New Holocaust museum preserves fading memories

After a decade of collecting victims' effects, Israeli museum preserves stories for the young.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Inside one of the many galleries at Israel's Holocaust History Museum that opened here Tuesday, the Nazi conquest of Poland leaps out from disturbing black and white photographs and haunting color paintings. In the corner of the room are boxes of silver ritual items confiscated from Polish synagogues by the Germans.

The guide to make sense of this decisive chapter in the genocide that killed six million Jews is 15-year-old Dawid Sierakowiak. Passages from the diary that he left behind before perishing of illness in a Polish ghetto in 1943 are posted on the wall. His young words describe in detail the conquest of his city of Lodz in 1939.

Dawid's writings are part of the museum's vast collection of journals, artwork, and personal belongings from Holocaust victims as well as videotaped accounts from survivors. The collection represents a departure from the way this period was presented in the previous museum established here at the site of the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in 1973.

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The old museum was based largely on pictures and records by the Nazis and their collaborators. It focused exclusively on a larger historical narrative spanning the Nazi rise to power in 1933 through Israel's establishment in 1948.

But at the new museum, four times the size of its predecessor and built at a cost of $56 million, visitors view the Holocaust through the lenses of individual Jews.

The shift is part of a bid to prepare Israeli society for the fast-approaching era when all the Holocaust survivors are gone, says Avner Shalev, the new museum's curator.

While there were about 700,000 survivors in Israel in 1950, the number has dwindled to about 200,000 today, says Mr. Shalev. "The challenge is to convey relevant memory to youth without the personal assistance and first-hand knowledge of the survivors," he says.

Miriam Akavia, an Israeli writer and survivor of Auschwitz, says Israel must seize the remaining time available to hear as much as possible from the survivors: "The witnesses are becoming fewer and fewer and there is a need to eternize [memory of] the Holocaust, this irregular event that is different from all history. As long as the witnesses are alive, we must get the truth out," she says.

Critics charge that the museum tries to dictate a not very subtle message that Israel represents Jewish rebirth after the Holocaust.

This it does, they say, by making it impossible to walk directly from one end of the museum to another and instead forcing visitors to stay on a zig-zagging route through every room. The new building designed by Israeli-Canadian architect Moshe Safdie is mostly underground, but ends by emerging into a panorama of the Jerusalem hills and suburbs.

But Dalia Ofer, director of the Institute for Contemporary Judaism at the Hebrew University, says the new museum reflects "greater maturity" in the country's attitude toward both the Holocaust and itself. While Israel in its early years glorified fighters and looked down on European Jews as passive, the new museum "looks at the simple person in the ghetto and not just at the hero," she says. "Israeli society is now able to view him with greater empathy. Today it isn't necessary to negate the [European Jewish] past. People are looking for continuity."

Ms. Akavia says she is pleased with the establishment of the new museum. But in her view, a full grasp of the Holocaust will always remain elusive.

"People who didn't go through it cannot understand it, and someone who did go through it cannot understand it either," she says. "We have only the memories. But how it could happen, I don't understand. I don't understand the motives, or the power of people to survive. We just know that it happened."

In the gallery that details the conquest of Poland, young Sierakowiak writes, "A student from the German gymnasium [high school] ran up to me with a big stick in his hand and shouted 'come work'," he writes. "He took me to a square where over a dozen Jews were already at work picking up leaves. I have never been so humiliated in my life as when I saw through the gate to the square, and saw the happy smiling faces of passersby laughing at our misfortune."

Other journal entries by Sierakowiak write of thousands of teachers, doctors, and engineers being jailed, groups of prominent people being "dispatched immediately into the next world" and a synagogue being burned. "There is something sick about the Germans," he writes.

The new museum was to be inaugurated Tuesday evening with the participation of United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan and presidents, prime ministers, and officials from 30 countries.

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