New Yad Vashem Museum Shows 'Human Story'
by Sam Ser
The Jerusalem Post
February 13, 2005
It's not just a museum, it's a revolution. The vast new history museum that Yad Vashem is preparing to unveil March 15 -- the culmination of a $100 million expansion project more than 10 years in the making -- is a radical departure from the facilities visitors have known for more than 30 years.
The first indication is the architecture. Yad Vashem wanted a significantly larger structure that wouldn't significantly alter the landscape of the museum's expansive hilltop property. So Moshe Safdie's design has a triangular concrete "prism" slicing through the earth, topped with a 200-meter-long skylight. Visitors are forced to follow a zig-zagging path through underground galleries that branch off the main hall.
That's where the other changes become evident.
Unlike the current museum, which opens the Holocaust story with Adolf Hitler's rise to power in 1933, the new one is to initially greet visitors with happier images and tales of Jewish life before the Nazi scourge. This subtle difference, chairman of the Yad Vashem directorate Avner Shalev said, is actually an important part of the museum's new focus.
Avner Shalev, chairman of the Yad Vashem directorate, explains the ideas behind the new Hall of Names at the history museum, which is to be inaugurated on March 15, 2005. [Photo: Sam Ser.]
"We want to make the visitor's experience of the story of the Holocaust a personal one, to help visitors relate as much as possible and create empathy," Shalev tells The Jerusalem Post, "because more than anything else, this is a human story. It's the story of murder upon murder upon murder, of human loss. It's imperative that we make that connection."
To that end, the exhibits in the new museum are characterized by a much stronger focus on the visual element, with many more personal effects, photographs, artworks, and videos on display than the old museum is able to hold.
They are designed with great attention to esthetics, and with images and documents from among the millions of items in the Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority's archives chosen for their emotive power.
That doesn't always mean gruesomeness or violence. Neither does it mean large pictures of nude female victims, such as certain controversial images in the old museum; in the new incarnation, such photos of naked victims (especially women) are rarer, smaller, and less prominently displayed.
A powerful subtlety is carried from the building to the exhibits themselves. Yad Vashem may be much larger than it once was, but it's now the little things that stand out: a ring that a survivor managed to save from her concentration camp romance, or a simple strand of colored string that a child added to their camp uniform for decoration.
Many more of the items on display in the new museum were created by Jews &endash; another element of Shalev's vision. So much of the Holocaust photography that visitors are used to, he notes, was created by Nazis and collaborators.
They scorned and hated the Jewish victims they photographed, Shalev says, focusing mostly on the most stereotypical or presenting their victims as they wished them to appear. The Jewish view is lacking.
"Look at this picture of German Jews lining up for passports after Kristallnacht," he says, pointing to a large black-and-white image. "It's so detached. But these," he says, pointing to portraits that German Jews took of themselves gazing at globes and maps with a where-can-we-go look, "these capture the human emotion of the people. ...That's what we want to make visitors feel."
Showing a visitor around the not-yet-finished museum, Shalev stops at the photograph of a bright-eyed young Polish boy with an arrestingly innocent stare.
"I look at this child," he says, "and I think, I owe this boy an answer..."
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