The architecture of horror

The August sun is scorching and the light is intense as the taxi enters the arrival court of the new YAD VASHEM HOLOCAUST CENTRE in Jerusalem. The scent of pine and olive is mixed with the dry dusty atmosphere. Bougainvillea too, is all around.

The complex consists of two buildings. The Visitors Centre which is a boxy glass pavilion, shaded with louvers on the roof and with generous setbacks, and the Museum, set some distance beyond it.

The atmosphere of the Visitors Centre is welcoming and friendly. On the day we were there it was staffed with Holocaust survivors. It even has a substantial restaurant in the basement. Typical of most Israeli memorial sites.

After passing through the Visitors Centre you descend down a ramp to the entrance of the Museum. The atmosphere of light and friendliness quickly disappears. You are surrounded by darkness and silence. The building is long and thin, symbolically like a train. It is set mostly underground, the only lighting being a continuous pyramidal skylight centrally along its length. The light filters weakly into the exhibition chambers which run along the side of the central passage and contain the exhibits. The flow of people is in a zigzag direction from the chamber on one side, across the centrally lit passage to the chamber on the other side and then back again right along the length of the train.

The displays begin modestly with the first examples of pre war anti-Semitism in Europe building up to the Kristalnacht pogrom, the hatching of the “Final Solution” at the Wannsee Conference and the subsequent deportation of Jews to the concentration camps, and the horrors that unfolded there. The most dramatic exhibit is a large sculpture, maybe 7m long in white plaster. It shows hundreds of naked people being shepherded into the vast complex of gas chambers (apparently there is no photographic record of this process), their bodies being removed and transported on trolleys and subsequently fed into the ovens.

Towards the end of the train is the Hall of Faces a large circular display of thousands of photos of the known victims. Mostly children and family groups. Attached to this display is a computer library where there is a record of victims identified. Only some 2 out of 6 million.
I sat down at a computer and put in my family name, knowing that my father’s family in Lithuania had been murdered there. Nothing came up. My young daughter standing at my side suggested I try various different spellings of our name. It worked. Suddenly the screen lit up with a long list of our family members. Nine of my father’s siblings and their families, some 60 people in all. It was shattering, I could not contain myself.

Noticeable on that day was the number of soldiers passing through the exhibits. Young boys and girls. Although removed from the events of that time, the message to them was clear. They need to be vigilant, some dictator is always threatening Jewish existence. If not Hitler then its Amadinejhad, if not he then Nasrallah.

At the end of the building we emerged out of the darkness onto a large brightly lit balcony. It is elevated with a wonderful view over the Jerusalem hills. Standing on that balcony, I felt a sense of triumph at just being there.

The building is designed by Moshe Safdie, the Israeli architect who practices in Boston. I think it’s one his best efforts. It is constructed in off shutter concrete and glass with finely crafted detail. At no point does the architecture subvert the function of the building as happens in so many museums and art galleries. The architecture steps back from self expression and is always a backdrop to the dramatic events depicted.

By Ivan Schlapobersky

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