'Crown jewels of the Jewish people': Preserving memories of the Holocaust
The First Art Newspaper on the Net    Established in 1996 Saturday, July 20, 2024

'Crown jewels of the Jewish people': Preserving memories of the Holocaust
A painting using an eggshell background by Jacques Gotko shows the camp where he had been kept, inside Yad Vashem, Israel’s official Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, on July 3, 2024. With the survivor generation shrinking and antisemitism on the rise around the world, Israel’s Holocaust memorial is stepping up efforts to safeguard its vast collection of artifacts and testimony. (Amit Elkayam/The New York Times)

by Isabel Kershner

JERUSALEM.- The pictures are haunting: black-and-white prints of a snow-covered barracks and paintings bordered by wire fences and skeletal trees, grim depictions of a World War II camp in France where Jews were interned before being transported to concentration camps.

The artist, Jacques Gotko, created one picture using a background of crushed eggshells glued to a wooden board; for others he used a piece of old tire as a printing block. Those were just some of the few materials available to him at the camp where he was held before being transported to Drancy, another camp in France, then Auschwitz-Birkenau, in Poland, in 1943.

Fragile and rarely displayed, these works are part of a massive repository of Holocaust-related artifacts — among them millions of pages of documents, tens of thousands of pages of testimony, 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 had been scattered around Yad Vashem’s vast campus, but they will now be housed in a new center that will allow easier access for researchers and provide the most advanced technological conditions to safeguard them for future generations. The center was recently completed and was inaugurated Monday.

The task of preserving the artifacts has become all the more urgent as the Holocaust becomes an ever more distant episode, with the number of survivors steadily decreasing, at a time when antisemitism and extremism are resurgent around the world, Yad Vashem officials say.

“These are the crown jewels of the Jewish people,” Dani Dayan, the chair of Yad Vashem, said of the collections. “There is no Judaism without historical remembrance.”

The new David and Fela Shapell Family Collections Center is opposite the Hall of Remembrance, which was established more than six decades ago at the core of the campus, and where an eternal flame burns above a stone crypt containing the ashes of Holocaust victims from extermination camps in Europe.

It is mostly subterranean, reaching five stories underground, blending in with the landscape and housing the artifacts in a protected space.

More than 150 staff members will be working at the site, gathering more names of victims and artifacts, and conserving and cataloging the objects. A video installation along the wall of the entrance hall runs in a 44-minute loop showing thousands of fragments of documents and objects kept in the center’s vaults.

“We are not looking for a Mona Lisa,” said Medy Shvide, the director of the Yad Vashem archives, museums and collections. “We look for things that tell the story of the people of the time — who was this family, and what happened to them.” Those remnants, or clues, could be as seemingly unremarkable as a hairbrush or a glove.

State-of-the-art labs are upgrading the process of digitizing and treating documents and other paper artifacts; textiles, such as decorative ritual garments; and oil paintings.

Many objects are not restored to their former state, intentionally. Yad Vashem’s curators say the imperfections, or damage such as charring from a fire, can often best convey the stories of the Jewish communities decimated in the Holocaust, of Jewish life before World War II or of survivors.

The art collection is housed in a vault with an oxygen-reduced atmosphere for fire prevention. Most of the works created during the Holocaust were on paper and are kept in boxes. Many are not by famous artists. “It is our duty to commemorate them,” said Eliad Moreh-Rosenberg, Yad Vashem’s art collections director, otherwise, “they will be forgotten.”

Some of the works in the art vault will go on display as part of a rotating exhibit in Yad Vashem’s gallery.

Since the Hamas-led assault on southern Israel on Oct. 7, Israelis have been wrestling with a new tragedy and questions of remembrance and commemoration. About 1,200 people were killed that day, most of them civilians, according to Israeli authorities, making it the deadliest single day for Jews since the Holocaust.

Yad Vashem’s mission is to emphasize the uniqueness of the Holocaust as a singular historical event and educate the world about it. Dayan takes issue with direct comparisons between the terrorism of Oct. 7 and the Nazi genocide and says a distinction must be made.

“Oct. 7 was not the Shoah,” he said, referring to the Holocaust by its Hebrew name, adding that modern Israel has a strong army that can exact a toll from its enemies.

Still, he said, for many people the associations were inescapable: Mothers muffling their infants — trying to keep them quiet while hiding in their safe rooms as gunmen hunted them down and set their homes ablaze — recalled Jews hiding from the Nazis in barns, basements or attics in Europe.

In the years before the assault of Oct. 7, antisemitic incidents had been on the rise around the world. The shooting in October 2018 at a synagogue in Pittsburgh in which 11 worshippers were killed was the deadliest antisemitic attack in U.S. history. In Europe, synagogues in Germany and France were targeted in attacks, sometimes fueled by anger over strife between Israel and the Palestinians.

After the Oct. 7 assault, Israel’s devastating offensive in the Gaza Strip unleashed mass protests in foreign capitals and on college campuses, at times with antisemitic overtones.

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

For Dayan, preserving the Yad Vashem collections is crucial to building a solid, authoritative foundation of evidence, data and knowledge to counter Holocaust deniers and distorters as the aging generation of Holocaust survivors dies out.

That means commemorating artists whose creations came to stand as their last wills and testaments — like Jacques Gotko, who died of typhus in Auschwitz-Birkenau, he said.

Using the scrap of tire, Gotko created a series of linocut-style prints of the barracks where Jews were kept at the Nazi transit camp at Compiègne, in France. The signed works are numbered and labeled Front Stalag 122, as the camp was designated, and dated 1942.

Born Jakow Gotkowski in Odesa, in what is now Ukraine, Gotko moved to Paris in 1905 as a child with his family. He studied at the École des Beaux-Arts, and his paintings were exhibited in prestigious Parisian art salons.

He continued painting after he was taken with other Jews to the transit camp in 1941. In the camp, a still life that is being stored in the new facility was among his creations.

In a twist on the traditions of the old masters, instead of sumptuous displays of exotic fruit and vivid flowers, the still life he painted featured a crust of bread, a spoon, a tin cup and a matchbox. His backdrop was a wire fence and trees, some bare and skeletal, some with leaves, in the world beyond the camp.

Dayan has a quotation etched on the wall of his office written by Gela Seksztajn, a Polish artist who died in the Warsaw Ghetto. Knowing that she was doomed, she wrote: “My works I bequeath to the Jewish museum to be built after the war.”

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

“We are approaching a watershed moment in Holocaust remembrance,” Dayan said. “We are entering the post-survivor era where we are going to be the messengers.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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