US president says Yad Vashem memorial shows 'the depravity to which man can sink' but also offers hope
As the voices of a children's choir rose to the roof of the stark and sombrely lit Hall of Remembrance at Yad Vashem, Israel's memorial to the Holocaust, Barack Obama's eyes closed for a moment.
The girls, dressed in monochrome, performed A Walk to Caesarea by Hannah Senesh, in which the poet prays that the sand, sea and rustle of water may never end. But the end came all too soon for Senesh, who was executed behind enemy lines in 1944 while trying to rescue Hungarian Jews, and for six million Jews who died in the Nazi death camps and whose lives and deaths are commemorated at Yad Vashem.
The US president's hour at the Jerusalem memorial, set in a forest on the western edge of the city, was a powerful consolidation of the principal message of his three-day visit: that America stands with the Jewish state as an unyielding friend and staunch ally.
It was his second visit, he said after the ceremony. "Nothing equals the wrenching power of this sacred place," he said. "If you come here a thousand times, each time our hearts will break. For here we see the depravity to which man can sink, the barbarity that unfolds when we begin to see our fellow human beings as somehow less than us, less worthy of dignity and life; we see how evil can, for a moment in time, triumph when good people do nothing."
Minutes earlier, in the dim Hall of Remembrance, Obama – wearing a white yarmulke – stepped forward to rekindle the Eternal Flame and laid a wreath on a stone crypt containing the ashes of Holocaust victims, crouching close to the stone for a moment's contemplation. Then, flanked by the Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, and president, Shimon Peres, the president stood with clasped hands and bowed head as Cantor Asher Hainowitz concluded the 10-minute ceremony with El Maleh Rachamim, a prayer for the souls of martyrs.
Obama also visited the unforgettable Children's Memorial, where the names and ages of 1.5 million Jewish youngsters are intoned in darkness relieved only by pinpricks of light; the Hall of Names, where the details of 4.2 million Holocaust victims are recorded; and the Museum of Holocaust Art.
In his remarks after the ceremony, Obama said Yad Vashem was also a testament to man's capacity for good as well as evil, citing "the rescuers, the righteous among nations, who refused to be bystanders".
The memorial, he said, was "in the end a source of hope. For we are never powerless. In our lives we always have choices – to succumb to our worst instincts or to summon the better angels of our nature; to be indifferent to suffering wherever it may be, whoever it may be visited upon, or to display empathy that is at the core of our humanity. We have the choice to acquiesce to evil or make real our solemn vow of never again."
Shortly before visiting Yad Vashem, Obama laid wreaths at the graves of Theodor Herzl, the father of Zionism, and the assassinated prime minister Yitzhak Rabin at the nearby Mount Herzl cemetery.
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