Yad Vashem

Yad Vashem em­barks on ground­break­ing cam­paign to build new Shoah Her­itage Col­lec­tions Cen­ter

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Gela Sek­sz­tajn was a stu­dent in one of War­saw’s pre­war Jew­ish high schools. After she grad­u­ated Sek­sz­tajn en­rolled in an art school in Krakow, and in the early 1930s, she went to Paris to paint. Sub­se­quently, Sek­sz­tajn re­turned to War­saw, mar­ried and had a daugh­ter. In 1942, they were ar­rested by the Nazis, de­ported to Tre­blinka and mur­dered.

In Sek­sz­tajn’s last will and tes­ta­ment, com­posed on Au­gust 1, 1942, she wrote, “As I stand on the bor­der be­tween life and death, cer­tain that I will not re­main alive, I wish to take leave from my friends and my works. My works I be­queath to the Jew­ish mu­seum to be built after the war. Farewell my friends. Farewell my Jew­ish peo­ple. Never again al­low such a catas­tro­phe.”

To­day, Yad Vashem, the World Holo­caust Re­mem­brance Cen­ter, houses 300 of Sek­sz­tajn’s cre­ations in its Art Col­lec­tion, along­side her tes­ta­ment, in which she asks that her art serve as a wit­ness to the rich Jew­ish cul­ture that ex­isted be­fore the war, and the story of how this cul­ture was wiped out by the Nazi regime.

“Gela was a ma­jor, re­spected artist,” said Vi­vian Uria, di­rec­tor of Yad Vashem’s Mu­se­ums Divi­sion. How­ever, her last wish was to talk not only about her per­sonal sit­u­a­tion, but also what hap­pened to the col­lec­tive Jew­ish peo­ple. From her works, you un­der­stand the spirit of such a per­son, en­dur­ing such a hard time. Her art serves as wit­ness to the Holo­caust.”

Sek­sz­tajn’s art and story are just one ex­am­ple of the un­ri­valled num­ber of art­works, ar­ti­facts and archival doc­u­men­ta­tion housed at Yad Vashem. With some 11,200 works of art, 31,600 ar­ti­facts, 204 mil­lion pages of doc­u­men­ta­tion, 490,000 pho­to­graphs, 130,000 tes­ti­monies, as well as di­aries, post­cards, let­ters and mem­oirs, film footage and per­sonal items, the Yad Vashem Col­lec­tions are the largest and most com­pre­hen­sive of their kind in the world.

Yad Vashem has been col­lect­ing Holo­caust-re­lated items since it be­gan its ef­forts im­me­di­ately fol­low­ing the war in 1946.

Dr. Haim Gert­ner, di­rec­tor of the Yad Vashem Ar­chives Divi­sion and Fred Hill­man Chair for Holo­caust Doc­u­men­ta­tion, ex­plains that “Yad Vashem con­sid­ers this task a moral mis­sion.” In ad­di­tion to col­lect­ing doc­u­men­ta­tion from of­fi­cial sources, eight years ago, Yad Vashem launched a ded­i­cated pro­gram en­ti­tled “Gath­er­ing the Frag­ments” in which they ac­tively started col­lect items from in­di­vid­u­als. Gert­ner con­tin­ued, “we turned to Holo­caust sur­vivors, fam­ily mem­bers and the gen­eral pub­lic with an ap­peal to take part in a real res­cue cam­paign – to search their houses for ev­ery doc­u­ment, pho­to­graph or ob­ject from the years be­fore the war, dur­ing the Holo­caust, from life in the dis­placed per­sons camps and the im­me­di­ate post­war pe­riod, and do­nate them to Yad Vashem for pos­ter­ity. Items sub­mit­ted to­gether with the sto­ries be­hind them have an im­por­tant role in the com­mem­o­ra­tion of the Jews mur­dered in the Holo­caust and in pre­serv­ing their mem­ory for fu­ture gen­er­a­tions.”

With the num­ber of items ex­pand­ing rapidly, Yad Vashem has re­cently em­barked on build­ing a Shoah Her­itage Col­lec­tions Cen­ter, a new fa­cil­ity that will sit on the Mount of Re­mem­brance in Jerusalem and al­low for proper stor­age and preser­va­tion of these ma­te­ri­als. Ac­cord­ing to Shaya Ben-Ye­huda, Manag­ing Di­rec­tor of Yad

Vashem’s In­ter­na­tional Re­la­tions Divi­sion, the state-of-the-art cen­ter is slated to open in May 2022.

“Within a few years, sur­vivors will no longer be with us to tell their story,” said Ben-Ye­huda. “In ad­di­tion to sur­vivor tes­ti­monies, doc­u­ments and pho­to­graphs, these per­sonal be­long­ings will con­tinue to bear wit­ness to the lives of the vic­tims of the Holo­caust. The cen­ter will en­sure that their lega­cies re­main se­cure.”

In ad­di­tion to stor­age fa­cil­i­ties for art, ar­ti­facts and archival ma­te­ri­als, the acre­and-a-half cen­ter will com­prise an en­trance gallery, a her­itage gallery, con­ser­va­tion lab­o­ra­to­ries, an in­take and reg­is­tra­tion suite, a study room and a con­fer­ence room. The space will also in­clude ad­di­tional area for the growth of Yad Vashem’s col­lec­tions over at least the next two decades. The fa­cil­ity will in­cor­po­rate cli­mate con­trol, air-fil­tra­tion, fire-sup­pres­sion, ad­vanced se­cu­rity and safety con­trol sys­tems, nec­es­sary to pre­serve and pro­tect the col­lec­tion ac­cord­ing to in­ter­na­tional mu­seum stan­dards and reg­u­la­tions.

“The preser­va­tion of our im­por­tant col­lec­tions is vi­tal, since older items tend to de­te­ri­o­rate sim­ply due to the pas­sage of time and ex­po­sure to nat­u­ral el­e­ments,” said Uria. “Most of the works in Yad Vashem’s art col­lec­tion, for ex­am­ple, were cre­ated by Jew­ish artists dur­ing the cru­cible of the Shoah. The works give ex­pres­sion to the events they en­dured, and de­mand from us that we do our ut­most to pre­serve them for gen­er­a­tions to come.”

In ad­di­tion to art­works, Yad Vashem houses a range of other Holo­caust-era items, such as tal­i­tot (prayer shawls), purses and even recipe books. What makes the ar­ti­facts col­lec­tion ex­cep­tional is that for nearly ev­ery item, there is a story be­hind it.

“At Yad Vashem, we en­deavor to in­ves­ti­gate and record the per­sonal sto­ries of ev­ery vic­tim or sur­vivor told through these items – sto­ries of love, de­spair, strength, hope and com­pas­sion,” said Uria.

One such heart­break­ing story is told through the shoe of the in­fant Hinda Co­hen. Hinda was in­car­cer­ated in the Kovno ghetto in Lithua­nia along with her par­ents, who were forced to serve in a lo­cal forced la­bor camp. Each morn­ing, they would leave their daugh­ter in the care of an el­derly rel­a­tive in or­der to go out to work.

One day, while they were at work, the Nazis rounded up the ghetto chil­dren, took them away and mur­dered them. When the Co­hens re­tuned home they ran to Hinda’s room to find she had been taken. Only one of her tiny shoes re­mained, alone on the child’s bed.

Her fa­ther wrote the date on the sole of Hinda’s shoe and car­ried it with him through the re­main­der of the war and then to Is­rael, where he and his wife be­gan their lives anew, ul­ti­mately hav­ing more chil­dren.

“When the Co­hens died, their grand­daugh­ter asked Yad Vashem to come and get Hinda’s shoe,” Uria re­called. “The shoe was kept by her grand­par­ents and then her par­ents all these years – they could not re­lin­quish it. Now it serves as a wit­ness to what hap­pened to Hinda Co­hen.”

“The story of the Holo­caust is a huge puz­zle with many black holes, rep­re­sent­ing pieces of mem­ory,” said Yad Vashem Chair­man Avner Shalev. “We must fill in the re­main­ing black holes and col­lect all the pieces of the puz­zle in one place, at Yad Vashem.”

Uria con­tin­ued, “So many peo­ple were mur­dered anony­mously. Through these items, their sto­ries and iden­ti­ties are re­stored and come back to life for all to wit­ness and re­mem­ber. Their preser­va­tion is cru­cial to our mis­sion.”

The new Shoah Her­itage Col­lec­tions Cen­ter will not only ad­e­quately house Yad Vashem's vast col­lec­tion, but also al­low the dis­play of more items across the Mount of Re­mem­brance. Ul­ti­mately, Yad Vashem is work­ing to up­load all of them on­line so any­one in the world can ac­cess these items and their sto­ries.

“Yad Vashem’s role as the guardians of the his­tor­i­cal truth of the Holo­caust at this crit­i­cal junc­ture is ev­i­dent,” said BenYe­huda. “The orig­i­nal doc­u­ments, ar­ti­facts, pho­to­graphs and art in our col­lec­tions, from across Europe and North Africa, serve as the proof to the his­tory of the Shoah.”

“The Nazis tried to erase the mem­ory of the Jews,” said Gert­ner. “It is our mis­sion to keep telling their story through the items in our Col­lec­tions. This is the proof.”

The Shoah Her­itage Col­lec­tions Cen­ter will be the heart of the Shoah Her­itage Cam­pus, which will in­clude The Joseph Wilf Cu­ra­to­rial Cen­ter, a newly ren­o­vated state-of-the-art au­di­to­rium, and the new Fam­ily and Chil­dren’s Ex­hi­bi­tion all to be lo­cated on the Yad Vashem’s Mount of Re­mem­brance.

(Cour­tesy of the Col­lec­tion of the Yad Vashem Art Mu­seum on loan from the La­hav-Licht­en­stein fam­ily in mem­ory of Naomi and Shlomo La­hav-Licht­en­stein)

STILL LIFE with Self-Por­trait Oil on wood by Gela Sek­sz­tajn (1907-1942)

(Cour­tesy of Sko­rka Ar­chi­tects)

AR­CHI­TEC­TURAL REN­DER­ING of the Shoah Her­itage Cam­pus

(Cour­tesy of Yad Vashem Ar­ti­facts Col­lec­tion)

THE BABY shoe of Hinda Co­hen, and Birth Cer­tifi­cate is­sued in the Kovno ghetto of Hinda Co­hen. Her shoe has the date of her de­por­ta­tion to the death camps carved into the sole by her fa­ther, 27 March 1944.

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