The stories behind the keepsakes

To commemorate VE Day, Yad Vashem’s online exhibition, ‘Fighting for Freedom,’ tells the stories of Jewish soldiers who fought alongside allied forces – one artifact at a time.

Yad Vashem
Nothing could have possibly prepared Moshe Domb, a Jewish soldier who enlisted in the Lithuanian division of the Red Army, for the harrowing sights that awaited him when he returned.
“In bunkers we found the burnt bodies of Jews. We found remnants of photographs, kitchen utensils, broken furniture...
[here and there] we found a Jewish child or woman who had miraculously survived,” he wrote in a letter after the war. Upon seeing what he believed to be the end of Jewish life in Europe, he wrote, “We have already lost the war, no Jews are left in Europe, there is no hope of finding any of our family.”
To commemorate the 70th anniversary of Victory in Europe Day, Yad Vashem has put together “Fighting for Freedom,” an online exhibition displaying the artifacts and mementos of these Jewish soldiers who fought among the Allied forces.
The exhibition, with support from the Genesis Philanthropy Group, is part of the ongoing cooperation in their mutual efforts to document, research and preserve for posterity the history of the Holocaust and WWII in the former Soviet Union.
The exhibition, however, isn’t limited to only European troops. Michael Tal, the director of the museum’s artifacts department, has gone to great lengths to ensure that the exhibition displays an array of stories of soldiers from a variety of different backgrounds.
Robert Brand, for example, fled Nazi-occupied Vienna as a child and immigrated to the United States, where he joined the army. The exhibition displays the German uniforms and weapons he confiscated when his unit seized a German house.
For Brand, these artifacts represented not only the fall of Nazi Germany, but the idea that as a Jew, he no longer had to live in fear for his life.
But like Domb, these keepsakes also symbolized the tragedy that befell the Jewish people under Nazi rule.
“Many of these Jewish soldiers return to their home countries and see how desolate the Jewish communities have become. What they collect is connected to this tragic realization. They didn’t know exactly what was happening in Europe, but then they see these places with their own eyes and see there is nothing left. There are no Jews,” Tal explained.
The exhibition displays only a handful of the 30,000 artifacts the museum has managed to collect from Holocaust survivors, and acquiring them was no easy task.
Operating under the rule of thumb that every artifact tells a story and is just as illuminating as an interview with a survivor, Tal explains that the museum at times has to convince survivors and their families that these mementos are of interest to the entire Jewish people and go beyond being internal family heirlooms.
“It wasn’t easy to convince the survivors to give up their items. For one, people kept these items because of the deeply personal attachment they have to them. It reminds them of... home or the camps.
They felt it was a part of their life,” he said.
“Second, they would wonder what was the general purpose behind giving up these treasured items. They would say, ‘Who else could possibly be interested? If I returned home and found a holy book that my father prayed with and that’s all that’s left, what does this concern other people and the State of Israel?’” he continued.
Tal and his team have worked in earnest to explain to these survivors that entrusting the museum to safely preserve these items and do justice to their story is not only in their best interest, but it is the interest of the Jewish people in general.
When looking at the story behind Robert Murin’s artifact, it becomes obvious that even the smallest items can pack the biggest emotional punch.
Murin, while serving in the Red Army, came across a fragment of a Torah scroll laying in the streets of Rozisce, Poland.
That minuscule piece of paper, Murin discovered, was one of the few tangible pieces of evidence that Jewish community even existed in that town.
“It’s important for us to not only tell the story behind the artifact, but also to tell the story of the person,” Tal said. When looking at the small but eclectic items on display, it is clear the museum has done just that.
The online exhibition can be viewed at yv/en/exhibitions/jewish_fighters/ index.asp.