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‘The crown jewels of the Jewish people’: preserving the memory of the Holocaust


The images are haunting: black-and-white photos of snow-covered barracks and paintings of buildings surrounded by barbed wire and dead trees depict the horrific scenes of the French concentration camps during World War II, where Jews were held before being transported to concentration camps.

The artist Jacques Gotko created one painting using crushed eggshells glued to a board as a background; others used an old tire as a printing stencil. These were just some of the few materials available to him in the camp, before he was imprisoned in Drancy, another concentration camp in France, and then transferred to Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland in 1943.

The works are fragile and rarely exhibited, but they are part of a vast collection of Holocaust-related artifacts, including millions of pages of documents, tens of thousands of pages of testimonies, artworks and personal belongings and more than half a million photographs, collected over the years by Yad Vashem, Israel’s official Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem.

Most of the artifacts were scattered across Yad Vashem’s sprawling campus, but they will now be housed in a new center, which was recently completed and officially opened on Monday, to provide researchers with better access to them and state-of-the-art technology to preserve them for future generations.

Officials at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial say the task of preserving artifacts has become more urgent as the Holocaust fades away, the number of survivors steadily decreases, and anti-Semitism and extremism resurge around the world.

“These are Jewish treasures,” Yad Vashem chairman Dani Dayan said of the collection. “Without historical memory, there is no Judaism.”

The new David and Fera Schapper Family Collections Center is located across from Memorial Hall, which was built more than 60 years ago at the heart of campus and features an eternal flame burning above stone tombs containing the ashes of Holocaust victims from Europe’s extermination camps.

Mostly located underground, reaching five levels below ground, it blends in with the landscape and houses the artifacts in a protected space.

More than 150 staff will work at the site to collect more names of victims and artifacts, and to preserve and catalog these items. A video installation on the wall of the entrance hall plays a 44-minute loop of thousands of documents and fragments of objects preserved in the center’s vaults.

“We’re not looking for the Mona Lisa,” said Medy Shvide, director of Yad Vashem’s archives, museums and collections. “We’re looking for things that tell the story of the people of that time — who the family was, what happened to them.” Those relics or clues might seem unremarkable, like a comb or a glove.

The state-of-the-art laboratory is upgrading the digitization and processing processes for documents and other paper artifacts, textiles (such as decorated ceremonial garments), and paintings.

Many of the objects have not been restored to their original condition, and that’s intentional. Yad Vashem’s curators say that damage such as blemishes or scorching often best conveys the stories of Jewish communities destroyed in the Holocaust, Jewish life before World War II, or survivors.

The art collection is stored in a basement with a low-oxygen environment to prevent fire. Most of the works created during the Holocaust are on paper and stored in boxes. Many of the works are not by famous artists. “It is our responsibility to remember them,” said Eliad Moreh-Rosenberg, director of the Yad Vashem Art Collection. Otherwise, “they will be forgotten.”

Some of the works in the art library will be on display as part of Yad Vashem Gallery’s rotating exhibitions.

Israelis have been grappling with new tragedies and questions of memory and remembrance since the Hamas-led assault on southern Israel on Oct. 7. According to Israeli authorities, about 1,200 people, mostly civilians, were killed that day, the deadliest day for Jews since the Holocaust.

The Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial Museum’s mission is to highlight the uniqueness of the Holocaust as a unique historical event and make it known to the world. The museum’s president, Mr. Dayan, opposed direct comparisons between the October 7 terrorism and the Nazi Holocaust and said that a distinction must be made.

He referred to the Holocaust in Hebrew and said that “October 7 was not a massacre” and that modern Israel has a powerful army that can strike at its enemies.

Still, he said, for many people the association is inescapable: mothers muzzling their babies and trying to keep them quiet while hiding in safe rooms as gunmen hunted them down and set fire to their homes — reminiscent of Jews in Europe hiding from the Nazis in barns, basements or attics.

In the years leading up to the October 7 attacks, anti-Semitic incidents had been on the rise around the world. shooting In October 2018, an attack on a Pittsburgh synagogue killed 11 worshippers in the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in U.S. history. in Europe, Synagogues in Germany and France They are targeted, sometimes because of anger over the conflict between Israel and Palestine.

Israel’s devastating offensive against Gaza following the October 7 attack has sparked massive protests in foreign capitals and on university campuses, sometimes with anti-Semitic overtones.

Israel has been accused of committing genocide against Palestinians in Gaza. More than 38,000 people have died in the war, according to Gaza health officials, who do not distinguish between civilian and combatant deaths. Israel denies committing genocide.

For Mr. Dayan, as the older generation of Holocaust survivors dies out, preserving Yad Vashem’s collections is essential to building a solid, authoritative base of evidence, data and knowledge to combat Holocaust deniers and distorters.

That means honoring artists whose work was their last will and testament — like Jacques Gotko, who died of typhus at Auschwitz-Birkenau, he said.

Using shredded tires, Gotko created a series of linocuts depicting the barracks where the Nazis held Jews at the makeshift concentration camp at Compiègne, France. The signed works are numbered and labeled Front Stalag 122 (the name of the concentration camp) and dated 1942.

Born Yakov Gotkovsky in Odessa, Ukraine, Gotko and his family moved to Paris in 1905 when he was still a child. He studied at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts and his paintings were exhibited in the city’s prestigious art salons.

He continued to paint after he was imprisoned in a transit camp with other Jews in 1941. One of his works from the camp is a still life that was stored in the new facility.

Breaking with the tradition of the Old Masters, he did not include a large display of exotic fruits and bright flowers, but rather a crust of bread, a spoon, a tin cup and a matchbox. His background was a barbed wire fence and trees, some bare, some with leaves, depicting the world outside the camp.

Engraved on the wall of Mr. Dayan’s office is a quote from Gela Seksztajn, a Polish artist who died in the Warsaw Ghetto. Knowing her fate was doomed, she wrote: “I am donating my work to the Jewish Museum that was built after the war.”

Many of her works were hidden in secret archives in the Jewish ghetto and survived the war. Most are now kept at the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw. A few are kept at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., and one is kept at Yad Vashem.

“We are approaching a watershed moment in Holocaust remembrance,” Mr. Dayan said. “We are entering the post-survivor era, and we will be the messengers of the message.”

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