Revelation in Stone
January 19, 2022
You can tell a lot about a culture by looking at its architecture. You can tell what the major industries are, what kind of climate they live in, and what resources they have available to them. But you can also tell what they value. Where I’m from in Iowa, most of the machine sheds are prefab metal buildings. They’re disposable, and in 20 years the farmer’s son will tear them down without any cultural—or even sentimental—loss. Contrast this with the churches and courthouses made of stone. They’re more than decorations for Main Street. They reveal a culture that values reverence and right religion, justice, and civic duty. Architecture can also reveal the imagination of a culture, like the spires gothic cathedral revealing heavenly aspirations. It’s no different in the Holy Land. Yad Vashem, our first site visit, falls into the latter category.
You see, it cuts through the Promised Land like a blade, just like the Holocaust (or Shoah) which it commemorates. We went there to learn about the people who were murdered during that calamity. The main building is a heavy, wedge-shaped concrete structure built through a ridge west of Jerusalem. You have to walk down a ramp to enter. You have to descend into the darkest depths of human nature. The cruelty begins slowly: first harassment and discrimination. Then outright exclusion from public life. Then violence. Then the forced labor, starvation, and extermination that we all think of. To think that people would hand their friends and neighbors over to death, or that a devoted husband and father could return to his family every evening after a hard day’s work of genocide beggars belief. But that’s what happened, and that’s what makes the Shoah so terrifying: it’s so incredibly human. Fear, scapegoating, and economic hardship turned the German people against an easy target. It’s not the first time that’s happened, and it haunts us because it might not be the last.
It’s not just the cruelty that cuts through the Jewish imagination after the Shoah; it’s the desperation. Imagine yourself in the position of Mordechai Rumkowski, the Jewish leader of the Lodz ghetto. The Germans told him to hand over something like 25,000 Jews for deportation to camps where they would be murdered. He negotiated the number down—by promising that they would all be children under the age of ten. He then had to address the community—parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles—and ask them for their children. He said, “In my old age, I must stretch out my hands and beg. Brothers and sisters: Hand them over to me! Fathers and mothers: Give me your children!” Can you imagine standing up in your church or town hall and asking for such a thing? I can’t, but what I can imagine was almost enough to make me weep. Yad Vashem is not a beautiful place, but it was never meant to be. It is an architectural expression of the wound it commemorates, and it pierces all who visit it.
Archdiocese of Dubuque