New International Holocaust Remembrance Day exhibit focuses on liberation

The self-explanatory title of the new video-based exhibition at the institute is Liberation – The First Moments.

THE LIBERATION of Auschwitz is the opening image of 'Liberation-The First Moments.' (photo credit: Courtesy)
THE LIBERATION of Auschwitz is the opening image of 'Liberation-The First Moments.'
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Pondering the cataclysmic events of World War II and particularly the Holocaust, can induce a sense of great sadness and even weariness. But, do we ever consider the emotional roller-coaster experienced by the inmates of concentration camps at the moment of liberation? Suddenly, after somehow physically surviving unspeakable suffering and hardships for God knows how long, they are presented with the possibility of a very different reality. The veil of extremely short term living, somehow getting through another day, hour, minute of torture, is summarily lifted and they are confronted with “real life.”
With the advent of International Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 27 which, this year, coincides with the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz by Soviet forces, the Massuah Institute for Holocaust Studies at Tel Yitzhak found it be an opportune juncture to present the public with the recollections of Holocaust survivors as they talk about the – for them – unforeseen miraculous development when their sadistic jailers suddenly disappeared.
The self-explanatory title of the new video-based exhibition at the institute is Liberation – The First Moments. Massuah Institute Director General Aya Ben Naftaly says it is an emotive project for all concerned. “This is a moving exhibition, which shows the very personal and human dimension of the moment of liberation.” She adds that part of the thinking behind getting the show up and running was to steer clear of by-now routine stock statements. “The exhibition avoids all the big slogans, you know like ‘to get back to life,’ the things we grew up on. We wanted to see the person before they collect themselves – what happens to them at that time.”
Liberation – The First Moments is designed to convey an intimate one-on-one encounter with survivors and their stories, with its harrowing and even uplifting elements. “The exhibition is almost entirely based on videoed testimonies of Holocaust survivors. We have hundreds of these, which were made in the Eighties and Nineties when they were younger.” The institute invested great effort in documenting as much of the firsthand stories as possible. “The testimonies are around 15-20 hours long per witness.”
Ben Naftaly and her staff had their work cut out for them, to get to the raw material they needed for the new venture. “We were very careful about focusing on the parts of the testimonies that relate to the first moments after they are liberated,” she explains. That takes in a broad experiential sweep. “There is a very wide range of footage because people went through different experiences during the time of the Holocaust. We, of course, include people who were freed from camps, but there are also people who were in hiding and partisans coming out of the forests. There are common denominators between everyone, and there are some very moving things.”
Above all, she says the idea was not to go overboard on the emotional side. “We tried very hard to ensure that the exhibition didn’t come out too dramatic. In the film footage of the actual liberation, we left out the horrific scenes with which most people are familiar from the documentaries that were made at the time.”
Becoming corporeally free of prison is one thing but, as the gates were opened and the electrified barbed wire fencing was deactivated, and the survivors began to move about without hindrance, slowly regaining some semblance of individualism and humanity, the reality of what they endured and the desperate need to find out whether any relatives had come through the inferno alive began to dawn on them. “The moment of liberation is also the point at which you start thinking about the terrible loss, and that you are alone,” notes Ben Naftaly. “The majority of survivors were left without anyone of their families. So you have the moment of the greatest joy – in Europe there were all the celebrations of the victory over Germany – but it wasn’t like that for the survivors. In one of the testimonies a survivor says, ‘it was a difficult and painful freedom for us.’”
In another video testimony, Ruth Tatarko recalls how, on one side of a road, there were the walking dead, the survivors, who could hardly move when a convoy of army jeeps loaded with soldiers suddenly came down the middle of the road. Tatarko says that the British soldiers were delighted with the opportunity to give the concentration camp inmates back their freedom, but that it was not reciprocated. She said they “shouted for joy, but nobody else shouted for joy.” Tatarko must have been in slightly better physical shape than most. “I remember I raised my arms and waved, but the people could hardly lift their arms or they were so numb by then.” In stark contrast to the members of the liberating forces, those who had been through the Holocaust were largely inured to their emotional well-being, and were simply stupefied by the change in their circumstances. Tatarko says she remembers her fellow survivors telling the soldiers, when Bergen-Belsen was liberated, things like “you’re too late, we’re already dead,” and “what are you doing here?” “They simply didn’t have the strength to raise their arms. Their arms went up slowly and then fell back down. It was such a sad liberation.”
The transition from hellish incarceration, where death was ever-present and constantly imminent, to the boundless outside world, demanded a sharp and agonizing mind-set shift. All of a sudden the enormity of what they had been through, and the size of the task that lay ahead, began to make inroads on their consciousness, as the paralyzing fog of helplessness began to dissipate. “In a lot of the testimonies you hear them say there was no happiness at the time of the liberation,” Ben Naftaly observes. “There was a sense that, after they had fought to stay alive, and the daily struggle for survival, to find food, to find all kinds of ways to stay alive, they were now liberated and they began to understand their great loss. Some of them did not have the emotional strength to do anything. The initial response of many of those freed from the camps was apathy and of wanting to wreak spontaneous vengeance, not organized revenge.”
That is echoed in the testimony given by the last participant in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, Simha Rottem, who died just over a year ago, aged 94. “He said they were physically liberated but they did not become emotionally free for a long time,” says Ben Naftaly.
The Massuah Institute, which houses six permanent exhibitions and offers Holocaust-related educational facilities to people from all over the world, also provides the public with some sunnier moving anecdotal tidbits. “One survivor comes out of the forests and is arrested because they suspect he is a deserter,” the director general continues. “They take him to a Soviet general who is amazed to meet a living Jew, and takes care of him. And there is the amazing story of an American Jewish military doctor who talks about meeting an inmate in his concentration camp clothing who is completely lost. The doctor tells the survivor that, the day before, the Americans caught some SS officers and took around 15,000-20,000 marks from them.” The American wanted to do anything he could to help the survivor. “He tried to put the cash in the survivor’s pocket but he refused because he said he didn’t have anything to give the American in return. So the doctor pointed to the survivor’s yellow Jude patch and said you can give me that.”
The American was moved by the survivor’s determination not to accept charity, and to maintain some sense of dignity, despite all he had been through. “The doctor later wrote in a letter that, out of all the things he saw and experienced during the war, that was the one event that stood out the most and stayed with him throughout his life. He said that person, who was more dead than alive, thought he shouldn’t take something from him because he had nothing to give him, and found some human value. He said he never forgot that.” The yellow patch eventually found its way to the institute and is now part of one of the permanent exhibitions there.
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