Dwight Owen Schweitzer
Editor & Publisher The Jewish Star Times
Yad Vashem. Like the mantra of a Buddhist monk, those words, repeated again and again by Jews all over the world, evoke a spiritual connection with our past whose meanings are as varied as the millions whose unfinished lives are commemorated on that hilltop in Jerusalem. To visit there is to be reminded not simply of the horrors of the Holocaust, but to be reminded of thousands of years of Jewish history; a history of persecution, of statelessness and powerlessness. A history too of false hopes and foolish securities and of love, so much love.
It is more than simply a memorial. It is a complex of buildings that comprise a museum, a picture gallery and a stark memorial hall with the names of the death camps in relief on the floor, and a hall where the countries of Europe are listed and the numbers of Jews taken from each are inscribed. Places where those still alive to remember, can recall a richness of Jewish culture and institutions that had reached its zenith in post-World War I Europe, and where in Vienna, Austria the hallmarks of Western civilization were polished and tended by the Jews.
From that center radiated a richness of Jewish life and culture which would find its home in Yad Vashem. On that dark and rainy winter day when I first walked its’ halls and galleries, seeing faces frozen in lenses long since discarded on the trash heap of technology I came to the place where the one and a half million children who died in the Holocaust were remembered.
I came upon a picture of a family about to board a train, smiling at the food they were just given, relieved at the thought that if they feed us they certainly aren’t going to kill us. Not my aged mother. Not my little girl with the stuffed animal she refuses to let go of. It is just a ride on a train. “Smile for the camera, darling .” but now we know that that smiling child will smile for a thousand years, although she never smiled again. “Go with your grandma, darling”, they would never hurt an old woman and a little child. Please, sir, let her keep her toy. She has always had it. Please, sir.”
They were allowed to bring 20 kilos of their possessions with them, 44 pounds. It was a wisely chosen amount, more than enough to add some luxuries to the necessities so that when the bags were searched something of value was sure to be there….and in that little child’s trusting eyes, gazing at a camera she was too young to understand with all the open wonder of any 4-year-old, are the eyes of the one-and-a-half million Jewish children who died in the Holocaust. .
How do we come to grips with such a thing, such a number? They did it there with six candles. Six candles reflected in a hundred mirrors, or so it seemed, and all of a sudden those six candles were one-and-a-half million points of light in that darkened room; and ever so softly their names are read, those children of the trains. Read in their native tongue and in Yiddish along with the place from whence they came — name after name, place after place, day after day.
How long, I wondered, did it take to repeat one-and-a-half million names, each twice and from whence they came?
Such is the children’s memorial at Yad Vashem.