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The Holocaust at Human Scale

New Museum in Jerusalem Reflects Change in Israelis' Perspective on Tragedy

By Molly Moore
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, March 16, 2005; Page A16

JERUSALEM, March 15 -- The grainy black-and-white photographs of death shock the senses. But it is the personal remnants of life that wrench the heart -- a red-and-white polka-dot bow from a little girl's dress, a postcard flung from a cattle car by a desperate mother, an entry scrawled in a diary one horrible day more than 60 years ago.

"A sight that I will never forget as long as I live," Abraham Lewin, a teacher in Warsaw, wrote on Sept. 11, 1942. "Five tiny children, 2- and 3-year-olds, sit on a cot in the open field. . . . They bellow and scream without stopping. . . . 'Mommy, Mommy, I want to eat!' The soldiers are shooting continually and the shots silence the children's crying for a moment."

Shoes that belonged to Jews killed by the Nazis are displayed at the new Holocaust History Museum, part of the Yad Vashem memorial in Jerusalem. (Pool Photo/Goran Tomasevic Via AP)

_____From Jerusalem_____
Photo Gallery: Museum documents the Holocaust through the words, pictures and possessions of those who experienced it.

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Lewin's diary, the little red bow and a vast array of other personal items displayed in the new Holocaust History Museum -- inaugurated by Israel on Tuesday -- represent a dramatic transformation in this country's attitudes toward the dominant event in modern Jewish history, according to historians and museum organizers.

Historians say it is the kind of museum that Israel could not have contemplated 32 years ago, when its predecessor opened. Emotions were still raw then, families of Holocaust victims weren't psychologically ready to give up personal mementos, and the Israeli national consciousness centered on the entire Jewish community rather than on individuals.

"Until a few years ago, we looked at the Holocaust as a phenomenon of the collective," said Dalia Ofer, a professor of Holocaust studies at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. "We never thought of how each individual person who was consigned to life in the ghetto tried to live his life. This doesn't take away the importance of the collective . . . but another element has been added."

"We're putting individuals at the center, delivering history through personal stories," said Avner Shalev, chief curator of the $56 million museum, which took a decade to plan and build.

Prime ministers, presidents and other officials representing 40 countries -- the largest representation of foreign dignitaries to visit Jerusalem since the funeral of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995, according to Israeli officials -- assembled Tuesday on a forested mountaintop just outside Jerusalem for the museum's inauguration. The new facility, like its predecessor, is part of the Yad Vashem memorial, which also includes an art museum and centers for Holocaust study and research.

The old Holocaust History Museum, the world's first museum dedicated to the Holocaust when it opened in 1973, depicted events in horrific but static black-and-white photographs accompanied by long blocks of text. Most faces were anonymous. Many places were nameless. Exhibits focused on the German perpetrators and depicted the victims primarily through the lenses of the perpetrators' cameras.

In the new museum, the survivors and the dead tell their stories through scribbled notes, vivid paintings, children's games, family photographs and concentration camp uniforms. The sweep of history is packaged into intimate moments and personal accounts.

"If you think about it, the number of about 6 million people doesn't say anything," said Dan Michman, chief historian at the Yad Vashem center, referring to the number of Jews believed to have perished during the Holocaust. "It is through the individual that you can learn something."

With its 100 movie and plasma screens, flashy maps and graphic presentations, the museum is also designed for a new generation of visitors.

"The audience has been changing," Shalev said. "We had to think forward to the change of generations. The third and fourth generations will not have the privilege to meet survivors. We're trying to build a bridge between these incidents and their lives. We let them come to personal conclusions on the preservation of Jewish life."

Officials began planning the new museum just after the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum opened in 1993. The Washington museum strongly emphasized personal stories, issuing identity cards to visitors so they could track the fates of individuals as they ventured through the museum. In recent years, Holocaust museums have proliferated around the world and international interest in the events surrounding the Holocaust has surged.

"Israel certainly thinks that it should have the central memorial or museum for the Holocaust," said Ofer, the Hebrew University professor. "I don't think we would have created such a museum, such a revolutionary project, if Yad Vashem didn't face this challenge of other museums throughout the world."

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