Even the most perfect system breaks down. Tomáš Sedláček

From Darkness to Light

Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial and Japan’s Hiroshima Peace Park are surprisingly similar, both in the message they deliver and the architectural means through which they do so. They portray a clear narrative of progression from darkness to light. But history is more complicated than that.

In 1954, two very different memorials opened almost simultaneously on opposite sides of Asia. The Hiroshima Peace Park, which opened in August 1954, and Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem—Israel’s central Holocaust memorial—which opened in July, could not have been more different in their messages. Although both opened under the slogan “Never Again,” the Hiroshima memorial’s pacifist message emphasized reconciliation and even forgiveness towards the American perpetrators, while Yad Vashem’s message stressed resistance and the need for Jews to be (militarily) strong in order to prevent reoccurrence of the Holocaust. The nature of the tragedies was, of course, completely different. The postwar historical circumstances as well are not comparable. But, significantly, in both places national victimization became a touchstone for national reinvention and a new communal identity, with the memorials becoming the central sacred ground for commemorating this experience.

From Darkness into Light

In both communities (and, indeed, many others from Beijing to Vienna) the story told was of a journey from darkness into light, of the nation emerging triumphant from the crucible of defeat and victimization to achieve resurrection and national strength. Whether it was the founding of Israel or the reemergence of Japan as a pacifist nation, the recent tragic past was immediately conscripted in service of the present. The commemoration sites’ very shapes told this story. Architect Tange Kenzō designed the Peace Park to lead in a straight axis from the site of the destroyed A-bomb Dome and into the modernist buildings of the museum, making visitors journey form the destruction of war into the reconstructed modernity of contemporary Japan. Yad Vashem’s architect Munio Weinrub, aimed at a similar experience as he directed the visitor from the underground halls of commemoration and up into “the light of the hall of heroism.” Moshe Safdie’s 2005 design made the pilgrimage theme even clearer. With the museum now slicing through the mountain side, the visitor goes down to the dark depth of the Holocaust only to emerge on the other side as the building opens up suddenly into the light and the greenery of modern Jerusalem.

Both places are, of course, more than just national shrines. They are places of mourning and prayer, which many survivors cherish. Furthermore, in both institutions the nuances of history and war memory were always, and still are, negotiated on many levels. Both museums’ histories are, in a way, a struggle between the founding narrative of victimization and resurrection and the changing historical sensibilities and demands of communities around them. But in both places memory of the dead have also been continuously put in the service of the politics of the living. With the growing strength of the right in both Israel and Japan, the “nation as victim” narrative is enjoying a revival of sorts. This move is much clearer in Israel, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu dedicating a significant portion of his last Holocaust Remembrance Day speech to Iran and the Holocaust used almost daily to show the world’s supposed hypocrisy in criticizing Israel, but in Japan as well, the memory of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is often used as a way of not talking about Japan’s own past aggression.

Overlapping Histories

This strength of this narrative largely comes from the way such storylines were (literally) cast in stone in the first postwar decade. With school groups, soldiers, and other visitors making the pilgrimage tour daily for the last sixty years it is hard for these who argue against an over focus on victimization to counter this story. What’s more, in both places, recent moves to concentrate on the victims’ own personal stories and artifacts, reflecting recent changes in global commemoration culture, unfortunately also have the attended effect of further removing the tragedies from the larger historical context. One possible way to counter such trends is to show the many contradictions and different paths that such narrative conceals. In both sites’ the “pilgrim progress” from destruction to resurrection literally goes through a very different buried past. Yad Vashem is overlooking the former lands of Deir Yassin, a Palestinian village that was a site of massacre by nationalist Jewish guerrillas. The Hiroshima Peace Park was built on land, whose residents—many of whom were Japanese of Korean descent—had to be evicted by force, while Hiroshima itself was a major military center for Japan’s war in Asia. In both places the story is not of darkness leading into light but of light and shadow intersecting and history and memory entangled with current politics and struggles. This, of course, does not diminish the victimization of either the Jews or the Japanese, but it does show a need for our commemoration sites to overcome their founding narrative and show that history has more than just one path.

Read more in this debate: Paul Williams, Brigitte Sion, Witold Rybczynski.


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