Yad Vashem and plastic plates

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]

Disposable plates

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.

Respectfully, Shalom

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.

[/end letter]

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.

Author: James Wimberley

James Wimberley (b. 1946, an Englishman raised in the Channel Islands. three adult children) is a former career international bureaucrat with the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. His main achievements there were the Lisbon Convention on recognition of qualifications and the Kosovo law on school education. He retired in 2006 to a little white house in Andalucia, His first wife Patricia Morris died in 2009 after a long illness. He remarried in 2011. to the former Brazilian TV actress Lu Mendonça. The cat overlords are now three. I suppose I've been invited to join real scholars on the list because my skills, acquired in a decade of technical assistance work in eastern Europe, include being able to ask faux-naïf questions like the exotic Persians and Chinese of eighteenth-century philosophical fiction. So I'm quite comfortable in the role of country-cousin blogger with a European perspective. The other specialised skill I learnt was making toasts with a moral in the course of drunken Caucasian banquets. I'm open to expenses-paid offers to retell Noah the great Armenian and Columbus, the orange, and university reform in Georgia. James Wimberley's occasional publications on the web

8 thoughts on “Yad Vashem and plastic plates”

  1. As to the “daily ration” suggestion, you might also add the daily rations of ordinary Britons, not to mention the Dutch who were starving. I think most people today do not fully grasp the concept that there was a world-wide food shortage occasioned by the war.

    1. I was brought up in Jersey in the Channel Islands, occupied by Germany till the end of the war. After the Normandy landings, shipping from France was cut off and the islands ran out of food, for civilians, Wehrmacht soldiers, and Red Army slave labourers alike. The day Jersey celebrates is not May 8 1945 but May 9, when a Swedish Red Cross ship, the SS Vega, arrived with food simultaneously with the surrender.

        1. That article was quite interesting. Here is one of my patented Jane in the Street simpletoniana questions – how come none of the studies I read about in the paper ever seem to have found any benefit from supplements? Is it because we aren’t having a war/famine?

  2. I think it’s a wonderful suggestion. I am a bit scared to find out just how little food the prisoners got. And comparisons like that are very thought-provoking. I’d also want to know how tall they were and all that (and the groups Stuart suggests). How much did Russians get? (I know we aren’t all getting along just now … but I do feel a moral debt in their direction too.).

    Moreover, I think the offering of polite, thoughtful feedback is a good deed (even if it may sting at first). Especially since you were careful to start out with some compliments.

    1. My guess would be that all slave labourers in organised camps got the same starvation rations, but I may be wrong.

      BTW, we owe them a specific debt for their widespread (and desperately risky) sabotage of munitions production. IIRC German munitions in 1940 were the best in Europe; by 1945 they were far less reliable than those of the Allies. From the website of the US Army Museum:

      “American artillery enjoyed another advantage that is hard to quantify: superior quality of the ammunition it fired. By 1942, Germany was drafting workers of military age out of factories and munitions plants and replacing them with POWs and slave laborers. They were not enthusiastic replacements, especially since they were usually working under harsh conditions. There are numerous anecdotes about sabotage that caused shells to fail to explode at crucial times. One of the best documented examples is described by Geoffrey Perret in There’s a War to be Won: The United States Army in World War II. Germany deployed batteries of long-range 170mm guns against the Anzio beachhead that could shoot from beyond the range of Allied counter-battery fire. However, they failed to do significant damage because seventy percent of the shells were duds.”

  3. I suspect this has little or nothing to do with permanence, or display, or relationship to the museum itself… and everything to do with idiosyncratic (and often self-serving) concepts of “koshering dishes” combined with a desire to avoid time-consuming cleaning processes, some of the equipment, and some of the training (including, sadly, determination of whether those handling the dishes and food) are “Jewish enough” to satisfy every hypermegaorthdox rabbi within 200km of the museum.* The less said about darker issues lurking in there, the better; I remember the reaction when I was escorting some Middle Eastern diplomats — men who really wanted to learn something — through the American Holocaust Museum a number of years ago, and suspect that the same impulses are not buried very deeply elsewhere.

    My first job, more years ago than I care to admit to, was as a dishwasher in a family restaurant, so I have some idea of the process. Plus, it “costs less” to use disposable servingware and focus on just the stuff that stays in the kitchen, and avoids problems with potential allergen exposure, disease transmission, and other cross-contamination problems that can arise from “looks clean enough to me” treatment.

    * I’m not Jewish enough; very, very few Americans are Jewish enough (and I’m nonpracticing to boot!).

    1. I wonder if it might not be easier to just try to get the public used to the idea of bringing their own plates and forks everywhere with them. Camping utensils are quite light, and many people already cart around water bottles. It might really be the easiest approach.

      Mind you, not that I do this yet. So far all I do is feel guilty about takeout…

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