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.
Dear 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.
First, 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.
Second, 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.
A 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. The tin plates were not evil things in themselves.
You 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 for 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.