Throughout this coming year, the sixtieth anniversary of the founding of Yad Vashem will be commemorated with public lectures, ceremonies and celebrations. Amid all of the loud hoopla and accolades, however, a quiet crescendo of criticism of Yad Vashem has been appearing in the Jewish media for their portrayal of Orthodox martyrs and survivors of the Shoah, which one high ranking member of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany recently described to this writer as, “tantamount to Holocaust denial.”
Yad Vashem has always been considered the gold standard by which all other Shoah museums have been measured. And the New Wing, which opened its doors in 2005, is a state-of-the-art, multi-media museum which has been visited by literally millions of foreign tourists and Israeli citizens. What could possibly be inaccurate in their presentation of Shoah history?
According to articles that have appeared in both American and Israeli magazines and newspapers, the distortions at the New Wing center on three major areas. Firstly, venerated Orthodox leaders are disparaged. One such heroic figure is Rabbi Michoel Dov Weissmandl, Z”L, in whose honor a New York City Councilman has recently proposed renaming a street in the Borough Park section of Brooklyn.
How does Yad Vashem denigrate Rabbi Weissmandl? The following text, for example, appears alongside his photo in the museum:
In the course of negotiations over the summer of 1942, [Rabbi Weissmandl’s Working] Group paid ransom money to Dieter Wisliceny, Eichman’s delegate in Slovakia. For various considerations, the deportations were halted in the autumn of 1942 but the Working Group believed this was a result of their bribes.
This wording implies that Rabbi Weissmandl was duped by the Nazis. One needs to look no further than Wikipedia, however, to find this.
Thanks to the efforts of [Rabbi Weissmandl’s] ‘Working Group,’ which bribed German and Slovakian officials, the mass deportation of Slovakian Jews was delayed for two years from 1942 – 1944.
A second bone of contention is the inadequate representation of Orthodox survivors amongst the 50 – 60 videotaped testimonies which are played throughout the New Wing. As Jonathan Rosenblum wrote in The Jerusalem Post (8/1/06):
According to Dr. Michael Berenbaum, former director of the research institute attached to the U.S. Shoah Museum, 50%-70% of those murdered by the Nazis, ‘were traditionally religious Jews.’
Nevertheless, of the 50 or 60 eyewitness accounts of the Shoah in the New Wing when it first opened, not a single testimony from a Haredi survivor was included. And today, nine years later, only one has been added. The exact percentage of Orthodox survivors is certainly open to debate. Even Yad Vashem would concede, however, that Orthodox Jews represented far more than two percent of the survivors. Why, then, did Yad Vashem choose to so drastically limit the number of Orthodox survivor testimonies in the New Wing?
Finally, the entire issue of spiritual heroism during the Shoah is relegated to mere footnote status. The countless examples of Jews in the ghettos and concentration camps who risked their lives to study Torah and observe mitzvos are almost completely ignored. No, not all martyrs were Orthodox. But many were. And to include only token references to the myriad acts of mesiras nefesh (self sacrifice) and adherence to Yiddishkeit is to omit large chapters of the Shoah narrative. Why would Yad Vashem choose to leave out such an integral part of the historical record of the Shoah which is so meaningful and important to a large swath of the Jewish people?
In order to seek answers to these and other questions, this writer met with a high level member of the administrative staff of Yad Vashem in August, ’13. At that hour-long meeting, which was conducted off-the-record at the request of Yad Vashem, all the issues outlined above were presented. The Yad Vashem administrator said that action could not be expected before the High Holidays in September. “After the chagim,” however, a substantive response was promised. Now, months later, the silence from Yad Vashem invites speculation.
Does Yad Vashem feel the criticism will die down and go away if it is simply ignored? Do they believe by opening their archives to Orthodox scholars and training Orthodox tour guides they are entitled to immunity from any Orthodox criticism of the New Wing? Or, do they feel that correcting these historical distortions will compromise some larger agenda to support the secular side of the current clash between the religious and secular factions of Israeli society?
The martyrs and most of the survivors of the Shoah, many of whom were Orthodox, are no longer with us. But their descendents and the community they left behind are very much alive and flourishing. While we cannot save a single life that was lost in the Shoah, we can and must prod Yad Vashem to correct the distortions that dishonor the memory of religious victims and survivors because they can no longer speak for themselves.