How does one reconcile our superiority as a species with our unique ability to do what no other creature can do – bring about our own extermination?
The $100 million decade-long expansion project, the creation of Israeli-Canadian architect Moshe Safdie, officially replaced the previous 30-year-old exhibition when it opened on March 15, 2005. Taking photographs inside the museum was understandably prohibited. Children under ten are also not allowed inside the History Museum.
The stark triangular prism served as a longitudinal axis of historical memory for the ten underground galleries that branched off from the main hall. The network of galleries initially hidden from view were devoted to presenting the Holocaust, chapter by chapter, beginning with The World that Was and ending with Facing the Loss.
The evolving narrative required Jimmy and I move from one gallery to the next via that stunning longitudinal axis illuminated via the prism’s central skylight 60 feet above the Museum’s partially-submerged central hall. The illuminated prism provided not only a very visual longitudinal axis of historical memory, but also a momentary respite from the enormous emotional impact of the loss of all the individual lives behind the harrowing statistics.
Twenty-five hundred artifacts – letters, diaries, literature, clothing, shoes and works of art, as well as a hundred video screens showing survivor testimonies and short films – emphasized the unique human stories and gave voice to the pain, suffering and humiliation of victims of the Holocaust.
In the gallery, Between Walls and Fences, survivors spoke of life in the ghettos, of deportation; spoke of the loss of entire families, entire Jewish communities. Survivors spoke of resistance not as a last resort, but rather an honorable recourse in the face of annihilation of an entire race in the Resistance and Rescue Gallery.
The authentic Schindler's List is part of the Resistance and Rescue Gallery. It is within this gallery answers were sought to the requisite question, what did the world know and when. It was in this gallery I learned of the Struma - a decrepit ship carrying 769 refugees headed to the Land of Israel that was turned back from the coast of Turkey, towed out to sea without fuel, food or water and torpedoed within hours. All but one refugee drowned.
Jews that did survive the horrors of the concentration camps and the death marches contributed testimony and artifacts to the Last Jews Gallery. It was painful to listen to the survivor testimonies of the degradation, the starvation, the immense suffering; just as painful to see the images of Jews arriving by train, knowing so many of the men, women and children depicted were just hours from death.
The most dramatic memorial to those whose lives were lost is inside the Hall of Names. The ceiling of the Hall is composed of a 30-foot tall conical structure reaching skywards. Inside that cone are 600 photographs and fragments of the two million Pages of Testimony stored in the circular repository around the outer edges of the Hall. There is room for testimony from all six million lost. The victims’ portraits are reflected in water at the base of an opposing cone carved out of the mountain’s bedrock.
Indeed, there are too many days when civil seems less and less a part of our experience as a civilization.
Tomorrow's post: Yad Vashem’s Garden of the Righteous, Israel’s recognition of those with the humanity and courage to stand up against the accepted conventions and belief of the time in spite of the great risks to their own safety and livelihood.
Photographs and artifacts from each of the ten galleries inside the History Museum are available via this link.
A look inside the Museum Complex, including the Art Museum, the Exhibitions Pavilion, the Learning Center, the Visual Center, and the Synagogue are available via this link.