Thursday, September 2, 2010

My Visit to Yad Vashem

By Susan Esther Barnes

It’s been more than two months since I was at Yad Vashem, the museum of the Shoah (Holocaust) in Jerusalem. It is not an oversight that I have not written about it before now.

I was there with a tour group from my synagogue, and it says something about my trust in myself and in the others in the group that I didn’t even consider trying to hide my feelings as we made our way through the exhibits.

We had an excellent tour guide, but the deeper we went into the museum, the less I listened to him and the more I made my own decisions about where to turn my attention. The numbers are staggering, and the geography and political history are obviously relevant, but what was most meaningful to me was hearing and reading the stories of the survivors.

In many areas there are screens showing excerpts of interviews with survivors. I found these to be deeply moving. Not just because of what had happened to them, but because any of them could have been talking about my family. My Jewish grandparents left Hungary with my father in 1938. Some others in my family left, too. Many didn’t, and many died.

As I walked through the museum, tears rolled down my face. I didn’t try to wipe them away. They belonged where they were.

I kept expecting someone in my group to stop and say something to me. I wondered whether they just didn’t know what to say or do. I wondered whether they were so engrossed in their own thoughts and feelings that they didn’t notice my tears. I wondered whether they saw the tears but chose not to interrupt my, or their own, processing of the experience by asking about them.

About half way through the museum, one of our group’s youth guides asked me how I was doing. I told him I didn’t know how to answer that question. I told him my father and grandparents had escaped from Hungary. Talking to him about it brought more of my feelings to the surface, and I had to fight to keep from breaking down. Suddenly I was glad nobody else had asked. Yet I am grateful that he did.

Upon leaving the building, as the narrow place filled with horror opened up onto a beautiful, green panorama of the Israeli hillside, my heart almost burst. I know that’s a cliché, but I don’t know a better way to describe it.

I thought I was doing an admirable job of holding myself together, and I entertained the belief that I would be able to just cry later in private. Then we made a stop at the restrooms, and while I was standing in a stall I heard a strange, strangled sound in my throat. I tried to hold back the flood, but then I thought, “to what end?” and let it out.

I didn’t know what to do next. I knew my group would be waiting for me. I didn’t want to hide that I was crying – in no way was I embarrassed or ashamed – but I didn’t want to create a scene either. I started to leave the restroom, changed my mind and went back in, sat on the floor, put my head on my arms, and wept.

In time, a woman from our group came in, rushed over, and put her arm around me. She said the group was worried about me, and asked for permission to go tell them where I was.

When she came back, she asked me to come out with her, since the rabbi didn’t want to come into the women’s room. (Side note to men: Unless she’s specifically avoiding you, it’s okay to come into a women’s room to comfort a woman who’s crying. It’s not like a men’s room. We do all our business in stalls, shielded from view).

So I went out, and cried on Michael’s shoulder, until the tears stopped. Even though there was nothing I saw or heard in Yad Vashem that I didn’t know about already, I haven’t finished crying about it yet. I don’t know if I ever will.


  1. susan, i literally have tears streaming down my face and chills running up and down my arms. you wrote this beautifully. your writing could easily stand as a communal sentiment of pain. thank you.

  2. Minnesora Mamaleh -

    Thanks. Writing is was a cathartic experience. I hope reading it is, too. Cyber-hugs to you.

  3. When I got there I get annoyed at their messages of "universalism" and the use of the word "perished."
    I'm glad that you find it effective, so all that money isn't wasted.
    I didn't grow up with any Holocaust awareness.