The museum at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial is a smooth concrete tunnel blasted through the the side of Mount Herzl in Jerusalem. Its profile is a triangle, a point of the Star of David sliced off and pulled into a three-dimensional prism 200 meters long. The effect inside is menacing, as 30 foot tall concrete slabs angle inward and loom over you, threatening to tip inward and crush you under unimaginable weight. There is no direct path from on end of the tunnel to the other; the prism is sliced again and again by deep channels in the floor, directing you out of the central hall into side rooms that contain the story of the Holocaust- or rather, as the museum urges you to consider, its six million stories.
There are several themes that run throughout the museum, but the power of memory, and the overwhelming need to remember these stories presents itself as soon as you enter, and encounter a channel cut in the floor, filled with books. The accompanying graphic panel tells of the rally held in the square outside the State Opera House in Berlin on May 10th, 1933, and the burning of 25,000 books by Jewish authors, and others considered “un-German.” There are few acts as symbolic as burning a book- it is not merely the destruction of a functional object, but an attack on an idea, a thought, a memory. The flaming volumes piled in the Bebelplatz represented an attempt to wipe out the collection of memories and ideas that have woven themselves together over thousands of years to form Jewish culture.
The rest of the museum tells a familiar tale that is no less horrifying in the retelling. It recounts the process of infusing the existing parochial racism that casts an oppressed minority as “problematic” with a streak of toxic nationalism, and then codifying the inevitable violence that resulted into an organized bureaucracy. It encourages us to consider how a highly educated and industrious nation can still be susceptible to the basest and cruelest of human impulses, and can use that education and industry to dehumanize, isolate, and eventually eliminate any group it deems unworthy. It also warns us of the tendency of otherwise good people and moral nations to look the other way, to close our eyes, ears, and hearts to suffering- the tendency to want to forget. Above all, that is what Yad Vashem wants us to understand- that we must remember the names of those who died, but we must also remember how it happened, so that it may never happen again.