap between Israelis and Palestinians. “Learning about the Holocaust,” Kis-Lev wrote, “helped the Palestinian members of our binational group better understand the Jewish perspective, and was a turning point in improving our relationship.”
After the Western Wall, Yad Vashem is the second-most-visited Israeli tourist site. Its curators do not charge any fee for admission, and welcome approximately one million visitors a year.
The idea of establishing a memorial in the historical Jewish homeland for Jewish victims of the Nazi Holocaust was conceived during World War II, as a response to reports of the mass murder of Jews in Nazi-occupied countries. Yad Vashem was first proposed in September 1942, at a board meeting of the Jewish National Fund, by Mordecai Shenhavi, a member of Kibbutz Mishmar Ha’emek. In August 1945, the plan was discussed in greater detail at a Zionist meeting in London. A provisional board of Zionist leaders was established that included David Remez as chairman, Shlomo Zalman Shragai, Baruch Zuckerman, and Shenhavi. In February 1946, Yad Vashem opened an office in Jerusalem and a branch office in Tel Aviv, and in June that year convened its first plenary session. In July 1947, the First Conference on Holocaust Research was held at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. However, the outbreak in May 1948 of the War of Independence brought operations to a standstill for two years. In 1953, the Knesset, Israel’s Parliament, unanimously passed the Yad Vashem Law, establishing the Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority.
The location of Yad Vashem on the western side of Mount Herzl, an area devoid of weighty historical associations, was chosen to convey a symbolic message of “rebirth” after destruction, distinct from the Chamber of the Holocaust, founded in 1948 on Mount Zion. Thus, the latter museum, whose walls are lined with plaques memorializing over 2,000 Jewish communities destroyed during the Holocaust, portrays the Holocaust as a continuation of the “death and destruction” that plagued Jewish communities throughout Jewish history.
The new Yad Vashem museum was designed by Israeli-Canadian architect Moshe Safdie, replacing the previous 30-year-old exhibition. It is the culmination of a $100 million decade-long expansion project.
In November 2008, Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau was appointed Chairman of Yad Vashem’s Council, replacing Tommy Lapid. The Vice Chairmen of the Council are Yitzhak Arad and Moshe Kantor. Elie Wiesel was Vice Chairman of the Council until his death on July 2, 2016.
The Chairman of the Directorate is (since 1993) Avner Shalev, who replaced Yitzhak Arad, who had served in this position for 21 years. The Director General is Dorit Novak. The Head of the International Institute for Holocaust Research and Incumbent is John Najmann. The Chair for Holocaust Studies is Prof. Dan Michman. The Chief Historian is Prof. Dina Porat. The Academic Advisor is Prof. Yehuda Bauer.
The Members of the Yad Vashem Directorate are Yossi Ahimeir, Daniel Atar, Michal Cohen, Matityahu Drobles, Abraham Duvdevani, Prof. Boleslaw (Bolek) Goldman, Vera H. Golovensky, Moshe Ha-Elion, Adv. Shlomit Kasirer, Yossi Katribas, Yehiel Leket, Baruch Shub, Dalit Stauber, Dr. Zehava Tanne, Adv. Shoshana Weinshall, and Dudi Zilbershlag.
The aims of Yad Vashem are education, research and documentation, and commemoration. Yad Vashem organizes professional development courses for educators both in Israel and throughout the world; develops age-appropriate study programs, curricula, and educational materials for Israeli and foreign schools in order to teach students of all ages about the Holocaust; holds exhibitions about the Holocaust; collects the names of Holocaust victims; collects photos, documents, and personal artifacts; and collects Pages of Testimony memorializing victims of the Holocaust. Yad Vashem seeks to preserve the memory and names of the six million Jews murdered during the Holocaust, and the numerous Jewish communities destroyed during that time. It holds ceremonies of remembrance and commemoration; supports Holocaust research projects; develops and coordinates symposia, workshops, and international conferences; and publishes research, memoirs, documents, albums, and diaries related to the Holocaust. Yad Vashem also honors non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust.
The International School/Institute for Holocaust Studies at Yad Vashem, founded in 1993, offers guides and seminars for students, teachers, and educators, and develops pedagogic tools for use in the classroom. Yad Vashem trains 10,000 domestic and foreign teachers every year. The organization operates a web site in several languages, including German, Hebrew, Farsi, and Arabic. In 2013 Yad Vashem launched an online campaign in Arabic, promoting Yad Vashem’s website. The campaign reached over 2.4 million Arabic speakers from around the globe, and the traffic to Yad Vashem’s website was tripled.
The institution’s policy is that the Holocaust “cannot be compared to any other event”. In 2009 Yad Vashem fired a docent for comparing the trauma Jews suffered in the Holocaust to the trauma Palestinians suffered during Israel’s War of Independence, including the Deir Yassin massacre.
Yad Vashem Studies is a peer-reviewed semi-annual scholarly journal on the Holocaust. Published since 1957, it appears in both English and Hebrew editions.
The museum, designed by Moshe Safdie, is shaped like a triangular concrete prism that cuts through the landscape, illuminated by a 200 meters (656 ft)-long skylight. Visitors follow a preset route that takes them through underground galleries that branch off from the main hall.
The Hall of Names is a memorial to the six million Jews who perished in the Holocaust. The main hall is composed of two cones: one ten meters high, with a reciprocal well-like cone excavated into the underground rock, its base filled with water. On the upper cone is a display featuring 600 photographs of Holocaust victims and fragments of Pages of Testimony. These are reflected in the water at the bottom of the lower cone, commemorating those victims whose names remain unknown. Surrounding the platform is the circular repository, housing the approximately 2.2 million Pages of Testimony collected to date, with empty spaces for those yet to be submitted.
Since the 1950s, Yad Vashem has collected approximately 110,000 audio, video, and written testimonies by Holocaust survivors. As the survivors age, the program has expanded to visiting survivors in their homes, to tape interviews. Adjoining the hall is a study area with a computerized data bank where visitors can do online searches for the names of Holocaust victims.
The Archive is the oldest department of Yad Vashem. Before presenting an exhibition, Yad Vashem collects items. The best known of these are the historical photographs, as well as the Pages of Testimonies collected from survivors. The latter is a database of personal information about those who survived and those who perished in the Holocaust. Yad Vashem has also acquired access to the database of the International Tracing Service of Bad Arolsen of the International Committee of the Red Cross, and these two databases complement each other for research purposes.
One of Yad Vashem’s tasks is to honor non-Jews who risked their lives, liberty. or positions to save Jews during the Holocaust. To this end, a special independent Commission, headed by a retired Supreme Court Justice, was established. The commission members, including historians, public figures, lawyers, and Holocaust survivors, examine and evaluate each case according to a well-defined set of criteria and regulations. The Righteous receive a certificate of honor and a medal, and their names are commemorated in the Garden of the Righteous Among the Nations, on the Mount of Remembrance, Yad Vashem. This is an ongoing project that will continue for as long as there are valid requests, substantiated by testimonies or documentation. 555 individuals were recognized during 2011, and as of 2011, more than 24,300 individuals have been recognized as Righteous Among the Nations.
Yad Vashem houses the world’s largest collection of artwork produced by Jews and other victims of Nazi occupation in 1933–1945. Yehudit Shendar, the senior art curator of Yad Vashem, supervises a 10,000-piece collection, adding 300 pieces a year, most of them donated by survivors’ families or discovered in attics. Included in the collection are works by Alexander Bogen, Alice Lok Cahana, Samuel Bak, and Felix Nussbaum.