FROM DARKNESS OF HOLOCAUST, TO LIGHT
Author(s): Charles A. Radin, Globe staff Date:
JERUSALEM It is easy to overlook Yehudit Marcus's wooden duck in the new
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
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
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
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
"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
Safdie's building is a two-football-field-long
prism built into a mountain on the outskirts of
"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
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
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.
"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
Charles A. Radin
can be reached at email@example.com.
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