When Pope John Paul II visited and prayed at Yad Vashem, Israel's memorial to the victims of the Holocaust, he spoke eloquently about his personal sorrow and the Catholic Church's sorrow over the tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people throughout history.
Predictably, Israeli responses to the Pope's visit varied considerably. Some Israelis regarded the pontiff's presence in Israel and his expressions of concern about the Holocaust as much too little far too late. Nonetheless, most expressed appreciation for this visit to Jerusalem and for the Pope's outright rejection of Christian antisemitism. Needless to say, most Israelis would have liked to hear John Paul make a strong statement of regret about the Church's passivity during the Holocaust itself. And of course, many would have liked to hear him acknowledge Jerusalem as Israel's rightful capital.
Be all that as it may, John Paul's response to Yad Vashem appeared genuine enough, and Israelis were by and large appreciative. In fact, I noted that the Pope's response in many ways mirrored my own: For almost any thinking, feeling human being, Yad Vashem evokes an overwhelming sense of sorrow.
Yad Vashem consists of many elements, each designed with a specific purpose (or set of purposes) in mind. As a whole, it constitutes a powerful illustration that sorrow is not a monodimensional emotion; rather, it is multifaceted and extremely complex. Accordingly, the 45-acre Yad Vashem site on Jerusalem's Mt. Herzl includes a library, archive depository, and resource center as well as a number of gardens, exhibition halls, and monuments. Yad Vashem is not simply "a museum."
The International School of Holocaust Studies and the International Institute of Holocaust Research are both centered at Yad Vashem. Together they provide a practical basis for ensuring that the Holocaust, with all its horrors and injustices, is remembered by future generations. These two elements of Yad Vashem provide classrooms and educators that currently reach about 200,000 participants each year, and they support an international program of research, conferences, and publication related to the Holocaust.
After passing the dramatic 6-branched candelabra near the entrance of the site, the visitor finds that Yad Vashem includes a series of moving exhibits and monuments, including the Hall of Remembrance with its eternal flame; the Hall of Names, which provides memorials to individual victims; the Children's Memorial, honoring the slaughtered innocents; the Pillar of Heroism, commemorating the valor of those fought back; the Garden of the Righteous and the Avenue of the Righteous, honoring Righteous Gentiles who risked their own safety to help the helpless; and the Valley of Communities, created in memory of a lost way of life for European Jews.
Each of these memorials (one hesitates to label them "attractions") offers its own unique testimony to the vitality of the human spirit as well as to the consequences of prejudice and evil. Indeed, if one leaves Yad Vashem only in sorrow, then much of the point of this unique place will have been lost. Part of the explanation for the overwhelming impact of Yad Vashem involves its ability to touch so many seemingly conflicting responses: despair and hope, grief and rejoicing, death and rebirth. Taken as a whole, Yad Vashem's key mission is remembrance. It challenges visitors to remember the best and the worst of the human condition and to carry that knowledge forward toward building a better, more just future for all the children of Earth. It is my firm conviction that one visitor leaves unchanged. Certainly, I did not.
Yad Vashem's exhibits and memorials are open to the public Sunday through Wednesday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Thursday, 9 a.m. to 8 p.m.; and Friday and holiday eves, 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Admission is free, and English-speaking guides are available. For further information on specific aspects of the Yad Vashem complex, visit the web site managed by The Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority at http://www.yadvashem.org.