New Holocaust Museum – A Personal Journey in Time

Two days of ceremonies inaugurating the New Holocaust History Museum in Jerusalem take place Tuesday and Wednesday, March 15 and 16. It is part of a challenging project to lend Holocaust remembrance a new sense of relevance for younger people as historic memories fade and the number of actual survivors with personal testimonies declines. The event is attended by a large international gathering of world leaders from 40 countries – ten presidents, six prime ministers and assorted high officials led by UN secretary general Kofi Annan, as well as survivors and scholars. President Bush asked New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg to lead the American delegation.
The new museum established by Yad Vashem – the Martyrs and Heroes Remembrance Authority- and the Israeli government was ten years in the making and occupies four times the area of the former site, which was founded by Israel’s Knesset in 1953.
Innovations include a Child’s Memorial site, a Hall of Remembrance and a Museum of Holocaust-era Art. Most of the $56m cost came from private donations; 15% from the Israeli government.
Designed by world renowned architect Moshe Safdie, the museum is in the form of a gigantic prism carved into and directly through a hollowed-out limestone hill overlooking the city of Jerusalem. The natural design of the museum takes the visitor on a journey through time, and deep inside the hill. Feeling the weight and isolation of this subterranean tunnel, the visitor walks through the developing horror of history, moving from one gallery to the next leading off from the central corridor of the prism. There are no short-cuts and no quick exits and no easy way out and the journey leads relentlessly through film and photograph, background music and sound effects from an early Nazi party rally with its still horrifying display of Swastika banners, on through the creation of the Ghetto, and then the labor camps and then the death camps – but all told with the most extraordinary emphasis on the personal, and this is the true message and meaning of the museum. The message everywhere is of individuals, of real people, through collections of family photographs, personal effects, children’s books and toys, a battered doll, a child’s hair ribbon, letters from parents to children, farewell notes thrown out of the transport trains. The viewer is overwhelmed by the sense of intimate contact with real people and a real world. There is a shocking display of yellow Stars of David written in all of the languages of civilized Europe, Juif and Joode and Zidov and even just a plain contemptuous Z.
There is a re-creation of a typical Jewish home in Germany, cobblestones and tram tracks from Warsaw and everywhere video displays with survivors’ testimonies, elderly people telling of the horror in their young lives. One talks of the guilt that torments him still, describing an incident when his father fell and, knowing that any attempt to help was punishable with immediate execution, he did not reach down to help him rise. The galleries continue on through the heroic stories of Jewish partisans who hid in the forests and harried the German war machine, to the liberation of the camps and the rescue of the few survivors at war’s end – and, finally, film and video showing the creation and establishment of Israel.
And the last gallery of all, the Hall of Remembrance, with its huge dome-shaped cupola lined with the names and photos of the victims, men women and children, their faces reflected in the deep dark pool below, carved out of pink Jerusalem limestone. A large blown-up photograph of a pre-war wedding party tells us that of the sixty-five people in the picture, fifty-five perished.
The prism ends finally and the visitor steps out into the brilliant sunshine, onto a vast platform cantilevered out over the Judean Hills, with Jerusalem and its houses and its people and its bustling streets spread out below and brilliant in the light after the dark subterranean depths. Truly, out of darkness into light.

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