During the mass murder of Jews in Europe, one man had already a vision of a Holocaust memorial in the Holy Land.
The idea for Yad Vashem dates back to before the Holocaust became “the Holocaust” or the State of Israel was established. In the summer of 1942, Mordechai Shenhavi, a founder of the socialist-Zionist Hashomer Hatzair youth movement and a member of kibbutz Mishmar Ha’emek, dreamt up a national memorial site in Palestine for Jewish Holocaust victims.
Bella Gutterman’s new book, “Venatati Lahem Yad Vashem” (“I Gave Them Yad Vashem: 60 Years of Commemoration, Documentation, Research and Education”), devotes a chapter to Shenhavi’s tireless effort to turn his dream into “an international center and focus of identification,” as Gutterman describes it. Shenhavi chose the name “Yad Vashem” and was the first director of the institution. In hindsight, he also connected the Holocaust, heroism and revival, and to a great extent shaped the architecture of Holocaust commemoration in Israel, as it has developed until now.
Shenhavi’s friend, architect Munio Weinraub sketched an initial design for what would become Yad Vashem in 1943. Although the design was not used, some of its features are visible in the building today. Weinraub, along with his architectural partner Al Mansfield, remained involved in planning Yad Vashem until the 1960s.
Shenhavi’s work on behalf of Yad Vashem was just one of his many accomplishments, which, shockingly, have been almost entirely forgotten by most Israelis. Shenhavi was born in Russia in 1900 and moved to the Land of Israel when he was 19 years old. He is thought to be the first member of Hashomer Hatzair to make the trip. A tempestuous and enigmatic man, he was among the founders of the kibbutzim Beit Alfa and Mishmar Haemek and pushed for the establishment of the first industries in the Kibbutz Haartzi movement, including Naaman tableware. For years, he served as an emissary of the movement and the party in Israel and abroad. He was a delegate at several Zionist congresses and Hashomer Hatzair conferences.
Mooli Brog, a researcher for Birthright Israel, writes that Shenhavi had a premonition of his role as an ambassador for Israel as a child. In 1910 in the city of Lvov, “when [Shenhavi] was burning with fever, he had a strange sense of illumination,” Brog writes. “Suddenly he saw himself as though in a dream that he dreamt in his childhood, in which he was speaking to a group of young people … as an emissary who came from the Land of Israel.”
When in 1942, Shenhavi began hearing reports of the Nazi horrors happening in Europe, he was again haunted by visions. Testifying to the members of the National Committee in 1946, “Here I see in a dream all those millions, at the time I didn’t know that it was six million, millions walking with monuments on their shoulders, facing Zion … And they chose one place, and each one removed the monument from his shoulder and placed it in an orderly and disorderly fashion, and the monument of their lives … was constructed … It was a kilometer long and a kilometer wide, and 100 meters high — maybe that was enough. Who can say that there is no room to build such a monument?”
The architectural sketches of Yad Vashem from 1943, hint at Shenhavi’s mystical-messianic vision, depicting a monumental building in mixed style — a rounded tower topped with a dome, towering over an arch-filled main building. Imagined atop an exposed hill overlooking a sprawling landscape, it looks like a combination of a temple, water tower, and guard tower — all charged icons in Jewish-Zionist history.
The interior plans reveal an opening at the top of the dome, perhaps, Brog suggests, inspired by the Pantheon in Rome. Other features include a ray of light, a Star of David and an eternal flame — all mainstays of memorial architecture.
Architecture is integral to commemoration, and Yad Vashem is an extreme, but not singular, example of this connection. City-like in size and designed as an experience, Yad Vashem anticipates the move toward massive scale and sometimes Disneyland-like features that has taken place in the world of memorial architecture.