Dorit Novak wants you to know that Yad Vashem is more than a museum.
Israel’s Holocaust authority, which sits on the Mount of Remembrance in western Jerusalem, is of course a museum, drawing about 1 million visitors a year. But Novak, its director general, notes that Yad Vashem is also an archive of more that 212 million documents, a research center, an educational institution that holds over 80 seminars a year, an art collection, and a convener of Israel’s annual ceremony for the 6 million killed in the Holocaust.
It is also fast becoming something else: what economists call a “truth-telling mechanism” — in this case, for a world soon to be without survivors.
Novak and I spoke about the changing contours of Holocaust memory during her visit this week to New York, where she attended the American Society for Yad Vashem annual tribute dinner.
Appointed six years ago, Novak is helping lead Yad Vashem at a time when the Holocaust is both fading as an immediate historical event and remaining essential as a symbol — often in troubling ways. In Europe, nationalist governments are rewriting their wartime histories to rehabilitate Nazi collaborators as national heroes. In the United States, politicians, pundits and even well-meaning educators regularly make inappropriate Holocaust analogies, while white supremacists are proudly waving the swastika.
Novak is protective of the Holocaust and critical of the uses to which it is put, but also forgiving. She worries about two perhaps diametrically opposed ways the Holocaust is co-opted in contemporary rhetoric and politics. The first is to declare Holocaust analogies off limits, and somehow fence it off from the yearly toll of contemporary genocides and ethnic cleansings. The second way is applying the Holocaust lesson to everything, from bullying in schools to online harassment, as if the Holocaust were merely an advanced case of intolerance. “We have to find the golden path,” she said, where the Holocaust remains both relevant and proportional.
Yad Vashem will speak out when it sees Holocaust memory being distorted or exploited. It tweeted “Learn about concentration camps” after Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-Queens/Bronx) used the term to refer to migrant detention centers. One of its senior historians refuted Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) after she suggested that Israel’s creation was almost exclusively a response to the Holocaust. And in March, the American Society took out full page ads in U.S. newspapers urging politicians on both sides of the aisle to stop using “divisive anti-Semitic language and distorted Holocaust references.”
Novak said Yad Vashem is cautious in making such public statements, and often prefers to intervene behind the scenes. “We have to use our voice when things are going in a wrong direction, but we have to do it wisely,” she said. She insists on Yad Vashem’s independence from the Israeli government, saying her staff needs credibility to examine events with a “clear conscience.”
While she is confident in Yad Vashem’s ability to tell and preserve the truth of the Shoah, she also acknowledges that researchers are at risk — and not only in Poland, where a law limits the way historians can talk about Polish culpability during the Nazi era. She worries less about Holocaust denial than what she calls “soft-denial”: efforts to recast the narrative based on facts that actually distort the truth. One example she gives is of a scholar who prefers to tally all the non-combatants who died during World War II, and roll the six million Jewish victims into that number – erasing the unique circumstances and extent of their liquidation.
“What is at risk is the usage of that memory,” she said. “If we want to keep [the Holocaust] meaningful as a warning sign — and it is a warning sign, not merely about the Jews, but the world — the risk is there.”
Luckily, she said, Yad Vashem is not alone in this effort. It cooperates with the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance and its 33 member countries, which tries to encourage standards for education, remembrance and research about the Holocaust.
Invariably our conversation turns back to a world without survivors. In a sense, Yad Vashem has been preparing for that world since its founding in 1953. The main effort is “collecting everything we can collect — testimonies, artifacts, archival material. We’re running against time.” It has gathered some 132,000 video testimonies, including 52,000 from Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation. And lately researchers have taken aging survivors back to the places where they were born, or raised, or were hidden during the war. The visits trigger something in the witnesses, and often unlock a story that they had been reluctant to tell for over 70 years. “It’s not just about the historical facts,” said Novak. “It is the personal stories that they tell that matter.”
The passing of the survivor generation means it will be up to others to tell their story — children and grandchildren, relatives and friends, historians and museums. For those children especially, she said, the Holocaust can’t and shouldn’t be separated from their Jewish identities.
“We have to ask what the Holocaust means to Jewish identity—not as a victim, but what you commit to,” she said. “The Holocaust offers lessons in values, like solidarity, in how Jews rescued other Jews. No Jew was ever rescued without the help of another Jew.” Another lesson is resilience, which she finds the “most reassuring” aspect of her work: how survivors “found the strength to rebuild their lives and continue to believe in human beings. Not all of them but most of them.”
When asked if there is one single message the Holocaust imparts, she doesn’t hesitate. “The promise of enlightenment, modernity, was that ours would become a better world, with higher values. That was the assumption. The Holocaust showed that we were wrong. The Holocaust happened in the midst of the modern world, and modernity gives you great tools to perform atrocities. The Holocaust shows what happens when you don’t see the step by step ways” that evil engulfs a society, and “you don’t ask yourself, ‘What can I do to protect it?’”