New York Times story features GFH Museum

Holocaust Museums in Israel Evolve

Published: September 4, 2012

KIBBUTZ LOHAMEI HAGETAOT, Israel — It isn’t only the history of the Holocaust that you see on display in Israel’s Holocaust museums. It’s also the history of the history of the Holocaust. There is an archaeology of trauma to be found if you look closely, and in its layers and transmutations you see how a nation has wrestled with the burden of one of history’s immense horrors.

Through examining how Israeli museums treat the Holocaust — including the Ghetto Fighters’ House Museum here, in a kibbutz in the far north of the country, whose founders included survivors of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising — we can see how visions of that past are changing, sometimes in unsettling ways.

One museum on another, smaller kibbutz, for example, was described in the newspaper Haaretz as “Warsaw-Ghetto Disneyland” for its new emphasis on sound and lighting effects, including a simulation of a cattle car heading to a death camp. The director of the museum at the Ghetto Fighters’ House said that it would increasingly emphasize the broadest lessons of the Holocaust: an “ethical imperative” of “tolerance” that could “influence Israeli society.” And when Yad Vashem in Jerusalem reworked its main exhibition in 2005 — creating the most powerful exposition of this history I have seen — it too modified its approach, with a new focus on feelings and individual stories.

These changes have different meanings and effects, and some are familiar from museums devoted to the subject in other countries. But in Israel this is far from a mere museological matter.

The major Holocaust institutions, for example, are on hilltops offering grand vistas. At the Ghetto Fighters’ House, which may have been the first Holocaust museum in the world to open, in 1949, you emerge from its tales of darkness onto a bright plaza, overlooking an aqueduct, an outdoor amphitheater and the plains stretching toward the sea.

A companion institution at the kibbutz, Yad LaYeled, may be the world’s only children’s museum devoted to the Holocaust. You descend a ramp into the darkness, as if it were a tear in the texture of ordinary experience; gradually the walls close in. Sound effects are meant to simulate a child’s preverbal experience. Inscribed along the way are brief recollections, almost heartbreaking in their simplicity: “Everyone will look at my yellow star and they’ll know: she’s 6, and she is Jewish.” And you emerge from that journey into illumination: first through a gallery about children who survived, and ultimately into the Galilean landscape.

And, of course, the Holocaust History Museum at Yad Vashem sits on its own hill, the Mount of Remembrance. In its latest incarnation, with a new exhibition design by Dorit Harel, and with Moshe Safdie as architect, the history is recounted along a zigzagging path, leading upward through a cement gash in the mountain, emerging into daylight, overlooking the Jerusalem hills.

Even the poor relation of these at Yad Mordechai, a kibbutz in the south named after the leader of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, creates a similar drama, calling its whole exhibition “From Holocaust to Revival.” You literally walk downward into the historical narrative and gradually work through tales of resistance until you emerge again into the landscape, in which important battles were fought during Israel’s War of Independence.

These museums deliberately treat the landscape as a part of the history; indeed, as a resolution. From the start, that was one meaning the Holocaust took on: the founding of the State of Israel was seen as an answer to the Holocaust and a deliverance from it. That is one reason that the annual Holocaust Remembrance Day here is observed by a moment of nationwide stillness: a siren sounds, commerce halts, and cars pull over to the side of the highway.

Museums reinforce that connection between the Holocaust and the state. It has become so strong that it has even led to a distortion of the history by some who twist the connection into cause and effect, presuming that the state was created as a guilty compensation for the Holocaust rather than as something that emerged as a result of nearly a century of development.

The association between the Holocaust and the state initially had a very different significance, highlighted in the themes of the Ghetto Fighters’ House and Yad Mordechai. Both were established during the early decades of a nation left with only intermittent episodes of peace. At the time an element of shame was associated with the seeming passivity of Jews who were murdered in Europe. So the emphasis of these institutions was at first placed not on survival, but rather on rebellion.

Exhibitions at the Ghetto Fighters’ House, for example, focus on Jewish resistance, ranging from an escape by prisoners from a fortress prison in Kovno (now Kaunas) in Lithuania to the secret recording of history in various ghettos. A wall at Yad Mordechai is inscribed with the name of every camp and ghetto where rebellion occurred; the museum’s displays also make a connection between those battles and the resolute history of the kibbutz itself, which held off Egyptian forces — after war was declared on the fledgling state in 1948 — just long enough to prevent their march toward Tel Aviv. As recently as June, rockets launched from Gaza hit the kibbutz.

But because both of these kibbutz institutions also developed out of branches of left-wing Zionism, which would have been wary of forms of nationalism associated with the Israeli right, a mixture of sentiments has emerged there in recent decades. These founding lessons can take on different emphases. One recent tendency is to generalize what was once particular.

So in 1995 the Center for Humanistic Education was established by the Ghetto Fighters’ House, stressing what it calls the “universal lessons” of the Holocaust rather than national ones, attacking “indifference to the suffering of others.” When I programs to encourage “tolerance” between Jews and Arabs.

None of this is evident in the exhibitions right now. But a similar strategy is employed by many American museums that attempt to draw lessons of tolerance from the Holocaust, most notably the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles (which has been involved in a controversial construction of an Israeli version in Jerusalem).

At Yad Mordechai, whose approach is more dated than the one at the Ghetto Fighters’ House, attempts to create relevance have been more a matter of adding new display technology than any rethinking of the museum’s mission. But the museum’s director at the time, Vered Bar Samakh, told Haaretz in 2011 that the institution should incorporate notions of “peaceful coexistence” and deal with “racism and xenophobia.”

A version of this article appeared in print on September 5, 2012, on page C1 of the New York edition with the headline: Holocaust Museums in Israel Evolve.

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