FROM DARKNESS OF HOLOCAUST, TO LIGHT

Author(s):    Charles A. Radin, Globe staff Date: March 27, 2005 Page: A5 Section: National/Foreign

JERUSALEM It is easy to overlook Yehudit Marcus's wooden duck in the new Holocaust History Museum that opens to the public here today. The orange beak and the comically cocked eye make it seem just a children's toy that was caught up in the 20th century's most horrific war. That's what it looked like to the Germans who encountered Marcus in the 1940s in the course of their attempt to exterminate Europe's Jews.

But the duck was a weapon, a container for smuggling identity documents and visas to the Jewish resistance. And Marcus, now a 79-year-old grandmother living in retirement in Israel, was a warrior who rode bicycles and trains around France under the nose of the Gestapo, collecting blank residency forms, municipal stamps, and lists of names that could be forged successfully. She recalls how she slipped them into the little duck and delivered them to an underground lab in Paris, where they were made into identity papers that allowed some Jews to live and fight while 6 million of their coreligionists were being beaten, shot, gassed, and burned into oblivion in Nazi extermination centers, ghettos, and forced-labor camps across Europe.

Even more than the daring, dramatic building designed by the Somerville- and Jerusalem-based architect Moshe Safdie which replaces the first comprehensive Holocaust museum, which opened on the same site in 1973 it is artifacts like the duck and testimonies like Marcus's that allow this new museum to break new ground in telling the story of one of the most infamous crimes ever committed against humanity.

Through hundreds of testimonies and thousands of authentic artifacts, this remake of the world's oldest and largest Holocaust documentation center lights up the oblivion to which the Nazis consigned their victims. They are no longer numbers tattooed onto forearms by the Nazis and their many European collaborators, no longer just part of massive statistics of butchery at Auschwitz, Warsaw, Chelmno, and a thousand other ghettos and death camps. Their history is no longer an oversimplified horror story of nameless people who supposedly went quietly to the slaughter.

A museum exhibit cannot restore life, of course, but this one gives the victims back their names, their faces, and their personalities.

They are again people like Charlotte Salomon, a young girl who documented the degradation of her surgeon father, her opera-singer mother, and herself in hundreds of colorful paintings before she was caught and sent to her death; like Moshe Winterter, who dared in the midst of a death camp in 1943 to fashion a ram's horn into a ceremonial shofar for celebration of the Rosh Hashana. Salomon's paintings now stand alongside documentation of Nazi propaganda. Winterter's shofar, now in a display case, was sounded at the opening of the museum to international dignitaries two weeks ago.

"The story that was told in one manner in the past cannot be told in the same way for future generations," says Yehudit Shendar, the museum's principal art curator, explaining the major reason for the update. "The numbers 300,000 Jews killed here, 100,000 Jews shot there are shocking, but personal stories are the only way to touch the story of the Holocaust in a real manner."

The new museum is intensely personal from its beginning: an eight-minute montage of prewar footage shot in Jewish communities of Europe that were soon to be wiped out. Violinists, villagers, circle-dancers, and goats, all looking like they just emerged from Marc Chagall's lithographs, fade in and out of view to the tune of Yiddish soul music.

From there, on video screens placed amid all manner of artifacts from Torah scrolls desecrated in pogroms to dolls and toy furniture made for doomed children the story of the Holocaust is told through individual testimonies of survivors and classic historical film as visitors follow an architecturally dictated pathway through a series of exhibits on phases of the Holocaust. The impact is overwhelming.

"Ten women had to stand next to the pit," said Dina Baitler, a survivor of the systematic execution of Jewish women in Ponary, Lithuania. "They were shot, and they fell. I was among the last. When I got to the pit, they shot us, and I fell . . .

"They shot many people and missed others. . . . People were crying, begging for mercy," she says matter-of-factly. "The Nazis heard their cries and came and shot them. . . . Seven. I was seven."

The Germans who willingly perpetrated the crime but until now remained largely anonymous get names and personalities, too none more chilling than Karl R. Kretschmer, a pharmacist who helped run Einsatzgruppe C, a German army unit whose only purpose was exterminations.

"It is essentially a weakness not to be able to stand the sight of dead people. The best way of overcoming it is to do it more often," Kretschmer wrote in a letter addressed, "Dear Mommy, Dear Children" and signed, "all my love, Your Papa." Kretschmer was arrested, tried in Germany in 1968, and acquitted in 1969.

Safdie's building is a two-football-field-long prism built into a mountain on the outskirts of Jerusalem. The distance through the museum is much longer. Huge cuts in the floor direct visitors back and forth across the prism into a chronologically arranged sequence of chambers telling the story from the rise of modern anti-Semitism to the creation of the State of Israel. The main floor gradually slopes down until it reaches the chapter on the death camps, then ascends to its end on a sun-washed balcony overlooking an attractive, wooded section of Jerusalem.

"I thought a massive exhibit could be disorienting, that you could stop absorbing," he said, explaining the long, plain hall and the chambers. "And I did not want to go underground. . . . I would not do a black box. Life goes on. Life prevails." Cutting the structure into the mountainside, with a skylight at the top, "you always see light at the end of the tunnel.

"You can dwell on the Holocaust and be buried by it mentally and physically, but here you always see the light," Safdie said. Nevertheless, like some of the teenagers who came through during pre-opening tours, the architect quickened his steps and averted his eyes at some parts of the exhibit.

"Each of us," he said, "has different breaking points."

Here, many people will have several.

Maybe you reach a breaking point when you stand before photos of the Jewish women of Lvov, Ukraine, being dragged into the streets, stripped, and raped before a leering public before being marched off to their deaths. The big, grainy pictures are mostly famous carryovers from the old museum. What's crushing is a new one, a woman in her 20s kneeling in the street, hands in the air, hair and clothes looking just like your mother's in a family album from the '40s.

Surely you break near the end, when you are still looking at concentration camp horrors but can hear the triumphal music of the Allied victory around the corner. You step around the corner, see Charles de Gaulle saluting victorious troops on the Champs Elysees, then take a half step more and are confronted with what the end of the war meant to the Jews.

Next to films of bulldozers burying bodies, trucks moving bodies, people piling up bodies of women, men, and children, is one black and white photo of a survivor, sitting alone, his face contorted in the unspeakable agony of knowing that everything and everyone he knew before is no more.

Yehudit Marcus's duck is thin, for a duck. The Gestapo and German patrols stopped her several times and inspected the false papers under which she was traveling as Jacqueline Gauthier, a Christian social worker. But they never came close to finding the narrow cavity crammed with life-giving documents and official stamps in the toy's breast.

Once in Normandy, once in Moulins, twice in Paris, she was nearly caught for other reasons; 20 of the original 30 members of her Paris group eventually were captured, most with fatal consequences. Marcus's brother and 32 other family members were killed.

"I cried," Marcus said, "and I carried on."

After the war the duck became a real toy to the son and daughter Marcus raised in the new State of Israel. Now it is being put to a third intensely human purpose of which she thoroughly approves.

For years, both in France and in Israel, "people did not want to hear not about the camps, and not about our work," she said. "It is good that they redo the museum this way it gives the next generations the opportunity to see what we really went through."

 

Charles A. Radin can be reached at radin@globe.com.
 

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