I had to rub my eyes as I tried to absorb the news. Prime Minister Olmert could not be that insensitive. But no matter how many times I rubbed, the story remained the same: Ehud Olmert, just appointed his old friend Tommy Lapid to be Chairman of the Yad Vashem Council. Now, dear reader, it is your turn to rub your eyes in disbelief.
One can admire the prime minister’s desire to provide a sinecure for a down-on-his-luck politician. But chairman of Yad Vashem? That is a bit much.
For an equally shocking example of insensitivity, one would have to go back to Yad Vashem’s decision to award the Zussman Prize for artists dealing with the theme of the Holocaust to sculptor Yigal Tumarkin (a decision later narrowly reversed by a special panel). Yes, the same Tumarkin who famously remarked: “When I see a large chareidi family, I begin to understand the Nazis.”
For decades Lapid has been one of Israel’s most polarizing figures –- first on Popolitika, and later as head of the Shinui Party. Lapid rode a one-issue hobby horse on his meteoric political rise: venomous hatred of chareidim, often expressed as contempt for Jewish religion in general. How ironic, then, that he should be chosen to head a museum devoted, inter alia, to preserving the memory of those who perished in the Holocaust.
According to Dr. Michael Berenbaum, former director of the research institute attached to the U.S. Holocaust Museum, 50-70% of those murdered by the Nazis “were traditionally religious Jews.” Not only were six million Jews murdered in the Holocaust, but an entire thousand-year culture of Torah learning was destroyed. Only the Mirrer Yeshiva, of all the great pre-War yeshivos, survived nearly intact.
Yad Vashem is the one mandatory stop on the itinerary of any dignitary visiting Israel for the first time. Yet the museum has always been controversial, particularly in the eyes of the Torah community. Zionist historiography of the ‘50s contrasted the martial bravery of the “new Israeli Jew” to those killed in the Holocaust, who were described as having gone like sheep to their deaths. And the original exhibit at Yad Vashem reflected that approach, for which former partisan leader Abba Kovner was perhaps the most prominent spokesman. (Towards the end of his life, Kovner wondered if his brother, who had stayed behind in Vilna with their invalid mother, was not the greater hero after all.)
Sadly, even with the creation of a magnificent new exhibition hall, Yad Vashem still has not been able to break out of its earlier ideological blinders. A religious visitor is struck repeatedly by all that is missing. In the hall devoted to the Warsaw Ghetto, there is no hint of the rich religious life of the ghetto -– the yeshivos and chadarim, the celebration of yomim tovim -– even though these are all documented in Emanuel Ringelblum’s diaries.
The hall on the Kovno Ghetto is filled with pictures of the leading personalities who died or were murdered in the ghetto. Absent, however, is a picture of the Dvar Avrohom, Rabbi Avraham Dovber Shapiro, the rav of Kovno and one of the leading poskim of his time. Also absent is Rabbi Elchonon Wasserman, one of the greatest thinkers and Talmudic scholars of the century, whose works are basic texts for every yeshiva student. Likewise, Rabbi Avrohom Grodzinski, the Mashgiach of Slabodka Yeshiva. The heartrending shaylos addressed to Rabbi Ephraim Oshry in the Kovno Ghetto, collected in Shaylos u’Teshuvos MeMaamakim, find no mention.
Testimonies of survivors are interspersed throughout the exhibition hall. But one looks in vain for one survivor wearing a kippah or a sheitel. At the British Holocaust Museum and the U.S. Holocaust Museum, they are found, but not in Yad Vashem.
The interviews are full of graphic description of the degraded state to which the Nazis succeeded in bringing the inmates of the concentration camps. But the spiritual heroism of those who exchanged their only morsel of daily bread for the chance to put on tefillin or daven from a siddur, of those who insisted on blowing the Shofar on Rosh Hashanah or baking matzos on Pesach, of those who risked their lives to save other Jews goes unmentioned. The words “Shema Yisroel,” on the lips of millions of Jews as they met their end, appear nowhere in Yad Vashem.
The standard response to complaints about these omissions and many others equally glaring is that Yad Vashem is not a “sectoral” museum, but one for the entire Jewish people. And thus, with the wave of a hand, are half those who perished in the Holocaust written off as a mere “sector,” and secular Jews accorded the status of the true representatives of Klal Yisrael.
On second thought, Tommy Lapid might be an appropriate representative of Yad Vashem. But not quite in the manner intended.
Published in Mishpacha, July 26