The Ghetto Fighter’s House in Kibbutz Lohamei Hagetaot has always been an emotive place, but the sensitivity ante was upped when the Holocaust center opened the Yad LaYeled Museum.
Yad LaYeled (Children’s Memorial) is essentially an educational facility, although it follows a more experiential than didactic course to achieve its stated aim.
The museum’s plan of action is to introduce today’s children to the world of children who lived through the Holocaust, and its exhibitions are based on authentic stories taken from the diaries and testimonies of the children of the time.
Yad LaYeled has now unveiled the new Here Began My Childhood display that incorporates documentary films and authentic artifacts, as well as audio and video installations. Visitors are allowed to touch the exhibits.
Yad LaYeled is the first facility of its kind in the world to educate young visitors, from age 10, about the Holocaust through the personal experiences of their counterparts who lived in Europe during that period.
“The new exhibition focuses of the return to life of children from the Holocaust,” explains curator Poriah Litchi, who also carried out the research for the new addition, which was based primarily on material from the Ghetto Fighters’ House archives.
Here Began My Childhood portrays the experiences of the young Holocaust survivors through their personal stories. Even though Nazi Germany had been defeated, and the concentration camps liberated, many European Jews still faced mortal dangers after the war.
“There was still plenty of anti-Semitism around after the war,” notes Litchi,” and the children had to find their way across borders to Western Europe, and from there to Palestine.”
At the end of the war there were many children who had lost their parents. Some tried to return to their homes only to find they had been destroyed, or occupied by other people, and there were street gangs of youngsters who had somehow survived the Holocaust, by any means possible. They had managed to stay alive at all costs and, in so doing, some had lost all sense of morality. They had no home or family, and many searched desperately for a familiar face, only to be disappointed.
The exhibition also recounts the stories of children who lived under false identities with Christian families or in convents, and the difficulties they endured when they were reintroduced to the Jewish fold.
“The Jewish children from Eastern Europe were smuggled across borders, westwards, by organizations such as Habricha,” says Litchi. “The idea was that they had a future, and that future was the Land of Israel. The whole education [of the children] was based on the return to the Land of Israel. That was the ultimate dream of the children.”
This is not just a fanciful idea fueled by nostalgic Zionist fervor.
“I interviewed people who were children at the time in Europe, and I asked them how they managed not to despair, traveling to and fro across Europe, and trying to steer clear of anti-Semites. They told me that the dream of getting to Israel kept them going,” says Litchi.
That is the linchpin of the new display.
“The main theme of the exhibition is ‘the home,’” Litchi explains, “about children who were in a situation whereby they had no home.” That, says the curator, is something kibbutzim around the country tried to address. “Kibbutzim set up children’s homes, and tried to offer them a normal way of life, get them back to formal education, and provide them with clothes and somewhere to lay their head. And some of the children no longer remembered being Jewish, and celebrating the religious holidays in Israel was very important too – especially holidays that marked the theme of freedom, like Hanukkah and Passover.”
Great emphasis was also placed on restoring the children’s self-confidence.
“The idea was also to help the children to develop their talents and skills through, for example, singing in choirs and learning to play musical instruments. This was a long and thorough rehabilitation process, from the basics to the realms of the spirit.”
That was quite a job for the small incipient state of Israel to take on, and Litchi says many of the people who undertook to help revitalize the young Holocaust survivors did not have the relevant professional skills or experience.
“This whole rehabilitation process was carried out by people who were not professionals in the field. It all started with people who themselves were Holocaust survivors, who were asked by youth movements to set up the children’s homes and to educate the kids. The helpers may have had two weeks of training at a seminar, and that was that.”
There were the odd exceptions, such as Lena Kichler.
Kichler is one of several people who helped young Holocaust survivors and whose story is retold in the new exhibition. Other interviewees include children’s writer Sarah Shner, who worked with an organization that took Jewish children out of orphanages and monasteries, Reuma Weizman, wife of president Ezer Weizman, and Chawka Folman who survived two years in Auschwitz and was one of the founders of Kibbutz Lohamei Hagetaot.
Kichler’s story is truly remarkable. She was born in Poland, and somehow managed to survive the Holocaust, through her wits, courage and good fortune.
Unable to have children herself, Kichler got 100 Jewish children out of orphanages in Poland and helped to bring them to Israel. She later became an educator and a psychologist, and used her professional skills, as well as her own Holocaust experiences, to help the children to achieve a better life here.
“The items displayed on the walls are about the children, and the documentaries are about the adults who cared for them here,” explains Litchi.
There is plenty for young visitors to the exhibition to see and do. There are interactive displays, and a one-man show called Avramale – The Boy From Over There, written by Tamar Bergman, which conveys to today’s children the difficulties the young Holocaust survivors faced once they got to Israel, to bridge the cultural gaps between themselves and their sabra counterparts, and to integrate in Israeli society. Avramale is performed by Arab actor Elias Matar, who also works at Ghetto Fighter’s House as a youth guide. The show portrays the difficult interface between a Holocaust orphan and a sabra child his age, the challenges the newcomer faces on a day-to-day level in his new country, the Holocaust-related anxieties and fears with which he has to constantly contend, as well as the inability of Israeli society to accept him. “We didn’t choose Elias because he is an Arab,” says Litchi. “He is just a wonderful actor.”
For more information about Yad LaYeled: (04) 995- 8044/6 and www.gfh.org.il