We are back from Israel, where I visited Yad Vashem for the first time. Being me, I have written to the curators with a few thoughts and suggestions. An extract follows.
curators of Yad Vashem:
I was recently privileged to spend a morning at Yad Vashem during a holiday in Israel. Among the many strong emotions aroused by this experience is admiration for the work of the designers and curators of this great memorial. The comments and suggestions below are in no way intended to detract from this admiration. In addition, it is I think psychologically impossible to take in everything during a single short visit; if I have got anything materially wrong in my recollections, I apologise but claim force majeure.
[two pages on other stuff]
As in the Israel Museum, the cafeteria serves cakes on disposable polystyrene plates. The observation may seem trivial and in the context of Yad Vashem ridiculous. Bear with me: I think it’s important.
these two museums are world-class institutions, presenting crucial
aspects of Israel’s identity to the rest of humanity. At this
level, visitors expect exemplary standards of professionalism, and
nearly uniformly get it. Polystyrene plates are a retrograde failure
to meet the benchmark. The EU will ban single-use plastic plates and
cutlery by 2021, and public opinion in Europe is ahead of it.
the mission of Yad Vashem in particular is memory.
You seek to fight off the oblivion of time1
and ensure the Holocaust is no more forgotten than the Exodus or the
destruction of the Temples. The architecture of the museum well
reflects this aim of permanence in its solidity. The same should, I
suggest, hold for minor
details like plates. In
my visits to the Struthof concentration camp in Alsace, I was struck
by the shoddiness and meanness of the Nazi construction, and the
unexceptional, but dignified
and solid, stone memorials
to the camps put
up postwar by the
French were a welcome contrast.
final thought flowing from the above. As I understand it, the inmates
in slave labour camps, Jews and others, were issued metal plates and
cups for their starvation rations. I assume these remained the
property of the camp, and were passed on to from one disposable slave
to the next. I imagine that they played an important and ambiguous
part in the mental world of the inmates: at the same time part of the
machinery of destruction, but also a concession by
the oppressors to
the necessity of maintaining life among
their slaves and a twisted recognition of their humanity.
tin plates were not evil things in themselves.
might consider a small display
cabinet in the cafeteria, with
relevant testimonies from survivors. An additional possibility would
be a comparison of the daily rations in a typical labour camp with
those of a Geneva-convention Stalag
Western Allied POWs and of an American GI in Normandy.
1Julian Barnes’ short story “Evermore”, in his collection Crossing the Channel, is a good exploration of this topic, set in the Western Front after WWI.
Note: I have chosen this part of the letter as the most likely to spark a useful and focussed discussion – a general one on the Holocaust would be shapeless. Commenters are free to call me names, but I’d be grateful if you could avoid using the argument “so that’s the one thing you could find to write about?” because, you know, it wasn’t.