Antek (Yitzhak) Zuckermann, Deputy Commander of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, recalled once how a Jewish boy in the ghetto had come to him with a special request: to find a violin teacher. In those days of hunger and want, this was what the child wanted more than anything else. Antek asked around, until he found a violin teacher for the boy. Years later, when he saw that teacher again and asked him what had become of the boy, the teacher did not know what the boy’s fate had been; what he remembered clearly, however, was the child’s tremendous musical talent. It was perhaps while Antek Zuckermann told this story, which vibrates with the hope and strong drive of a child not to interrupt his music lessons under any condition, that the idea evolved to establish a museum in memory of the million and a half Jewish children who perished in the Holocaust and did not live to realize their talents.
Several years later, the museum is now open to visitors. Its uniqueness lies in the fact that it is primarily intended for young visitors, ages nine and up. Those who planned and established the museum decided that the Child in the Holocaust exhibition should present the children’s stories from their own point of view and in their own voices. Children, after all, with their rather vague understanding of the world around them and their limited capacity for abstraction, cannot help but to grasp facts – no matter how harsh these facts may be – when seen through their own eyes, through their own experiences.
The stories of the children who perished in the Holocaust, and of those who survived it, are therefore presented here through the voices of children the same age or by adults telling the stories of the children they once were.
The architect, Ram Karmi, visualized the young visitors, designed a layout that combines linear continuity with circular movement in a way that connects beginning and end. This circular motion reflects the entire architectural concept: to never forget the old life; to keep it alive in our minds while life begins anew outside the museum walls.
A walk through the exhibition reveals stories collected from authentic diaries written by children, or those based on the testimony of adults who had been children at the time. Of the thousands of items, both oral and written, a handful was singled out to be told in the first person at various points along the visit. The stories vary in content and mood. In the different biographies of boys and girls, we find moments of heroism and adventure, of responsibility and initiative in an impossible reality, and of retrospective reflection over the events of those days.
At different points along the way, the voices are replaced by images, with living testimony by adults who survived the Holocaust as children. These shifts lend emphasis to the unspeakable human drama. With warmth and directness, they link the young visitor of today with the children of the Holocaust, locked within the souls of grandfathers, grandmothers, uncles, aunts and others still living among us.
Emira Kertes, born in Budapest, was ten when the war broke out. After the war he was once asked by a journalist: “Shouldn’t we picture the concentration camp as hell?” In his reply, Emira says: “Each person may picture it as he feels it.” When the journalist persisted, Kertes went on to say: “I would describe it as a place where a person could never be bored. By the time you understand it al, you are already involved in a new job, living, doing things, moving on…”
Emira Kertes concludes his book Without Destiny with the statement: “Even there, beside the chimneys, between moments of anguish, there was a feeling resembling happiness…That experience will linger in my memory more than anything else.” Hundreds of thousands of Jews did not survive more than a few minutes in the death camps. This fact, rather than contradicting Emira’s testimony, lends it additional power and dignity.
“My story is that of an earthquake caused by human beings,” recalls Shlomo Bezhnitz in his own voice. He was three years old when the war broke out. “It was the severest of quakes, with millions of epicenters. As a child who found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time, caught up in the turmoil of events, I myself became one of those epicenters.” These are the life stories of people born to live as human beings, but plunged into the wrong place at the wrong time.
The Memorial Hall is a kind of gateway into the exhibition itself. Accessed directly from the lobby, it incorporates stained-glass windows based on paintings by children from the Tereziendstadt Ghetto. The windows, painted in bold colors, reflect the stories of ghetto children who described their childhood as pleasant and rich in experiences, despite the misery of hunger and of being separated from parents and friends – and despite the fact that many of them were later transferred to Birkenau. One by one, the children’s voices are heard in the background, reading the testimonies of children of the Holocaust or writings about them from the pre-war era.
The exhibition ramp, in turn, encircles a conical structure comprising two descending lanes. The surface of the cone is awash with soft natural light, creating an unbroken connection between the world outside and the bleak interior of the museum. The external daylight ensures a feeling of optimism, functioning as a constant reminder of our distance from those horrible times.
The circular form of the exhibition does not allow the visitor to take in the entire exhibition at a glance: rather, it unfolds section by section. The experience of walking through the exhibition thus stimulates interest, on the one hand, while allowing room for uncertainty and further contemplation, on the other. The cone on the middle level also contains the permanent Janusz Korczak exhibition - an independent unit with the museum.
The walk ends at the lowest level, centering on an amphitheatre with the Eternal Flame in the middle. The flame, which rises as if from under the earth, is meant to conjure up an unparalleled era in the chronicles of mankind - a time when humanity sank to its darkest depths.
The young visitors are not put off by this experience; on the contrary, they are likely to reflect on the impressions it leaves them with. The stories of children with a name, a personality and a history will live on in the hearts of their contemporary counterparts, and they them to fathom the fate of the Jewish community in those days. They will continue to puzzle over the period concerned – in which one part of mankind was losing its humanity, while the other was paying the unbearable price, yet remaining human.
Primo Levy, in his book Now or Never, recalls that clocks and watches ere very scarce in his hometown. Even the bell toller had no watch. “Two years before the war, the rope of the bell tore; since then, he used t announce the time by firing his shotgun: one shot, two shots, three, four…He kept this up until the Germans arrived an took his shotgun away. From then on, the town was ‘without hours’.”
Yad Layeled (the Children’s Memorial) has tried to revive those lost hours and years, as experienced and recounted by the children with maturity and understanding well beyond their age.
Miri Kedem, Curator