The Holocaust elevator pitch, perfected for Trump

Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, the famed 19th-century founder of the Lithuanian-based Musar movement, an Orthodox Jewish cultural and educational school of thought that stressed personal ethics and self-improvement, was once approached by a member of his community.

“I do not have time to dedicate my whole life to studying the Torah. I only have 15 minutes a day,” the man told the rabbi, as legend would have it. “What would you recommend I study during that time? The Bible? Maybe the Talmud? Perhaps Jewish law?”

Without hesitation, Rabbi Salanter answered that he must, of course, use his meager time to study Musar.

“If you study Musar for 15 minutes,” he told his congregant, “you will realize that you have much more than 15 minutes each day to dedicate to Torah study.”

On Tuesday, as part of his high-profile visit to Israel, US President Donald Trump will spend just 15 minutes at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum, Israel’s official memorial to the victims of the Holocaust and a staple on the itineraries of foreign dignitaries in the country.

Aside from a short wreath-laying ceremony at Mount Herzl, which is generally compulsory for heads of state (although Trump, whose trip breaks with a series of long-held protocols, will skip the site), a stopover at Yad Vashem is the only obligatory item on the itinerary of high-level guests visiting Israel for the first time. A visit to the Jerusalem museum, which usually takes a minimum of 90 minutes and ends with a wreath-laying ceremony, has been part of the Foreign Ministry’s protocol since shortly after the Knesset passed the 1953 Yad Vashem Law, which mandated the creation of the Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority.

US President Barack Obama visits the Hall of Names at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum with (L-R) Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu, Chairman of the Yad Vashem Directorate Avner Shalev and President Shimon Peres, March 22, 2013. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO/Flash90)

According to the schedule of Trump’s Israel visit put out by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office, he will arrive at Yad Vashem at 1 p.m., but is set to be at the Israel Museum, a short drive away, already at 1:30 p.m., in order to deliver the main speech of his Israel trip at 2 p.m.

Israeli officials were pleased last week to hear that the Yad Vashem visit would indeed take place — it did not appear on earlier drafts of the schedule — but some feel 15 minutes is not enough to pay respect to the site or the Holocaust victims it commemorates. An hour-long visit was the “absolute minimum” needed to show appropriate reverence at the 45-acre complex, said one official who asked to remain unnamed.

Yad Vashem, however, publicly welcomed the announcement of the visit, making no direct reference to the limited time it was allotted.

“While the president’s visit to Israel is brief, he has chosen to commemorate the six million Jewish victims of the Holocaust by participating in a memorial ceremony in the Hall of Remembrance,” the site said in a no-frills statement.

During his visit, Trump will lay a wreath, sign the Book of Remembrance and hear a brief explanation of the site by Yad Vashem chairman Avner Shalev, the statement said. In addition, both Trump and Netanyahu will give brief public statements.

With the president skipping a tour normally given to foreign visitors of the vast museum complex that details the history of Holocaust, he will be presented by Shalev with a “token of remembrance,” an exact replica of an original Holocaust-era personal album, with which he can continue his study after the visit.

A page from an album created by Ester Goldstein dedicated to her sister Margot Herschenbaum. It reads: 'You should honor the Torah, You should follow the Torah, What is written in the Torah is true, There is just one God, And He is invisible. Never forget me, Your loving sister, Margot. April 2, 1939, Berlin.' (Yad Vashem)

The album belonged to Ester Goldstein, born in 1926 in Berlin and murdered in Riga, Latvia, at the age of 16. After liberation, Ester’s cousin David Werner returned to the Goldstein family home in Berlin, where a neighbor gave him a box of papers that she had kept safe throughout the war. Among the papers was the album, which he gave to the sole survivor in the family, Ester’s sister Margot Herschenbaum, who had been sent to Australia as part of the Kindertransport. In 2006, Herschenbaum donated the album to Yad Vashem for safekeeping. Now 88, she will be one of the survivors attending the presidential visit on Tuesday.

The album “is comprised of messages of hope and everlasting friendship inscribed by Ester’s family and friends. Some of the pages are embellished with optimistic and innocent illustrations, while others include photographs of those dearest to her,” Yad Vashem said in a statement.

“We hope that it will be significant for the president and that he will leave carrying the memory of the six million Holocaust victims,” a spokesman for Yad Vashem told The Times of Israel.

The visit will not be the first effort by the museum to educate Trump on the details, and meaning, of the Holocaust.

In an apparent rebuke of his failure to include any mention of the genocide of Jews in his statement on International Holocaust Remembrance Day in January, Yad Vashem issued a statement in which it “stressed to all that the Holocaust was the unprecedented genocide of six million Jews.”

The statement, put out to summarize the vast range of activities the museum was involved in for International Holocaust Remembrance Day, emphasized that the Holocaust was “motivated by a radically racist, anti-Semitic ideology, which sought the annihilation of the Jewish people, its culture and its heritage.”

The museum wrote that “the Nazis’ barbaric intent and policy to wipe out an entire people violated the fundamental tenets of human morality, thus making the Holocaust a distinct event of eternal universal significance,” drawing a sharp contrast to the Trump administration’s message, which the White House later doubled down on, emphasizing the universal suffering that occurred as a result of the Holocaust.

US President Donald Trump speaks on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, April 25, 2017, during the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum's National Days of Remembrance ceremony. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

In addition, Yad Vashem said that it “emphasizes the imperative to understand the Holocaust in a historically accurate manner, in order to ensure that it remains a perpetually relevant component of human consciousness and discourse throughout the world.”

With every minute accounted for during Trump’s packed 28 hours in Israel, it’s unlikely that Tuesday’s 15 minutes in Yad Vashem will, in the spirit of Rabbi Salanter, make him realize that he in fact has more time to dedicate to remembering and learning about the Holocaust. The museum is hoping, however, that even the short time allocated will have some impact on the president.

But what can be said in such a short time? Following is a selection of suggestions from leading Holocaust educators and historians on what they would tell Trump about the Holocaust if they had, like Yad Vashem does, only 15 minutes.

Efraim Zuroff

Director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Jerusalem, historian and Nazi hunter who played a key role in bringing indicted Nazi and fascist war criminals to trial.

Nazi hunter Efraim Zuroff saying Kaddish, a mourning prayer, for Holocaust victims near Kaunas, Lithuania, February 15, 2015. (Cnaan Liphshiz/JTA)

Dear President Trump,

I was saddened to learn that you will only be spending 15 minutes at Yad Vashem during your visit to Jerusalem.

My concern is not that you will be insufficiently informed about the Holocaust. After all, Yad Vashem is not the only Holocaust museum in the world, and one of the world’s largest is not that far from the White House. The issue is, what message does such a brief visit send? Your predecessor made the serious mistake in his famous Cairo speech, which was supposed to forever positively alter America’s relations with the Arab world, of indicating that Israel’s existence as a Jewish state was justified by the Holocaust. This was a very dangerous falsification of history, which only strengthens the Arabs’ intransigence and self-righteous determination not to allow themselves to be victimized for the crimes of others.

Yet even if the Holocaust should not be the basis for our claim to our ancestral homeland, its lessons for humanity resonate in today’s world more than ever, and form the most powerful basis for the struggle for democracy, freedom, and human rights that America stands for, as well as the struggle against Islamic terror, fundamentalism and anti-Semitism, which must be the foundation of any potential peace agreement. A more lengthy visit to Yad Vashem, and especially to the Holocaust museum, would much more powerfully transmit that message.

Rafael Medoff

Founding director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies in Washington, DC, which focuses on issues related to America’s response to the Holocaust.

Dr. Rafael Medoff, founding director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies in Washington, DC teaching high school students. (Courtesy)

The most important lesson an American president should learn from the Holocaust is that unwillingness to use American military power in the service of humanity leads to catastrophe. Some dislike the notion of the US as “policeman of the world,” but a world bedeviled by genocidal dictators desperately needs a policeman, and America is the only nation for the job.

The United States should assume this responsibility not just for the sake of innocent civilians around the world — although surely that is reason enough — but also because tyrants who abuse human rights usually endanger America’s national security, too. Military action against Adolf Hitler in the 1930s not only would have preempted the Holocaust, but would have spared the Free World from a war that cost more than 60 million lives.

Sadly, most American presidents have failed to act against genocide abroad. Franklin D. Roosevelt turned his back on Europe’s Jews, even though US planes bombing oil targets adjacent to Auschwitz could have struck the death camp with minimal effort. Jimmy Carter did nothing to impede the slaughter in Cambodia, Bill Clinton turned a blind eye to the mass murder in Rwanda, and neither George W. Bush nor Barack Obama took serious steps against the Darfur genocide. Clinton’s belated intervention in the Balkans, and Obama’s aid to besieged Yazidis, offered a glimpse of what American power can achieve when the president is willing to use it.

Since my 15 minutes are almost up, Mr. President, I offer one final thought: The civil war in Syria, even with Bashar Assad’s poison gas and crematoria, is not the same as the Holocaust; but atrocities need not reach the level of genocide for America to care and respond. Early US action against Assad would have spared the lives of countless innocent civilians and preempted the international refugee crisis. It’s late, but not too late, for America to take decisive action to bring down Assad. Doing so would translate the lessons of the Holocaust into meaningful action.

Colette Avital

Holocaust survivor and chairperson of the Center Organizations of Holocaust Survivors in Israel, a former Israeli diplomat and Knesset member.

Colette Avital, in January 2008 when she was a member of the Israeli Knesset.(photo credit: Olivier Fitoussi /Flash90)

There is a lot we could and should talk about in terms of remembrance, keeping the memory of the Holocaust alive and passing on that memory not just to our children and grandchildren, but to generations to come. There is a lot we could and should talk about in terms of rejecting Holocaust denial, preventing these ugly ideas in any form they may take and denying their sponsors the platform they so seek to spread them. There is also, of course, a lot we could and should talk about in terms of Holocaust survivors, helping those still with us live out their days with the respect and honor they deserve.

But above all, before anything else, as a Holocaust survivor and someone who works on behalf of other survivors, I would need to talk about something even more basic, even more visceral. Today, still today, there are people being burned. Yes, in Syria, innocent people are being burned in pits and crematoriums.

As survivors we cannot, we must not accept this. As humans we cannot, we must not accept this. As Jews we have a moral obligation to say that our people cannot and will not accept this.

Zak Jeffay

Educator and guide for JRoots, an educational charity that takes thousands of people each year on Jewish Heritage journeys, many of them to Poland.

JRoots educator Zak Jeffay leading a tour in the Warsaw Jewish Cemetery. (Courtesy)

The idea of a 15-minute window to address the Holocaust sounds absurd, like an elevator pitch for understanding genocide, but it actually reflects a mammoth challenge that educators like me are facing. We have limited time with our students, and if we spend it just trying to give a sense of the scale, we run the risk of alienating them and dehumanizing the victims into unsettling statistics. A number suffers no pain in the same way that a black and white photo of a forgotten world elicits little empathy.

But the choice to focus on just one victim or story runs the risk of allowing the Holocaust to be just another instance of cruel murder when the enormity of the Nazi killing machine and the desire to wipe an entire people off the face of the earth constitutes an unprecedented chapter of history. The educational challenge is to work from the story to the history, from the family picture to the bigger picture. Seeing the suffering of one in the plight of millions.

I would have President Trump meet with a survivor and have him hear about their life, loss, suffering and the challenge of rebirth. I would then ask him, as his helicopter soars over Israel and he gets a birds-eye view of millions of people, to consider how many millions had Holocaust stories to tell, and the fact that the majority never got to be heard.

If there is a job that demands big-picture thinking it is the president’s. I would like Trump to know that the world did not go mad between 1933 and 1945. The Holocaust did not happen on ‘Planet Auschwitz,’ as Yehiel De-Nur claimed. The world remained silent, while the gas chambers and killing pits sat firmly on planet earth. Holding the most powerful office on earth, I would encourage Trump to spend 15 minutes every week asking himself how to ensure this never happens again.

Elana Heideman

Holocaust scholar and educator, executive director of The Israel Forever Foundation.

Holocaust scholar and educator Elana Heideman giving a tour of Yain Yad Vashem. (Courtesy)

How does one delve into the abyss of the Holocaust in 15 minutes? A daunting task indeed. I would begin with a symbolic story of life, community, Torah, and a passion for learning and memory — a story that begins here in the Land of Israel that was carried throughout the world after our expulsion.

I would emphasize that it is the uniqueness of our nation that generation after generation have resented or despised. I would highlight how the Holocaust represents how the various mechanisms and forces of even the most civilized societies can work in sync toward the destructive purpose of eliminating a common enemy. I would share in graphic detail the process of the persecution — from the ghettos, on the trains, in the gas chambers, and at the edges of mass graves — and the impact of living trapped within a world of momentary survival.

I would tell of the songs of hope, the prayers of desperation, and the dreams of the dying that defied the dehumanization that Nazi ideology sought to imbue in the minds of both the perpetrators and the victims. I would declare that just as it was here in this land that our Jewish people became a Jewish nation thousands of years ago, so, too, in our sovereign state we continuously affirm the memory of our murdered and assert our human rights.

I would proclaim our welcome to those who join us in protecting the memory of the mothers, fathers, children, grandmothers and grandfathers, and ask that the president not risk killing them twice by letting their death be in vain. That he leave Yad Vashem knowing that our Jewish story connects all human beings, and that our experiences of suffering can translate into a power for good that serves to honor their life as much as we mourn their death. That, for the sake of their humanity and future generations who seek to live free and in peace, his moment of silence inspire him to act justly and that he may remember their stolen lives as he commits again and again to eradicating regimes that breed hate.

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