How do you say Holocaust?

A Holocaust museum must act as a trigger for visitors who should be questioning how and why thoe atrocities of Nazi Germany happened.

new yad vashem 224.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
new yad vashem 224.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
The recreated room, with its polished hardwood floors, antique wooden furniture and rich artwork, could be part of an exhibit in any museum depicting 1930s German Jewish life, but its strategic placement vis-à-vis the other displays around it makes this presentation unique to Yad Vashem. As students from different parts of the globe flow through the exhibit, my tour guide Eva Lutkiewicz highlights how the "view" from the entrance of the model living room looks directly out onto a large video screen with footage from the chilling events of Kristallnacht in 1938, when Jewish communities and individuals were systematically targeted by the Nazis. It's supposed to signify the realization among the German Jewish community that anti-Semitism was more than just Third Reich rhetoric but was a practical solution to the "Jewish problem," explains Lutkiewicz, pointing out the charred remains of a Torah scroll in neat display cases below the video screens. "After that night, many Jews recognized the danger they were in and knew they had to leave Nazi Germany, but they had nowhere to go," she continues, emphasizing The Refugee, a 1938 Felix Nussbaum painting of a man sitting near a long table with a globe at its center, which also forms part of this Kristallnacht exhibit. The recreated room, the large video screen, original artifacts and artwork, combined with the overhead audio telling the fate of young German Jewish artist Charlotte Salomon, who perished in Auschwitz in 1943, all come together to create a rich visual and multisensory experience for any visitor, and it exemplifies a concept that stands behind the core of most modern Holocaust museums. "Our goal is to tell the story of the Holocaust, but not in a format that is a substitute for a textbook," says Avner Shalev, chairman of the Yad Vashem Directorate and chief curator of the museum, which was inaugurated in March 2005 and marks a sharp departure from previous approaches to presenting the Holocaust. "The language of museums has completely changed in the modern world and museums must reflect that," maintains Shalev, who previously chaired the Public Council for Culture and the Arts, under which he initiated the study of museology in local universities and spearheaded a series of museum laws. Combine the need for more experiential and interactive exhibits with the fact that each generation is moving further and further away from the Holocaust and that many of its primary witnesses are no longer with us, and it becomes clear that museums such as Yad Vashem are faced with a unique challenge: keeping the memory of the Holocaust alive and presenting the facts precisely and accurately, while at the same time continuing to make its lessons relevant. "It's a huge challenge that requires a totally different approach to the presentation of this topic," Shalev says, adding that all the elements that form Yad Vashem - from its architectural design by Moshe Safdie to its state-of-the-art multimedia presentations to its display of artifacts once owned by Europe's Jews - are all essential facets of the Holocaust museum experience. In short, it's no longer enough for a Holocaust museum to serve as a reminder of the atrocities committed by Nazi Germany, it must also act as a trigger for visitors who should be questioning how and why it happened and not just learning about when and where it happened. "WE HAVE learned so much about the Holocaust since the days when the first Holocaust memorial museums were built," says Aya Ben-Naftali, director-general of the Massua Institute for Holocaust Studies at Kibbutz Tel Yitzhak, which recently published a collection of articles by Holocaust experts entitled Islands of Memory - The Holocaust Museum in the 21st Century. "Those [like the original Yad Vashem museum] that were built in the 1960s reflected the style of that time. The trial of Adolf Eichmann was the trigger for these places to be built and their goal was to tell the story of what happened in Europe. There was a lot of emphasis on what had been lost, and the commemoration hall usually formed the center of the museum." Today's museums, by contrast, use modern technology to retell the story, while at the same time creating hope and highlighting the achievements since 1945, says Ben-Naftali, pointing out that visitors to the Holocaust museum in New York arrive at a panoramic view of Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty, and in Yad Vashem finish their journey looking out at the hills of Jerusalem. In addition, she says that in many of estimated 100 modern museums and visitors' centers around the globe, the events of the Holocaust are not necessarily depicted chronologically but rather in a fashion that shows how they affected the rest of the Western world. "The Holocaust was not just an event that needs to be chronicled in a museum, but it needs to be a catalyst for questions," states Ben-Naftali, who was among the contributors to the book. Jerusalem-based author, poet and playwright Michal Govrin, whose articles on her physical journey to Auschwitz and personal musings coming to terms with her mother's Holocaust experience are also featured in Islands of Memory, agrees. "The message of the Holocaust is not only limited to the first and second generations of survivors," she says. "Everyone who came out of this has a lesson to teach us, and we have to continue the transmission to descendants of the victims, the perpetrators and the rest. It's a chapter of history that all of mankind can learn from." But Govrin is wary of how the Holocaust is portrayed in all types of media, including in certain museums. "We always have to remember that the Holocaust, like any genocide, has two dimensions to it: a sexy side where the evil is considered genius, which includes a magnetism that attracts people to want to hear about it, and a humanistic side where we delve into the continuing humility portrayed by those who were the victims," she warns. "We must be careful not to glorify the evil." In describing her mother's story, Govrin explores human resilience in the face of adversity. She believes her mother "showed spiritual resistance and despite it all never lost her dignity." "In Israel it took a long time for people to acknowledge that resistance was also a way of confronting evil," she says, pointing to how opinions about the survivors have changed over the past 60 years. "In the early years of the state we liked to focus on the armed resistance and the general view was that those who did not fight back simply went like lambs to the slaughter." Govrin cites the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre as a turning point in the way the Holocaust, its victims and survivors were viewed by Israelis. "They were strong sportsmen and women who, despite their physical power, could do nothing to fight back against the terror." As Lutkiewicz, the tour guide, navigates me through each of the 10 underground exhibition halls in Yad Vashem, she makes sure to point out the personal artifacts of those left behind and tells some of the stories that are behind them. When Yad Vashem was first set up by the government during the 1950s, its initial goal was to serve as a documentation and research center into the Holocaust, she explains. "Many survivors showed up at the institute with items belonging to deceased relatives that they no longer wanted," she says. As a result, the center's archives housed boxes and boxes of artifacts that were useful to document the events of prewar and wartime Europe, but whose origins were largely unknown. During the preparation for the new museum, curators diligently went through these items and tried to uncover the personal story behind each one. Some of the complete stories are presented in the exhibition hall and matched to each time period, place or significant historic event. "When we came across a watch, for example, we wanted to tell the story of the person who owned it," explains Shalev, highlighting that one of the goals is to present what happened from the angle of the victims, even though most of the documentation comes from Nazi sources. However, adds Shalev, while the personal stories are so important, a visit to his museum needs to be "much more than a one-dimensional experience, it also needs to be multisensory and must build up empathy for what happened to the Jews" so that each generation can go on - even after the last Holocaust survivor dies - understanding the lessons.