Secretary of State James A. Baker III visited Israel for thefirst time last month. It must have been a revelation to him -- especially the searing experience of Yad Vashem (literally ''a monument and a name''), the Holocaust Martyrs and Heroes' Remembrance Authority in Jerusalem. It is a national shrine visited by more than a million people each year.
It must not have been easy for an American who has led a comparatively sheltered life, whose home, church and office have never been smashed and burned, who has never had to watch his children grabbed and murdered by brown-shirted savages, whose family members have died peacefully in beds instead of in ovens, to grasp the enormity of the horror inflicted on European Jewry by the Nazi bestiality which preceded birth of the State of Israel.
Secretary Baker is a busy man with a crowded schedule. Surely at Yad Vashem he had no time to pore over archives containing millions of pages of documents, testimonies and memoirs in many languages -- the awesome collection relating to the Holocaust period. Nor could he have browsed among the 80,000 books in the library dealing not only with the Holocaust but also with the growth of modern anti-Semitism, fascism and Nazism, the background of World War II racial hatred so alien to this Midwest American. The agony of starving refugees and survivors of death camps pleading in vain for a haven and being returned to their Nazi executioners must have been difficult or impossible for Mr. Baker to comprehend.
While the Holocaust was happening to the millions memorialized at Yad Vashem, James Baker had been the teen-age son of a well-to-do Houston lawyer, living quietly in a comfortable home, playing youthful games, preparing to attend the fashionable Hill prep school and later the ivied halls of Princeton.
There at Yad Vashem he was confronting for the first time, however briefly, the strange, haunting, other-worldly facts about people, a period, a country he never really knew -- a people that had been running for millennia, now hunkered down at last in a small fortress state of their own that has known not a moment's peace from determined enemies in its 43-year history.
What did the healthy, normal visitor at Yad Vashem feel, starting down into unimaginably grotesque depths of evil?
At Yad Vashem, the man untouched by violence met a bloodied people with vivid collective memories of ancestors slaughtered by every exquisite variety of torture -- crucified, lynched, burned, boiled, brained, strangled, smothered, beheaded, bayoneted, torn by pulling horses -- not for what they had done but for what they were, and frequently for no other purpose than the sport of it all.
An innocent abroad, Secretary Baker caught a fleeting glimpse at Yad Vashem of a world he never knew, an indifferent world that stood by and watched as 6 million fellow humans were systematically massacred, a callused world that turned away children whose wretched parents pleaded for the lives of their youngsters if not their own, a world that committed the crime of silence.
Mr. Baker may have preferred to linger in the tree-lined paths of the Garden of the Righteous Gentiles, who risked their lives to save Jews. But he surely knew that for every rescuer there were thousands of killers.
Did the experience of Yad Vashem help Secretary Baker to understand the Israeli preoccupation with security, the meaning of ''Never again?''
Did it help him comprehend Israel's distrust of an international conference and reluctance to assign its fate to nations which had supported the obscene U.N. resolution branding Zionism as racism -- many of them still at war against Israel?
Did Yad Vashem remind him that Jews in Israel who, in this century alone, have survived extermination efforts by Nazi Germany, by Arab nations in five wars to drive them into the sea, by terrorists and recently by Iraqi Scud attacks on civilians, will not easily be convinced or coerced into accepting words of peace and good will concealing murderous hatred?
Has Yad Vashem helped Secretary Baker -- and, through him, President Bush -- to understand the ferocity of determination that Am Yisrael Chai, (the People of Israel Live). Mere right of existence is hard to understand or appreciate for Americans protected by vast oceans and friendly neighbors. To us, it is a given. It is not, for the people Mr. Baker briefly visited. They have never been allowed, and especially for the last 43 years since founding their state, to take existence for granted. They are constantly conscious of what others experience unconsciously, like breathing and a heartbeat. Their history, ancient and recent, has given them little cause for trust.