WaSPR Delegation Diary 10: Two Traumatized Peoples: Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial


Yad Vashem, The Jewish Resistence in Poland. (Bill Dienst)

Friday, March 11, 2005, Jerusalem — Peter and I head out and descend the stairs into Damascus Gate. We climb our way through the Labyrinthine Old City and wind up at Jaffa Gate at the Green Line, the border between Jordanian and Israeli controlled Jerusalem prior to 1967. We hail a taxi and head for Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum in West Jerusalem.

We pass the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, and then Hebrew University. To understand the sentiments of “Never Again!” and gain insights on the modern Jewish state’s obsession with security, it is essential to visit this place.

Yad Vashem is located on a hilltop. We enter the world of central Europe on the eve of WW II. At that time, the Jewish population of Europe and North Africa was between 8 and 9 million. In Poland, there were 3.3 million Jews; in Russia, 3 million. Germany had about half a million Jews as did Hungary, and other Jewish populations were scattered among the other countries. They became convenient scapegoats for Hitler’s demagoguery.

At first the Jews of Europe were subject to public humiliation, then carted off in boxcars to internment camps that quickly became concentration camps and then death camps. The ethnic cleansing of European Jewry became one of the central purposes of the Nazi’s, as they moved militarily to dominate Europe.

Yad Vashem, Building the Wall in the Warsaw Ghetto. (Bill Dienst)

The Nazi’s built a wall around the Warsaw Ghetto and starved the people to death. In 1941, the monthly death rate in the Ghetto had climbed from less than 1000 in January to over 5500 in July and August. People were being taken by force to the death camps, like Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen. Some escaped the Warsaw Ghetto and joined the armed resistance. Those resistance fighters taken into custody by the Nazi’s were summarily executed.

Many Jews and other “undesirable” minorities were subject to massive extermination. They were ordered to strip, lined up in front of trenches, gunned down en mass, and buried in mass graves, their belongings systematically stolen from them. Many were kept alive, only to be subjects of human experimentation. Women had malignant cells inserted into their uteruses without anesthesia to see what would happen. Some were slowly frozen to death in order to study the effects of hypothermia.

In all, over 6 million Jews perished in the Holocaust. Of these, 1.5 million were children. In the end, there was massive flight out of Europe among the survivors. Some were successful in escaping to the United States, but this was by no means easy. Others, with great difficulty, made it to Palestine, where they created the State of Israel in1948 fulfilling the mandates of the Zionist movement, which had started back in the 1880’s. It took the Holocaust, with the subsequent mass migration of Jews into Palestine, for the Zionist dream of a modern State of Israel to come to fruition.

Unfortunately, the Palestinians had nothing to do with the sins of the Nazi’s; but they would be forced to sacrifice for these sins for generations, just the same.

Peter, Gary and I take a cab back to Ben Yehuda Street, the main Israeli pedestrian mall in West Jerusalem. From there we can walk back to La Notre Dame. Peter explains to the Israeli taxi driver about our group, Physicians for Social Responsibility, and how we are trying to understand the complexities of this place.

“It is all very simple,” our taxi driver said. “The Palestinians deserve everything that they get. Yasser Arafat was a terrorist, and incredibly stupid. This new leader, Mahmood Abbas will be no different.” I sit in the back seat of the taxi, biting my lip.

We pay the fare at the curb, and then eat falafel sandwiches on Ben Yehuda Street. We walk back to La Notre Dame, across the Russian Compound, and past the police station where Israeli interrogators torture Palestinians. The station is tucked away discreetly in the middle of the city. But a closer inspection of the checkpoint window, all the radio towers and concertina wire does suggest that certain diabolical activities do go on within the inner walls.

To put all the suffering of the Jews and the Palestinians in medical terminology, I would say that the Jews, after centuries of persecution, suffered from an extreme hyper-acute fulminant Holocaust of an unprecedented nature under the Nazi’s.

“Arbeit Macht Frei” (Work Brings Freedom) was the sign over the gates of Auschwitz. It was placed there by Major Rudolf Hoss, commandant of the camp. (Bill Dienst)

There have been others in world history who have suffered Holocausts of a comparable magnitude, like more than one and a half million Armenians who suffered genocide under the Turks, and over two million Cambodians under Pol Pot, and there is the more recent example in Rwanda. Africans during the time of slavery, and Native Americans under the European conquest perished in numbers exceeding 10 million over the course of several hundred years.

But none of these were as focused, systematic and wide spread over so many countries in such short a time, as the Jews under the Nazi Holocaust.

The Palestinians, on the other hand, have suffered a slower process; a sub-acute and now chronically progressive Catastrophe with possible terminal features with regard for any hope for justice, or a viable Palestinian State. This comes complete with ethnic cleansing which favors systematic displacement over extermination. This has been going on now for over 57 years. It is in a particular cruel and active phase today.

Next, Reconciliation and Not Revenge: The Refusenik movement and Ta’ayush.

Dr. Bill Dienst is a rural family and emergency room physician from Omak, Washington, USA. In March 2005, he traveled to Palestine and Israel as part of a delegation sponsored by Washington State Physicians for Social Responsibility (WaPSR). The delegation met with prominent Palestinians as well as members of the Israeli peace movement. They also traveled inside the Kiryat Arba’a settlement to hear a prominent member of the settler movement. In this series of articles, Dr. Dienst describes these meetings. Dr. Dienst has been to Israel-Palestine twice before. In November 2003, he spent 10 days in Gaza sponsored by Gaza Community Health Programme, and in 1985, he spent 4 1/2 months in Egypt the West Bank and Gaza sponsored by the Palestine Red Crescent Society.