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Last Updated: Tuesday, 15 March, 2005, 13:03 GMT
Holocaust Museum's 'journey to light'
By Jonny Dymond
BBC News, Jerusalem

In a city of architectural wonder, it takes a lot to stand out.

Hall of Names, new Holocaust History Museum, Jerusalem
The Hall of Names contains 600 photos of Holocaust victims
The new Holocaust History Museum manages it - but not in the way you might expect.

Only the very top of the building is exposed; a prism of glass and grey concrete that slices into the top of the Mount of Remembrance.

The galleries themselves are sunk deep into the earth of the mountain.

Grey concrete may not be much of a novelty in the rest of the world. But it is near-revolutionary in Jerusalem.

All buildings here have to be clad in light yellow stone. The Holocaust Museum received a special dispensation to leave its concrete bare.

As you enter the Museum you can see daylight at the end of the triangular core, but you cannot make a direct journey to the light.

First you have to travel, literally and metaphorically, through the darkness of the Holocaust.

Barriers which display symbols of turning points in the history of the Holocaust drive the visitor left and right into themed galleries - the rise of the Nazis, the invasion of the Soviet Union, the death camps, resistance, liberation.

Personal stories

The old museum at Yad Vashem - the name for the entire memorial complex - was by the late 1990s old fashioned, reliant on photographs and text to explain the Holocaust.

There are many photographs in the new museum, and some are almost too painful to look at - a Polish boy with his hands in the air, a man weeping alone at liberation, a woman seconds away from death holding her child close.

But for the museum curators there is a problem with the photos.

We're telling the story through the eyes, the mouths, the feelings of the individual
Yad Vashem chairman Avner Shalev
Put simply, too many of them were taken by Nazis, and too many of them make the Jews look like faceless victims rather than once-living and breathing individuals.

So the museum has tried to re-connect the story of industrial slaughter to that of individuals' lives and deaths.

A street from the Warsaw ghetto has been recreated using original cobblestones, tramlines and a lamppost still marked with shrapnel from the uprising.

Display cabinets show pockets watches, bracelets and prayer bags. Sturdy leather suitcases that carried the belongings of those about to be murdered lie in one gallery, opposite the railway car that carried them to their deaths.

Throughout every gallery the personal stories of individuals at every stage of the Holocaust are told, through their diaries, notebooks, family photos, even through the personal items they made for themselves in the death camps.

Behind polished glass a comb made from wire is displayed.


Beneath the railway car is displayed a letter thrown from a train: Ester Frankel was being transported from France to Auschwitz when she threw it. She had left her two year old son Richard behind.

"I am in the train," she wrote

"My Richard, I don't know what's happening to him... Save my child, my little innocent baby. How he must be crying. Our suffering is nothing... To die, quickly, oh my child. Give me my Richard."

Throughout the galleries are audiovisual displays carrying filmed testimony from survivors.

New Holocaust History Museum, Jerusalem
The museum was built on the Mount of Remembrance
"The approach is very personal," says the Chairman of the Yad Vashem Directorate, Avner Shalev. "We put the individual at the centre. We're telling the story through the eyes, the mouths, the feelings of the individual. Eye to eye, person to person.

"We believe that if you get some human pieces of experiences, you can build your own empathy, you can think 'what is my responsibility? Where am I in this story? What does it mean to me?'"

There is no disagreement about the horror of the Holocaust. But there is debate as to what lesson - or lessons - should be drawn out from the murder of so many Jews, Communists, Roma and homosexuals.

Fostering values

Until the 1962 trial of Adolf Eichman, debate or discussion in Israel about the Holocaust was pretty limited. Now barely a day goes by without some reference in the newspaper. Historian Tom Segev is unsurprised by the scale of the debate. But he says the question is what you do with the Holocaust.

"I feel that we very often don't emphasise the humanistic lessons of the Holocaust enough.

"We emphasise national, Zionist , political elements of the Holocaust, and we don't often enough remind ourselves that the Holocaust demands us to defend democracy, and human rights and fight racism."

The old museum had what appeared to be some fairly clumsy Zionist propaganda within: a picture of the Grand Mufti - a senior Arab religious figure - meeting Hitler seemed particularly inappropriate. The new museum does not include that picture. But the debate over the lesson of the Holocaust is far from over.

An Israeli man puts together photos of Jews in the new Holocaust Museum
The exhibit was designed with a 'personal approach' in mind
The editorial in Haaretz newspaper on the morning of the museum's opening leant firmly towards the nationalistic interpretation: "The need for a sovereign state [for Jews]... was and will remain the principal lesson of the Holocaust."

But that is not the way that Avner Shalev seems to be thinking.

"The message of the museum is that we, as human beings, have a lot of responsibility to foster and build the basic values which are the basis of our co-existence as human beings. This is the basis of democracy, this is the basis of our natural rights as human beings."

"Remembering the Past, Shaping the Future" is how Yad Vashem describes its current mission.

They are ambitious tasks. But the Holocaust is moving from the realm of memory to the realm of history.

It is difficult to think of a better time for a new museum of the Holocaust, and it is hard to imagine a better museum than the one created in Jerusalem.

In pictures: Holocaust Museum
15 Mar 05 |  In Pictures


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