The museum, designed by Dorit Harel in association with Moshe Safdie, has assembled an overwhelming display of objects, many never before seen. The very first display, even before entering the museum proper is an animated map of Eastern Europe on which are superimposed figures taken from 1930’s documentary footage going about their daily business. Represented in black-and-white grainy images, these ghosts from a long-vanished past have sprung to life, waving at us from their upscale urban town houses, promenading on their leafy, pre-war streets, as cozy an environment as you can imagine. Who could have imagined that these halcyon days would so quickly disappear?

These urban images reflect all sorts of Jewish life – tailors, weavers, afternoon tea drinkers, skaters, children comfortably dressed in winter coats waving innocently at the camera. There are also village scenes, women carrying buckets, hora dancers, children off to cheder, livestock wandering through the snow-covered streets. At one point, a view through a window reveals a group of violinists in concert. The image is inadvertently reversed since all the violinists are playing left-handed. I want to make light of the editing gaffe, but to whom? Dante reminds me again, “leave your cleverness behind.” This is no longer about you on a fun-filled day at the museum. Fortunately after a few more minutes, I have acclimatized myself to the somber mood, much the same way as a person dressed for winter adjusts to a heated interior.


Turning from this wall exhibit, one experiences the entire interior at a glance. Its high concrete walls are A-shaped, appearing to collapse upon themselves – a fitting metaphor for the collapse of European Jewry – with a skylight running the length of the structure. The floor is slightly concave until the middle when it begins its slight ascent after the halfway mark. At all times, one can see the exit, but it cannot be reached simply by traversing the length of the interior. The floor space is interrupted by moats, railway tracks, and display cases embedded in the floor. The visitor must zigzag his way from one exhibition hall to the other. The tortuous journey takes us chronologically from 1933 to the post-war period. Many images will be familiar: the Nazi signs warning Germans not to shop in Jewish-owned stores, the film of Hitler speaking at the Reichstag, railing against the international Jewish conspiracy, or the news footage of the rampant destruction of Kristallnacht.

The most vivid exhibit is the room outfitted to look like Liszno Street in the Warsaw Ghetto. The floor is composed of cobblestones and streetcar tracks, with street lamps providing the illumination. Street signs and posters fix the time and place. Carts are scattered unattended on the sidewalks. Along one wall are film clips of children dead and dying, pleading for scraps of food, their emaciated bodies peeking out from woefully inadequate clothing. These images are at knee level, where they would have been seen in real life. The rear wall is covered with film of the teeming, chaotic life of the ghetto. Particularly disturbing are scenes showing Jews forced to doff their caps when passing German soldiers.

At times, the point of view of the film coincides almost exactly with the recreated street scene and appears to be a seamless extension of it. The illusion of linking real and imaginary space is furthered by the placement of benches for the by-now eotionally exhausted spectator. The seated visitors’ absolute stillness makes them look like statues, as if they are part of the exhibition (which, of course, they are).

The most compelling testimonies are the video clips of Holocaust survivors’ eyewitness accounts. There are the “usual” stories of formerly respected scientists, academics, military officers and others who were expelled from their professional organizations, of parents snatched away, of children hiding in closets, of the savagery of the camps, the cheerful collusion of Romanian and Lithuanian locals in the public slaughter, the cattle-car transports, the improbable escapes and the revenge of the partisans.


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