Kofi Annan to attend the re-opening of Yad Vashem

March 14, 2005

[Note by Tom Gross]

This is a follow-up to the dispatch of November 22, 2004 on the new Yad Vashem database (titled: "They had lost their names"), and other previous dispatches on Yad Vashem.

Tomorrow Kofi Annan and other world leaders will attend the unveiling of the new Yad Vashem museum. The museum, which will teach about the Holocaust in an era when there will be no survivors left to bear witness, has already been highly praised. There is likely to be much media coverage on this in the coming days. Below I attach articles from this weekend: from Saturday's Independent newspaper of London, and from Reuters on Sunday (as carried on the Washington Post website.)

I include these particular articles both of which are sensitive to the Holocaust and to Yad Vashem as an Israeli institution in part because both the Independent and Reuters have been widely criticized for their anti-Israel coverage of recent years. (The Independent's chief Middle East correspondent is the notorious Robert Fisk.)

Britain which has seen a sharp rise in physical and verbal anti-Semitic attacks in recent months (particularly from senior figures in Tony Blair's ruling Labour Party, such as London mayor Ken Livingstone) is to send Deputy British Prime Minister John Prescott to the ceremony.

(Senior staff at Yad Vashem, as well as some British members of Parliament are subscribers to this email list.)

-- Tom Gross




At last, a tribute that does justice to the scale of the Holocaust

Next week, dignitaries from around the world will gather to attend the opening of the Yad Vashem museum in Jerusalem. It promises to be a powerfully evocative experience, says Donald Macintyre

The Independent
March 12, 2005


Among the flashes of recollection he has of that momentous journey, Henry Foner can remember his first sight of a policeman on the quay when the ship docked at Harwich. He can remember waiting in a large hall to be collected. But he has no memory of what must have been the utterly traumatic moment at which he had parted from his father, Max, for the last time in the winter of 1938. An only child of just six and half, he was uprooted, alone, from home in Berlin, one among 10,000 Jewish children sent by their parents on the kindertransport to Britain to escape what was to come. His mother had died two years earlier.

Of life in Swansea with his foster parents, Mr Foner, who had left Berlin as Heinz Lichtwitz, acknowledges it was "tough at times". Morris and Winnie Foner were childless and spoke only English and Yiddish. He spoke only German. "But somehow we managed to communicate," he says.

Yet by the time his father telephoned him on his seventh birthday, he could no longer understand him in German; after he had spent six months as the only Jew at the local primary school, English had become his first language. People were fairly kind, despite the occasional anti-Semitic gibes from other kids in the playground.

Today an eminent and only partly retired geochemist, Mr Foner is as fit and active man as he is good-humoured. Perhaps that is why, as he sips coffee in his comfortable living-room, the open french windows leading on to to a patio bathed in Jerusalem's spring sunshine, the greatest horrors of the 20th century, which have touched him, and about which he talks without a trace of melodrama, suddenly seem so recent.

His father, a successful lawyer who helped organise the escape of other Jews from Germany, was a habitual sender of postcards to his young son. But it was not until Henry was 30 that one of his father's friends finally sent him what Max Lichtwitz himself called a "kind of farewell letter", written in November 1941 from Berlin and still hard to read 64 years later.

His father wrote: "I think my Heini has found a good home and that the Foners will look after him as well as any parents could. Please convey to them, one day when it will be possible, my deepest gratitude for making it possible for my child to escape the fate that will soon overtake me ... Please tell him one day that it was only out of deep love and concern for his future that I have let him go, but that on the other hand I miss him most painfully day by day and that my life would lose all meaning if there were not at least the possibility of seeing him again someday."

Only in 1949 did Henry Foner discover his father had been killed in Auschwitz. That was in a letter from his grandmother, who had somehow survived. "I must have written to my grandmother," he says, "because I had a letter from her saying she had been waiting for me to ask what had happened to my father."

Now Mr Foner's very private story is suddenly going to become very public. Thanks to some of what he has kept, family photographs, the postcards, the British entry document, the satchel he had as a little boy on that long journey, Mr Foner's story is among 90 personal histories that will become known to the two million visitors expected to tour the $56m (30m) Yad Vashem Holocaust History Museum each year from when it opens at the end of the month.

Next week Kofi Annan and senior representatives of governments - Deputy [British] Prime Minister John Prescott is to fly in - will attend the opening ceremony for what by any standards is one of the world's most powerfully evocative exhibitions, massively enriched by the wealth of Holocaust records and testimony which have emerged in the past decade.

Thanks to the exhaustive searches of the Yad Vashem staff, every one of the 2,500 objects on display is authentic, each a testament to the individuality of the Holocaust's six million Jewish victims in a way the old Yad Vashem - only a quarter as big as the new one - never did.

It is true of the the silverware and other heirlooms, so prudently sent to Swansea in the early days of the war by his father, that Mr Foner has given the museum for its display of a typical room in a bourgeois Jewish Berlin home of the kind many who perished in the camps had left.

It is true, most darkly, of the crate of Cyclon B canisters used in the gas chambers. And it is true, too, of the shrapnel-peppered lamp-posts, cobblestones and tramrails used to recreate a specific street in the Warsaw ghetto. Then there are the diaries and the last postcards, the shoes, the mugs, the uniforms from the camps; even the cracked but still intact pair of spectacles a woman called Tola Walach tearfully brought into Yad Vashem, half a century after she had been given them to look after by her mother, Bluma, as she was led to the gas chamber at Birkenau.

The brilliantly innovative main building, by the celebrated Israeli-American architect Moshe Safdie, is a 250m prism-like triangular spike of grey concrete which cuts into the hillside of the Mount of Remembrance on the edge of Jerusalem, and draws the visitor down into the main underground galleries, before taking them upwards towards to the giant zinc and glass conical hall of names, covered with 600 photographs and testimonies about the victims, and mirrored by deep cuts in the limestone to symbolise the names that will never be known.

At the end, the tunnel bursts triumphantly into the sunshine and a stunning, pastoral view of the Jerusalem hills. Yehudit Shendar, the museum's senior art curator, says the concrete in Safdie's structure has been left plain "because for this purpose we didn't want something too beautiful like marble or Jerusalem stone". Conversely, as Ms Shendar points out, one of the important innovations in the museum is the use of colour, not least among the 280 contemporary drawings and painting by Jewish artists, many of whom died in the camps.

An example is paintings by the Jewish German artist Charlotte Salamon, who was murdered in Auschwitz. For her, painting was a cure for deep depression suggested by a village doctor when she was living in France and she produced some 1,300 vivid and highly coloured scenes of persecution she had witnessed in pre-war Germany.

Among those hanging at Yad Vashem, we see the artist herself jeered in the street by two anti-Semitic youths, her opera singer mother booed by her audience, with cries of "Raus, Raus", her surgeon father, head in hands, remembering the operating theatre he is no longer allowed to enter.

Many of the hitherto defining images of the Holocaust, including those in the old Yad Vashem, are Nazi photographs, most frequently showing the humiliation of Jews for propaganda reasons. Ms Shendar says: "We tend to think of the Holocaust in black and white but of course there was colour."

The use of art, in the museum, she says, is one way of meeting the museum's driving goal. "We are trying to tell the story from an individual point of view. Nazism tried to obliterate the individual." Ms Shendar knows what she is talking about; she is on the verge of tears as we come to the chilling photographs of Belzec, the Galician death camp where her grandparents were murdered.

In contrast to the deliberately impersonal Nazi propaganda, with its nameless victims, she adds: "Art is as subjective is as it is possible to be. The artist is not only a victim but has the ability to set down what he sees and feels."

For the very reason that it is so compelling, the new Yad Vashem will have its share of controversy. Are its themes universal enough? Does the sketchy account of non-Jews who perished in the Holocaust do justice to the handicapped, homosexuals, Gypsies, Jehovah's Witnesses, also exterminated, albeit in far smaller numbers, by the Nazis? Should there be specific reference to other genocidal acts and persecuted minorities of the 20th century?

Some of these questions were posed in a thoughtful article by the liberal Jewish newspaper Haaretz this month by Michael Birnenbaum, project director of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. "Will Jewish memory be large enough to be both Judaeocentric and inclusive?" he asked pointedly.

Avner Shalev, Yad Vashem's director, says Mr Birnenbaum is a good friend and a "serious person". But he added that Mr Birnenbaum had "unfortunately" not seen the museum. Instead, after attending a briefing, Mr Shalev had given on the new Yad Vashem concept several months ago, he posed the question of whether "we are over-expressing the Jewish angle and the non-Jewish angle won't be expressed enough."

Mr Shalev says: "We are telling the story from the Jewish angle because we think that the challenge of the youngsters today is very much to understand the human experiences of the victims, the human beings, who are going through this kind of experiment." His comparison is with a work of art, a novel, say, which tells a universal truth through a particular story.

It was not "good enough" to mouth "slogans saying this is a very universal issue". If visitors were to "think and rethink" about the meaning of the Holocaust "and to realise they have to do something as a result of it for their own future we have to start with these human, person to person, encounters."

And no one can doubt the new museum's focus on the human, individual, stories of the Holocaust is a triumphant success. For all the importance of the images (a haunting photographic sequence of bedraggled Jews on the death march from Dachau to Wolfratshausen in late April 1945, taken in secret by a villager on the route, lingers stubbornly in the memory) the words also have their own, not always obvious, power.

Nazi words, of course, tell their own story. In a room devoted to the ghastly work of the Einsatzgruppen death squads in the Ukraine - and dominated by a huge colour photograph of the piles of clothes left by the naked victims shot at Babi Yar - a secret signal records another Aktion on 15 September 1941. "As a result of the execution of 322 Jews and communist functionaries, the town of Boguslav is now free of Jews."

That message was in Enigma code, deciphered at Bletchley, another reminder that the Allies knew what was happening more than a year before the first tentative news reports began to appear in the Anglophone press. And accompanying a very rare sequence of photographs of men actually being shot, five marksmen to a victim, in a forest clearing near Belgrade in October 1941, the official military report records: "180 people were shot. Everything was concluded by 6.30 pm. The Unit returned to the camp with a satisfied feeling."

But it is the last postcards sent by those on their way to the camps, not knowing what awaited them, that carry some of the most powerful messages. In one, thrown from an Auschwitz-bound train near Verona, 28-year-old Wanda Pacifici wrote: "With a sorrowful heart I am travelling to a faraway land. Tell Carlo [her brother] that the two [her children] are not with me and that he should protect them as though they were his own. I hope that I shall be able to see them again."

Or the cheerfully mundane last letter of Jacob Van Someren to a gentile friend before leaving for Sobibor: "Dear Jo, This morning I depart for somewhere else and thank you for all you have done for me. Too bad that the soap will arrive too late. I am in a hurry because I still have to pack everything ..."



Israel's New Holocaust Museum Keeps Memories Alive
Reuters (As carried in the Washington Post)
March 13, 2005


Israel's Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial opens a new museum Tuesday to teach about the Nazi genocide of the Jews in an era when there will be no survivors left to bear witness.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan heads an impressive guest list of international leaders attending the dedication of the museum, the centerpiece of Israel's national memorial to the six million Jews annihilated in World War II.

Yad Vashem, which plays a pivotal role in the Jewish state's message that its existence is essential to prevent a repeat, is a regular stop on the itineraries of foreign dignitaries laying wreaths.

But overshadowed by more innovative museums abroad, Yad Vashem had begun to feel the challenge of preserving the Holocaust's memory at a time when the number of survivors able to recount horrors they endured over 60 years ago has dwindled.

"Yad Vashem has to learn how to function in a world without survivors," said Avner Shalev, the chairman of Yad Vashem.

The new museum, a decade in the making, seeks to personalize both the victims and the Nazi perpetrators by recounting the Holocaust's history via displays of personal artifacts, diary entries, photographs and videotaped accounts from survivors.

Until recently, it was common to see prisoner numbers branded on the forearms of concentration camp survivors as they went about their lives in Israel.

But as survivors have died and child survivors have entered old age, Yad Vashem's staff have seen an urgent need to design a museum aimed at preventing the Holocaust from becoming an abstract event, relegated to the dusty pages of history books.

"It didn't happen in another world, in a different reality," said Yehudit Inbar, the museum's curator. "The sky was blue and the grass was green at Auschwitz."


The idea of collecting survivors' stories to narrate the history of the Holocaust came when an elderly survivor brought Inbar crumbling spectacles her mother had given her on arrival at Auschwitz shortly before she was sent to the gas chambers.

It is among many artifacts displayed at the new museum, such as a braid of hair from a young girl killed in a concentration camp, a doll and a rebuilt street from the Warsaw Ghetto.

The museum's philosophy is encapsulated by its Hall of Names, designed by award-winning architect Moshe Safdie, in which photographs and names of three million of the Jews killed in the Holocaust surround a watery abyss.

"The founders of Yad Vashem were survivors of the Holocaust. They knew their story. They didn't need to show their story. They needed to show what the Nazis did," said Inbar.

"We came many years later and we needed to show both the story of Nazism and within that -- the Jewish story." To personalize the Holocaust, Inbar and her team wove first-hand accounts using personal effects and testimonies from survivors and victims into the historic narrative detailing the rise of Nazism in 1933 until Israel's establishment in 1948.

"We gave the victims an identity. We gave them a voice. We gave them a face," she said. "We did the same thing to the Nazis ... For each one we showed who they were. That they were not monsters but people who did monstrous things."

All notes and summaries copyright © Tom Gross. All rights reserved.