Placing Holocaust into a personal and moral context

Museums: Research centers use photos and diaries to preserve the human factor as memories fade into history.

December 18, 2004|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM - The building is a tunnel carved through Mount Herzl, opening onto a breathtaking vista that will bring visitors from darkness into light.

That will be the path of Yad Vashem, Israel's Holocaust memorial and museum, when its new, largely underground headquarters opens early next year, part of a larger makeover of Holocaust museums.

Their curators are seeking to make the events of two generations ago relevant to people for whom the murder of 6 million Jews is more distant history than a felt part of life.

"We are at a very decisive point of trying to understand how we should tell the story of the Holocaust," said Edna Wilchfort, a volunteer guide at Yad Vashem whose father survived the Auschwitz concentration camp. "If we don't teach the Holocaust, if we don't try to put it into a moral context, then we have failed."

With most remaining death camp survivors now elderly, Yad Vashem and other research centers are racing to collect their stories, photographs and diaries, believing the best way to interest future generations is by promoting personal connections with victims of the past.

"We are not here to build monuments," said Yad Vashem's director, Avner Shalev, talking with a sense of urgency. "After time, memories get lost. We are now in the 11th hour."

Yad Vashem placed on the Internet this year a database containing the names and stories, and in some cases photographs, of 3 million Holocaust victims, a catalog of destruction intended to show the impact of genocide through portraits of the people who died and of the families they left behind.

"It's not just that we are looking at them," Shalev said. "They are looking at us, as if they are asking why. We are not just looking at records, but person to person, eye to eye."

More than 2 million people visited the database, at www.yadvashem.org, in its first week online.

"But for the tragedy that created it, it is a genealogical gold mine," said Gary Mokotoff, publisher of Avotaynu, a quarterly journal on Jewish genealogy. Through the Web site, he confirmed the deaths of dozens of relatives and learned of several survivors.

"This demonstrates that 6 million Jews is not a cliche," said Mokotoff. "It is 6 million stories. And if you don't believe it, you can now read 3 million of them, on 3 million different pieces of paper."

Users can look up names by village, place of birth or death, or by the name of the person who gave Yad Vashem a testimonial - the written reports the museum began collecting in 1955.

When it began assembling the database, spelling was one of the major issues. Survivors had filled out testimonials in more than a dozen languages. Relatives had used maiden names, middle names, married names.

"We had to build a huge dictionary so that no matter what spelling you use, you will get the same results at the end of the day," Shalev said.

When Israel's government established Yad Vashem in 1953, most documentation about the Holocaust was from Nazi archives and reflected the perpetrators' point of view. Only gradually were institutions able to add personal narratives of victims and their families.

The first memorials had one agenda, said Cilly Kugelmann, director of the Jewish Museum of Berlin: "They had to prove in a legal sense that the Holocaust happened."

Holocaust museums now are devoted more to the idea of remembrance and to deciding how best to present the vast amount of historical information. "The more we get away from the beginning of the history," said Kugelmann, "the more symbolic the event becomes."

In the Jewish Museum of Berlin is a Gallery of the Missing. Visitors entering its darkened room learn about a Jewish encyclopedia that was completed only through the letter K before the Nazis ended the project. The visitors listen as a voice recites words starting with the letter L.

"We wanted to take things that were destroyed in the Nazi era and confront people," said Kugelmann. "It's a way of getting people to focus on things that aren't there anymore, such as the voices from a destroyed Jewish hospital. Dealing with the history of mass murder requires that you present the material from the survivors. Lots of survivors."

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., uses other personal narratives, placing visitors in the role of a victim or a survivor. Sara Bloomfield, the director, said having exhibits relevant to future generations was one of the institution's original goals.

"That issue was on our minds the day we opened in 1993," she said. "This museum has to be meaningful well into the 21st century. The Holocaust was such an enormous event that it will always be relevant, but it is how you present it.

"There is an assumption that because the history is further away, the substance of the history is less relevant. I'm not convinced of that."

An exhibit still being planned will focus on the role of German physicians and scientists. "It raises questions today about the moral implications of how we gather medical knowledge," Bloomfield said. "We are not just taking a look back, but we want to make a different present and a better future."

Police and military recruits from the Washington area tour the museum as part of their training, to understand how authorities can be misused by brutal regimes. In Israel, teenagers beginning their military service are required to visit Yad Vashem.

"In every generation," Maj. Gen. Elazar Stern, head of the Israeli army's manpower branch, told a committee of Israel's parliament this month, "[army] officers must see themselves as having come out of Auschwitz in two senses - not to do what was done to us, and to make sure that what happened to us doesn't happen again."

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