Holocaust Commemoration in Israel During the 1950s: The Holocaust Cellar on Mount Zion
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Holocaust Commemoration in Israel During the 1950s:
The Holocaust Cellar on Mount Zion

At the end of World War II, once the magnitude of the Holocaust became clear, Jews—organizations and individuals— began thinking about the most suitable ways to commemorate it.1 One of the first commemoration sites for the Holocaust's victims was the Holocaust Cellar (Martef ha-Shoah). It is situated on Mount Zion, near King David's Tomb2 overlooking the Old City of Jerusalem, which, at the time of the site's construction, was under Jordanian rule. The establishment and development of the Holocaust Cellar, mainly by the Ministry of Religious Affairs' director general Shmuel Zanwil Kahana, was part of a broader process of sanctifying Mount Zion and King David's Tomb and turning them into the central holy place in the State of Israel.3

The activity in the Holocaust Cellar during the 1950s centered on traditional Jewish commemoration and was fundamentally different from the commemorational activities in other sites in the State of Israel; moreover, it was totally distinct from Yad Vashem, which was developed at around the same period but emphasized national-secular [End Page 16] elements and functioned as the main Israeli site dedicated to the memory of the Holocaust. The contrast between these two sites—Yad Vashem and the Holocaust Cellar—reveals an inner struggle within Israeli society during the 1950s regarding the memory of the Holocaust. Throughout this period, the subject of marking the Holocaust was one of the central issues between the Israeli National Religious Party–leaning public and the religious Zionists and their political representatives (who were interested in religious interpretations of the events of the Holocaust) and other Israeli political groups (who emphasized national-historical elements linking the Holocaust to the establishment of the state).

"Traditional" Holocaust Commemoration

The creation and development of the Holocaust Cellar took place immediately following the end of the 1948 War of Independence and the establishment of the State of Israel, and as discussions about the transfer of religious artifacts and "martyrs' ashes" from Europe to the State of Israel intensified in 1949. The debate centered around the question of whether the State of Israel had a special commitment to bring the ashes of the dead to Israel for burial.4 During this period, Torah scrolls from destroyed communities in Europe were brought to Israel by organizations as well as by individuals.5

There was as yet no central place for Holocaust commemoration, and the 10th of Tevet 1949—which was the date set earlier by the Chief Rabbinate as the traditional national commemoration day for the Holocaust victims—was observed in a nonuniform way in various places.6 On that day, the Department of Religious Folklore in the Ministry of Religious Affairs organized many different events of a religious-traditional character: In Tel Aviv, the main commemoration ceremony was held in the Central Synagogue, while other gatherings took place in other cities where Holocaust survivors resided.7

A turning point in the development of Mount Zion as a Holocaust commemoration site took place when the "martyrs' ashes" arrived in Israel in June 1949: a small glass coffin containing 31 jars of victims' ashes was brought from Austria. The jars were painted blue and white with the Star of David and were inscribed with the names of the different concentration and extermination camps where the victims perished. The burial ceremony in Jerusalem was intended as a joint venture of various institutes, such as the Jewish Agency, the Jerusalem Municipality, the World Zionist Organization, and the Ministry of Religious [End Page 17] Affairs. Nevertheless, the ministry took full credit for the service, and the religious representatives—the Chief Rabbinate, the ministry, and other national-religious groups—turned the burial ceremony into a moving and powerful event emphasizing their interpretation of the events of the Holocaust. In Tel Aviv, masses of people paid their respects by visiting the coffin as it lay in state. Later, wrapped in the Israeli flag, the glass coffin was transported to Jerusalem and was buried in Sanhedriya Cemetery, then the temporary cemetery of Jerusalem.8 Following the ceremony, several suggestions were made about where a...