A New Yad Vashem New Holocaust Museum Puts Human Faces on 6 Million Deaths

Shafts of sunlight spill onto the bare concrete floors and smooth slanted walls of the new Yad Vashem museum, a skylight-topped triangle of a building that slices through a mountainside and tries to put human faces on the story of the 6 million Jews killed in the Holocaust. A visitor descends deep into the earth and takes a zigzag path through cavernous exhibition rooms documenting the fate of the Jewish victims of the Nazi genocide. A visitors walks past letters, paintings, poems, diaries, photographs, film and personal artifacts: a doll taken into a ghetto by a little girl, a postcard written from Auschwitz in a mother’s pleading hand .

“We want to bring a very personal encounter between the story and the storytellers,” said Avner Shalev, chairman of the Yad Vashem directorate and the museum’s chief curator. “We want to build empathy.”

Ten years in the making, the new $56 million Yad Vashem Holocaust History Museum opens with ceremonies on March 15 and March 16 and will be open to the public at the end of the month. It is vastly different from its predecessor, a smaller museum, built in 1973, with dimly lit displays that are heavy on text and symbolism and now feel dated.

The new museum, with its video art installations, films and survivor testimony, aim at telling the plight of the Holocaust victims in a modern, more accessible way.

Although museum officials play down any sense of competition, the museum also seems to be an Israeli answer to the success of the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, and the Jewish Museum in Berlin.

Beyond the noise of drilling and the hanging of installations, some still wrapped in bubble wrap, as the museum hurries to meet its deadline for opening, stands the stark structure of the building itself.

Designed by the internationally renowned Israeli-born architect Moshe Safdie, Shalev likens its cutting through the hillside to “a rupture, a cut into the continuity of Jewish life and Europe and the historical flow.”

Safdie says the building evokes the feeling of an architectural remnant, something that has long been there and now is waiting to be revealed.

In an interview with JTA, Safdie said he decided not to cover the concrete with any other material, “because it smacked of the superfluous.”

He said he preferred “the minimalism of the place, given the material of the museum and given the outside as well.”

The outside world peeks into the museum through a ridge of skylights. In the depths of retelling the darkest of histories, there is the reminder of sunlight and blue sky.

The architecturally innovative building itself dangles on either end of the mountain, suspended over a pine-tree forest.

Inside the exhibition rooms, the challenge was to highlight the Jewish voice within the earthquake of the Nazi genocide.

The task felt overwhelming at first, said Yehudit Inbar, who will be the curator in charge of the museum once it opens. The Jews were victims whose property was confiscated and destroyed; the photographs taken at the concentration camps and in the ghettos usually were made by Nazis.

“We asked — how do you create a Jewish museum when all the pictures were taken by the Nazis and the Jews look awful and already dead?” said Inbar.

Inbar, Shalev and a handful of other Yad Vashem officials were the first to start planning the new museum. They consulted with historians, psychologists, teachers, survivors and others as they brainstormed their vision of a new museum that would put a human face on the story of the Holocaust.

Among their supporters were Jews from around the world; Holocaust survivors and their descendants were particularly generous.

Philanthropist and survivor Joseph Wilf and his family are among the largest donors to Yad Vashem and the new museum.

Mark Wilf, one of his sons, who is a member of the executive committee of the American Society for Yad Vashem, national campaign chairman of the United Jewish Communities, a JTA vice president and a leading member of the group called Second Generation, spoke as his family’s representative at a news conference in New York last month.

The new museum, Wilf said, “through the stories it tells, through the architecture we see, through the soul-searching it provokes, will have a critical role for my generation, and for future generations, in energizing our identity as Jews and as human beings.”

At the entrance of the museum, visitors will see a large video art display of Jewish life before the war, assembled by Israeli artist Michal Rover from film clips of Jewish families.

Quality footage of Jewish life before the war was hard to find, museum officials said. What was filmed was often taken by visiting American family members during their trips back to Eastern Europe.

Counterposing the life that came before with the atrocities that followed, visitors confront enlarged photographs of the aftermath of a mass shooting of Jews. Pictures of bodies lying in unrecognizable heaps are contrasted with photographs found in the pockets of those same Jews, along with some of their belongings. In one picture a young couple tilt their heads together; in another family members gathered around a dinner table smile for the camera.

The display is an example of what Shalev, sitting in his cream-colored office in a building about 50 yards from the new museum, describes as his vision to tell the larger story through personal details.

“We want to give back the faces,” he said of the decision to focus on the visual, including paintings by Holocaust victims. Whereas in the older museum the subjects of photographs were meant to symbolize the greater event, he said, here they are meant also to “look into your eyes,” to make the visitor think.

An effort was made to put names to faces and to artifacts whenever it was possible. One of the exhibits shows a typical 1930s German Jewish living room, recreated from the actual belongings of various families, including a heavy wooden desk, books and a Kiddush cup.

Much of it, including a glass chandelier, was donated by the family of Herman Zondek, a prominent Jewish doctor who once served as personal physician to top German government officials.

Excerpts from poems and diaries line the exhibit’s walls.

Words from a poem by Abramek Koplowicz, a 14-year-old in the Lodz Ghetto who was later killed in Auschwitz, read, “When I grow up and get to be twenty, I’ll travel the world of plenty to space, into the sky.”

Inbar shakes her head even as she sees the letter again.

“You see he is a talented boy, with knowledge and dreams,” said Inbar, who speaks and moves with great energy. She said creating the museum has become a mission she and her staff take very personally, and sometimes it is hard to find distance.

Near the end of the museum, visitors reach the new Hall of Names, where Yad Vashem keeps information on individual Holocaust victims submitted by relatives and friends.

The hall’s centerpiece contains two massive cones. One extends about 30 feet into the air and is covered with photographs and names of Holocaust victims; the other, plunging deep into the ground, was excavated from underground rock. At its base is a pool of water.

The higher cone was meant to give light to those victims with names and photographs, to testify that they were once here, Safdie said. The lower cone is a symmetrical shape for “the memory of those whose names we will never know.”

The museum’s focus then is ultimately pulled toward its end — a balcony cantilevered over the edge of the mountainside, providing a panoramic view of the pine forest below and the stone buildings of nearby Jerusalem neighborhoods.

A visitor breathes in the crisp Jerusalem air, hears the singing of birds and can take in the last pinky smudges of daylight.

“One of the unique things about Yad Vashem that sets it apart from other Holocaust museums is that you emerge to views of Jerusalem and forest,” Safdie said. “The forest and the renewal it represents is a statement that light prevails in spite of it all.”

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