The call of a shofar made secretly at a Polish work camp by Jewish prisoners in 1943 blasted into the Jerusalem night sky as presidents, diplomats and Holocaust survivors gathered to mark the opening of the new Yad Vashem history museum. The surge in anti-Semitism across Europe to levels that have not been seen since World War II added more poignancy to Tuesday night’s inauguration of the $56 million museum commemorating the Holocaust.
Speaking at the ceremony, United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan told the dignitaries that the United Nations had an obligation to fight anti-Semitism.
“A United Nations that fails to be at the forefront of anti-Semitism and other forms of hatred undermines its mission,” he said.
He said the museum should “stand as testimony that we are standing for a better way.” Paraphrasing the Israeli author Aharon Appelfeld, who is a Holocaust survivor, Annan added, “Let Yad Vashem inspire us to keep striving as long as the darkest dark crawls the face of the earth.”
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said in his speech that the existence of Israel was the Jewish people’s most potent weapon in ensuring they would never again know the horrors of genocide launched against them.
“The State of Israel is the only place in the world where the Jews have the right and the power to protect themselves by themselves,” he said. “This is the only guarantee that the Jewish people will never know another Holocaust.”
Leaders and officials representing some 40 countries came to the opening. They included French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin, German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer and Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski. A representative of the Vatican was there as well.
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg led the U.S. delegation.
Sallai Meridor, chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, said that rising anti-Semitism made the opening of the new museum at Yad Vashem especially important.
“It makes it that much more important that the lessons the Holocaust do not just become a history lesson, but a living memory for people to take with them,” Meridor told JTA.
Jan Munk, the director of the Holocaust memorial museum at Theresienstadt, said the new Yad Vashem history museum, which focuses on the personal stories of Holocaust victims, could help European nations struggling to combat rising anti-Semitism.
“Anti-Semitism is an illness and illness is dangerous,” he said.
On the windswept plaza of the Yad Vashem complex where the ceremony was held, the edge of the new museum could be seen — a cutting-edge concrete structure built into the side of a mountain.
It is filled with exhibits of poetry, artwork, letters and photos, some of them shown within displays of video art and films that aim to show the human faces of the people killed in the Nazi genocide.
The new museum replaces the original history museum of Yad Vashem, built in 1973. The old museum, with its dimly lit, text-heavy displays, now feel dated.
Its creators say the museum is meant to bear witness to the story of the Jewish victims of the Holocaust.
“For years we worked diligently to recover the shards of their stories and the fragments of their memories, their faded pictures — too little — that the victims ms left behind,” said Yad Vashem director Avner Shalev, who is also the museum’s chief curator.
Earlier Tuesday evening, after the ribbon-cutting ceremony at the museum, the Joe Wilf family and other donors were photographed along with Israeli President Moshe Katsav.
Philanthropist and survivor Wilf and his family are among the largest donors to Yad Vashem and the new museum.
Mark Wilf, one of his sons, 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.
Among the other dignitaries were the presidents of Albania, Switzerland, Serbia and Macedonia, along with the vice presidents of Denmark, France, the Netherlands and the Dominican Republic.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.