At the end of WWII, when the extent of the mass murders that were the lot of the Jews in Europe and North Africa (and could have been that of the Yishuv in the Land of Israel) were revealed, Mordechai Shenhavi once again raised the idea of a national institution to commemorate the Holocaust in Israel.
On 25 May 1945, Shenhavi published his proposal for the "Yad Vashem Memorial for Destroyed Diaspora Jewry" in the Devar newspaper.
"This eternal memorial that the Jewish people will establish in Eretz Israel will serve as a teacher and a guide for future generations; a sign and a warning for us; and a moral imperative for the world. It will preserve the memory of every single victim and commemorate everything that befell us during the Second World War."
The topic was discussed at a joint meeting of the Jewish National Council (Va'ad Le'umi) and the National Institutions in June 1945. The meeting recommended the adoption of Shenhavi's proposal, including the establishment of a center in Jerusalem to consist of an eternal light for the victims; a registry of their names; a memorial for the destroyed Jewish communities; a monument for the fighters of the ghettos; a memorial tower in honor of all the Jewish fighters against the Nazis; a permanent exhibit on the concentration and extermination camps; and a tribute to the "Righteous Among the Nations." The proposal also recommended the planting of memorial forests and the building of educational institutions for the children of the survivors. "It [Yad Vashem] will elevate the memory of the martyrs in order to forge a continual connection between the Jewish people and their destiny".
The proposal was discussed and approved at the meeting of the Zionist Executive Committee held in London in August 1945, where representatives of the Yishuv met for the first time with some of the survivors. The exact location of the planned site was not yet determined, and many varied proposals were made. Compared to the multitude of other ideas, the area near Jerusalem's western Givat Shaul neighborhood was defined a suitable place in all respects: elevation, proximity to the city and easy access.
On 18 May 1946, the "Yad Vashem Enterprise" opened, still without a permanent source of funding, in a three-room apartment at 27 King George Street in Jerusalem, concentrating its efforts on documentation collected by Holocaust survivors and brought to Israel, as well as books donated or sent from Europe. The director of the archives and finances was Dr. Sara Friedlander, a survivor of the Kastner train from Hungary. Friedlander had been involved in documenting the Holocaust period as early as 1941, when she managed the Keren Hayesod branch in Hungary, and later in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, when she regularly recorded the minutes of the meetings of the Zionist activists in the camp as well as the names of the Jewish prisoners. In her work for Yad Vashem, Friedlander laid the foundation for the archive, participated in all the first managerial meetings of the institution, and organized the first Holocaust Research Conference on 13-14 June 1947.
The first plenary session of Yad Vashem had taken place just two weeks earlier, on 1 June 1947 in Jerusalem, with Chaim Weizmann elected president of the enterprise. Weizmann did not attend the meeting, but sent a congratulatory note:
"Six million of our people were led to slaughter," he wrote. "Neither a grave nor a tombstone remains of them, but their memory lives on in the hearts of each of us – the people who are strong will never forget them."
The Battle for Independence Threatens the Yad Vashem Enterprise
The outbreak of the fighting for Israel's independence slowed down Shenhavi's pursuit to advance the establishment of Yad Vashem, but did not stop it. He strove to increase the number of organizations and institutions that would be mobilized to establish Yad Vashem, and in November and December 1947, despite the hostilities, he sent letters to all the immigrant organizations in Israel, including to the organizations of immigrants from Turkey and Libya and to the Association of North African Immigrants, and proposed meetings to present to them the "essence of the enterprise, the methods of its execution, and the form of participation of your compatriots in it." At the same time, he was able to convince the Hebrew Teachers' Union in the Land of Israel to send a special circular to school principals calling for the students to register the family members who were murdered during the Holocaust. He later turned to all the book publishers in Israel with a request that they come up with "suitable publications" for Yad Vashem.
On the fifth anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising a memorial assembly was held at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. The collection of documentation continued despite the battles and the siege of Jerusalem. All those involved understood the urgency of their work, and collections brought to Israel from the displaced persons camps were received.
The fledgling institution contributed its part to the struggle for Israel's independence, and most of its employees were recruited. In addition to her work at Yad Vashem, Sara Friedlander volunteered in the medical service, and spent many hours at the observation post in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of Jerusalem. At noon on Saturday 29 May 1948, Friedlander was injured by a shell while tending to the wounded at the post, and died a short time later. "A woman of social, moral and intellectual stature," Haim Gavrihu, secretary of Yad Vashem's documentation department, eulogized her, and said that she had planned to write "a book of national remembrance". In October of that year, due to the security situation, the Jerusalem offices were temporarily closed and activities moved to the Tel Aviv branch at 42 Chen Boulevard.
Peace Returns and Yad Vashem is Finally Established
In 1950, five years after the end of World War II and a year after the signing of the armistice agreements with the Arab states (July 1949), Mordechai Shenhavi resumed his activities to establish Yad Vashem, this time with the assistance of the Israeli government. "When the State of Israel was established, the question that haunted me was what expression would be given to the memorial enterprise after we gained independence?" Shenhavi said in an interview with Kol Israel. He submitted his plan to the Israeli government and asked to receive the area of land in the western extension of Mount Herzl – to be divided between Yad Vashem and a military cemetery.
At the beginning of January 1952, Shenhavi finished preparing a draft proposal for the "Yad Vashem Law." The government approved the Yad Vashem bill in March 1953, and on 18 May the proposal was brought to the Knesset and unanimously approved in the first reading.
The vote ended emotionally, as all members of the plenary stood for a minute of silence in memory of the victims of the Holocaust.
The bill passed the third reading and was accepted into law on 19 August 1953.
The Yad Vashem Law regulated the activities of the young institution, and turned it into a state body. After a long debate about whether to link the Holocaust to the reestablishment of the Jewish people in the Land of Israel, and it was decided that Yad Vashem would deal only with the Holocaust and the destruction of the Jewish communities, and not with the rebuilding of the Jewish homeland. The Law establishes the foundation of an authority whose mission is to perpetuate the memory of the six million Jews who were murdered by the Nazis and their helpers; the Jewish communities and institutions that were lost forever; the Jewish fighters who fought in the ranks of the Allied armies; the ghetto and underground fighters and the partisans in the forests; and the Righteous Among the Nations of the world – those virtuous non-Jewish individuals who saved Jews for no reward and in doing so risked their lives and those of their families.
Yad Vashem was therefore not intended to engage not only in murder and victims, but also in resistance and in the victory of the Jewish spirit. The Yad Vashem Law also designated the institution the role of establishing memorials; collecting testimonies about the Holocaust and heroism; researching and publishing them; and instilling in future generations the meanings of the Holocaust. By virtue of the Law, Yad Vashem was also authorized to grant honorary citizenship to the victims, and to represent the State of Israel in national and international events to commemorate the victims of the Holocaust.