OSWIECIM, Poland — For decades, the Communist-era memorial to Jewish victims at the barracks known as Block 27 in the Auschwitz-Birkenau complex of Nazi death camps stood dilapidated and mostly ignored.
“No one visited. They opened the doors, that was it,” said Avner Shalev, chairman of Yad Vashem, Israel’s vast and authoritative Holocaust memorial museum and research center.
Key artifacts had gone missing. The history presented in the signage was inaccurate at best and was dominated by Soviet propaganda.
The modest, two-story site was designated the “Jewish pavilion” in memory of the 1 million Jews who were killed at the complex in Nazi-occupied Poland. But, Shalev said, “there was hardly any mention of the Jews.”
In 2005, then-Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon tasked Yad Vashem with redesigning the memorial. On Thursday, Benjamin Netanyahu, the current prime minister, joined Polish dignitaries and a handful of Holocaust survivors to dedicate a new permanent exhibition in Block 27, called “Shoah,” part of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum.
“I am standing here today with great pain and great pride,” Netanyahu said. “The leaders of the Allies knew full well what was happening in the death camps. They could have acted, but they didn’t. We, the Jews, know exactly what the lesson is.”
Israel, Netanyahu said, cannot rely on any other country to protect it or to protect the world’s Jews.
He said the murderous anti-Semitism of the Nazi Germany era has been replaced in modern times by religious fanaticism, alluding to Iran, which Israel has accused of trying to create a nuclear arsenal to threaten the Jewish state.
“This is a regime that is building nuclear weapons with the expressed purpose to annihilate Israel’s 6 million Jews,” Netanyahu said. “We will not allow this to happen. We will never allow another Holocaust.”
After the war, the Poles decided to keep the extermination camps at the Auschwitz II and Birkenau essentially untouched. At Auschwitz I, they granted to some of the nations of Europe a barracks building, for it to memorialize what had happened to their citizens here, and so there is an Austrian block, a Hungary block, and on and on. Block 27 was designated the “Jewish block.”
When the Israelis decided to remake Block 27, they were faced with several challenges. The barracks are small, only about 10,000 square feet, and the enormity of the Holocaust — in facts, figures, emotion — is huge.
“Our challenge was to create a new language to explain to the visitor the more comprehensive idea of the Holocaust,” said Shalev, who served as curator of the exhibit.
Or as the Holocaust survivor Aharon Appelfeld put it: “to deconstruct the horror — into images and sounds.”
One of the most moving elements in the exhibit, said visitors on this first day, is a room filled with pencil tracings of children’s drawings, selected and etched by Israeli artist Michal Rovner.
The drawings were collected from diaries and other artifacts, all drawn by the children taken to the camps — and presented at waist level, where a child might scrawl on the wall. In the spare white room, the drawings depict increasingly disturbing images.
First, there are crude renderings of happy times — a girl with a flower or a family celebrating the Sabbath. Then there is a soldier brandishing a weapon and taking a girl into a forest, and the soldier returning alone. Later, trains arriving at the camps, then gallows, graves.
The artist spent a year studying the archives of children’s drawings, and their reproductions are very spare, very simple. The curator of the exhibit spoke of their tenacity and fragility, “like hovering souls.”
Another powerful image is created by the monumental “Book of Names,” which stands about 6 feet tall and measures 46 feet long and contains the printed names, home towns, dates and places of birth and death of 4.2 million Jews who died during the Holocaust, gathered over the past 60 years by researchers at Yad Vashem.
There are empty pages yet to be filled, as Yad Vashem is still collecting names from old census data, reports by families and other research. In three years, the center expects to have documented 5 million names. The others might be lost to history.
The new exhibit at Auschwitz is part of a slow but steady reassertion here in Poland that the tragedy of World War II was suffered not only by the Poles but also by their Jewish neighbors.
The main exhibition at Auschwitz is the state museum, which is now applauded by Jewish scholars as being accurate and presenting the full story of the Holocaust in Poland.
The remaking of Block 27 is part of that revision. “It is remarkable in the sense that it represents the reassertion of the Jewish story, long ignored, even here,” said Marian Turski, chairman of council at the Museum of the History of Polish Jews.
When visitors exit the Block 27 barracks, they do so through a simple side door. And there right in front of them are the rusting barbed-wire fences erected more than 60 years ago.