PODCAST: Yad Vashem head pleads for truth to be sole guide in Holocaust research

This week on Times Will Tell, the weekly podcast from The Times of Israel, we join the global community in honoring and remembering the six million souls lost in Hitler’s genocide as the world marks International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

For this special episode, we speak with Avner Shalev, the outgoing head of Yad Vashem, Israel’s national Holocaust memorial and museum. The 82-year-old Shalev has been serving at the helm of Yad Vashem for over 27 years, and International Holocaust Remembrance Day was established during his tenure.

He shares his thoughts about the United Nations’ 2005 adoption of January 27 as the international memorial day for Holocaust victims, before we jump back to the present day for a sobering discussion about governments that cynically politicize Holocaust history. We also touch on researchers’ undying battle for truth, and what Yad Vashem holds beyond the museum building itself.

Next, we speak with two of Shalev’s senior staffers, Orit Margaliot and Dana Porat. Margaliot has put together a new virtual tour of Auschwitz’s Block 27 pavilion in Poland, which is under the auspices of Yad Vashem. Porat, head of Yad Vashem’s digital division, speaks about the IRemember Wall which virtually links visitors with Holocaust victims and a new virtual exhibit honoring the children lost in the genocide.

Since 1951, Israel has commemorated Yom Hazikaron L’Shoah V’Gevurah (Yom HaShoah), or Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day, on the 14th day of the Hebrew month of Nissan. Israel’s Knesset chose the date on which the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising started to commemorate the victims of the Holocaust. Over half a century later, the UN went a different direction when it established its memorial day on the date Auschwitz-Birkenau was liberated by the Red Army. Shalev says of that decision that Israel was “on board with it and supported it.”

Illustrative: Yad Vashem Director Avner Shalev, third from right, tours the museum’s Hall of Names with US Vice President Mike Pence, center, and his wife Karen, second from left, Yad Vashem Chairman Council Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, left, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, and wife Sara Netanyahu, second from right, in Jerusalem, January 23, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / POOL / RONEN ZVULUN)

Some of the countries that supported the adoption of International Holocaust Remembrance Day, particularly those in Central and Eastern Europe, have themselves been recently accused of distorting the memory of the Holocaust for political gain.

Critics say that as the governments focus on their own enormous losses brought on by the occupying Nazi regime, they simultaneously try to distance themselves from the genocide against the Jews. While many citizens of these countries risked their lives to save Jews — heroes that Yad Vashem now honors with the designation Righteous Among the Nations — the Nazis would have been unable to murder on such a large scale without significant contributions from local collaborators.

Unfortunately, we have to try and convince countries that we are dealing with the truth and their political needs should be aside

“Countries want the narrative to be more or less according to the historical memory of their state — or even more so, according to the political needs of the party in power at the time, and unfortunately, we have to try and convince countries that we are dealing with the truth and their political needs should be aside,” says Shalev.

“Our business is the business of truth,” he stresses, highlighting the need for the educational and research initiatives he’s championed over the last three decades.

“We need to give meaning to this information and data,” he says. “Because without meaning, youngsters may reach a point where they ask why we need such studies, and they have to understand that it means something for their own development as human beings, members of the Jewish people, and members of the international community.”

Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial museum chairman Avner Shalev talks to the press during the new ‘Children in the Holocaust: Stars Without a Heaven’ exhibition displayed at the museum in Jerusalem on April 12, 2015. (Photo credit: AFP/MENAHEM KAHANA)

Next, we speak with Margaliot, who leads a new virtual tour of Auschwitz’s Block 27, one of the barracks used to house inmates at the death camp during the war. In 2005, then-Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon tasked Yad Vashem with maintaining and providing content for the pavilion, and ever since it has remained under the auspices of Yad Vashem, which established an immersive and comprehensive exhibition inside. It presents a portrayal of Jewish life before the Holocaust, and a moving record of the lives that were taken during the genocide — especially those of children.

Margaliot describes the genesis of a haunting room in which the actual artworks of real children murdered in the Holocaust are drawn on the walls.

“The question was, how do you represent the murder of the children,” Margaliot says, after pointing out that children accounted for 1.5 million, or 25 percent, of Jews killed in the Holocaust — a part of the calculating Nazi plan to eradicate Jews from the face of the earth.

“[Israeli artist Michal Rovner] had this special approach in understanding that in order to represent the absence, the murder, we have to go to the traces of life,” Margaliot says. “They are represented there from fragments of their own drawings, copied in their own 1:1 scale on the wall — and when you think of it, children always go through the phase of drawing on the wall to facing the anger of their parents — and they’re kept at the eye level of the children.”

A child’s depiction of the Auschwitz death camp, reproduced exactly by Israeli artist Michal Rovner for the children’s display at Block 27 of the Auschwitz Museum. (Yaakov Schwartz/ Times of Israel)

Weaving together the narratives drawn by the children “created a story,” says Margaliot. “And you see those traces of life expressed in their life before, in their fairytales, in the transition they go through. You can also see the limitation of the representation of the murder through the children’s drawings by a minimalist representation of just seeing a soldier walking into the forest with a child and leaving on his own. Without seeing the brutality, without manipulation. These are the children’s voices.”

Finally, we speak with Porat, director of the digital department in the communications division at Yad Vashem, about the institution’s platforms in multiple languages, as well as what’s new this year.

Porat discusses two special online initiatives for this year’s International Holocaust Remembrance Day commemorations — an online exhibition in English and Hebrew on homes created to house the many traumatized and orphaned children after the war, and the IRemember Wall, which is produced in collaboration with Facebook International and links visitors with a specific Holocaust victim.

Tune in to this week’s podcast for the full conversation, plus more from Shalev and Margaliot.

The Times of Israel podcasts are available for download on iTunes, Soundcloud, TuneIn, Pocket Casts, Stitcher, PlayerFM or wherever you get your podcasts.

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