The Greatest Honor of My Life

"The Greatest Honor of My Life"

New Yad Vashem Chairman Dani Dayan

"I humbly begin this role inspired and determined to continue to expand Holocaust commemoration, education, research and documentation, as it continues to be relevant and ever present in our collective conscience. The history and messages of the not so distant past must continue to be internalized by all, for the sake of a better future."

At the end of the summer, Israel's government approved the appointment of Dani Dayan as the new Chairman of Yad Vashem. Dayan, 65, was born in Argentina to a family originating from Eastern Europe, and served most recently as Consul General of Israel in New York. In a special interview, Dayan outlined his initial feelings on this appointment, as well as his understanding of Yad Vashem and its role for the Jewish people and humanity around the world.

How do you view your new position as Chairman of Yad Vashem?

Leading Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center, is more than a position; it is a mission and one I take on with awe and reverence. Yad Vashem is not just a commemorative endeavor. On our shoulders rests the responsibility to research and educate, to document and disseminate, to validate fact-based historical truths about the Holocaust and reject all forms of distortion, in order to safeguard the memory of the Shoah and to ensure that the Jewish people and humanity will forever continue to remember this event. As time passes, our work becomes more challenging, albeit more vital, than ever before. I am determined to succeed in fulfilling our shared commitment, together with the dedicated staff of Yad Vashem and our loyal friends and supporters worldwide – without whom none of its extraordinary achievements would have been fulfilled.

I am extremely grateful to [former Yad Vashem Chairman] Avner Shalev for his stalwart and visionary leadership over the past three decades, during which he transformed this essential institution into the world leader in gathering and researching evidence of the Holocaust, educating about this seminal event in human history, and disseminating its meanings across the globe.

What are the most important missions of the World Holocaust Remembrance Center?

I see Yad Vashem's roles as twofold. First, to commemorate the six million Jewish men, women and children murdered during the Holocaust. Each one of them was an entire world. Also, so many vibrant Jewish communities were lost forever and can never be replaced. We need to acknowledge that loss as well. It is no shame to mourn those we lost; indeed, it is both our human nature and our eternal obligation.

Second, to learn and teach the facts, to ensure a better world for future generations. We owe it to the 11-year-old boy burned alive in the synagogue in Bialystok, to know his name and how and when his life ended, and what happened to his parents, his grandparents and his community, too. That is why we must continue researching the Holocaust – this is a central mission spearheaded by Yad Vashem together with dedicated historians around the world – and we must ensure that this research rises above all political constraints. We serve no particular agenda, and will continue to defend the historical truth, neither enlarging nor belittling the role played by any one person or collective during the Holocaust. Because if we are not faithful to the absolute historical truth, we only strengthen those who seek to distort or politicize the Holocaust, as they, too, interpret history to serve their nefarious ends. I will continue to maintain a firewall between myself and Yad Vashem on the one side, and politics on the other.

We must endeavor to empathize with the victims and the survivors – that every person who hears their stories will understand that it happened to them simply because they were Jewish – a role made more difficult as the survivor generations wane, but also even more crucial.

You talk about empathizing with those who experienced the Holocaust. What part does Yad Vashem play in strengthening Jewish identity and continuity?

The Holocaust is part of the collective Jewish experience, and Yad Vashem belongs to the Jewish people across the globe. You know, at the Passover Seder, we say, "In every generation, we must see ourselves as if we, too, came out of Egypt." This expression has always fascinated me: What does it mean in real terms, 3,000 years later? Perhaps, I would venture, it means to renew our faith in our nation and our duty to bring morality into the world. I believe that today, just a generation or two after the Shoah, we also have a duty to see ourselves as if we, too, came out of Auschwitz – to empathize with what the survivors endured and to commit to carry that load with them, to help Jewish people flourish and take immense pride in its continuity. Yad Vashem must be more than a lighthouse, beaming high on Holocaust Remembrance Day. We must be part of the identity of Israel, of the Jewish people and indeed humanity as a whole, 365 days a year.

What is the role of Holocaust education and commemoration in the fight against antisemitism?

Let me tell you about one of the most moving events of my term as Consul General of Israel in the US. It was a communal prayer session – not on the High Holidays, but following the horrific shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh in October 2018. The following Shabbat, when the seven-day mourning period was coming to a close, practically the whole community gathered to pray. That event left an indelible mark on me – that we, the Jewish people, are all one family, and we are collectively suffering from antisemitism that is rearing its ugly head once more. What our people endured and lost eighty years ago must be remembered, and lessons must be learned from unchecked racism. "Never Again" cannot be an empty cliché; rather, it is also our duty to continue to remind and educate the world about what happened and how – as a fundamental tool against rising antisemitism and xenophobia.

Together, with our dedicated supporters and partners around the world, we can make a real impact on the social, cultural and political climate so that violent attacks on Jews, wherever they are around the world, will truly become a phenomenon of the past.

What are the main challenges facing Holocaust remembrance and education today and for the future?

The two most pressing issues of today are time and relevance.

As the events of the Shoah recede from us chronologically, we must ensure that it is never viewed as merely "another historical event," relegated to competing for attention among other phenomena, and in danger of being viewed as irrelevant to the contemporary human situation.

The identity of the Jewish people is a mosaic of many components – cultural, historical and religious. For us, the events of the Shoah are an integral part not only of modern Jewish history, but also of our identity as a Jewish nation. I believe that one of the greatest challenges we face as a nation is how we ensure that this legacy remains strong in the future. Within the international sphere, the Holocaust must be an important part of our global discourse in order to build and bolster basic moral human values. In short: We must continue to teach about the Holocaust in order to fight against antisemitism, racism and xenophobia.

This is the mission of our International School for Holocaust Studies, and the impetus to the unique pedagogical approach the School has developed in order to reach as wide an audience as possible, spanning both generations and cultures. Especially in light of the natural dwindling of the survivor generation, tackling the sensitive subject of the Holocaust both in and out of the classroom is more critical than ever.

How can we keep the younger generations connected to the history and legacy of the Holocaust?

Over the past decade, as social media has developed and its influence spread beyond imagination, Yad Vashem has quickly and successfully harnessed these tools, as well as new learning environments and cooperative educational programing, in order to extend its reach, especially to young people around the world. While it is tempting to adopt a range of attention-catching techniques, Yad Vashem is, as I said, first and foremost dedicated to upholding both historical accuracy and respect for Holocaust victims and survivors, and that balance must be upheld on whichever platforms are employed. We must treat the subject with which we are entrusted with the greatest respect and caution, without falling into kitschy tactics or tasteless and possibly disrespectful approaches.

A few weeks into your new position, what has made the greatest impression on you?

On my very first day as Chairman, before I had even met the senior staff, I requested to sit down with two Holocaust survivors who work at Yad Vashem. Berthe Badehi and Jacob Weksler both survived the horrors of the Holocaust in hiding – Berthe in France and Jacob in Poland – and for years have been relating their stories for the whole world to hear. During the meeting, they told me about their personal experiences during the Shoah, how they survived, and their new lives here in Israel. They are our heroes, and I promised them I would do everything I can to carry the torch of remembrance and ensure that it is passed on to future generations.

I was also incredibly moved to sign a certificate honoring a new Dutch Righteous Among the Nations – those heroic non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust.

Another emotional moment for me was when I visited our Conservation Laboratory, which is responsible for preserving the items that join Yad Vashem's Collections. While exploring the precious treasures of the Yad Vashem Collections, I saw the incredible work carried out by our conservators on a Sefer Torah rescued from a synagogue in Leipzig during the November Pogroms [Kristallnacht]. 

Finally, as I toured the Mount of Remembrance, I was inspired by the quote inscribed at the entrance to the Museum of Holocaust Art – the final words of Gela Seksztajn, a brilliant Jewish artist from the Warsaw ghetto who was murdered at Treblinka – her dying wish and my inspiration: "My works I bequeath to the Jewish museum to be built after the war… Never again allow such a catastrophe." It is the greatest honor of my life to serve as Chairman of Yad Vashem, where Gela’s last will and testament has been fulfilled, and where her legacy will be preserved for eternity.

A version of this article was featured in the Haaretz Supplement "The Power of Giving".