The story of the Holocaust is a huge puzzle with many black holes, representing pieces of memory, insists Avner Shalev, Yad Vashems Chairman, adding that, We must fill in the remaining black holes and collect all the pieces of the puzzle in one place, at Yad Vashem.
More than 70 years after the end of World War Two, Yad Vashem is still tirelessly working to complete the puzzle, with the goal of preserving for posterity the memory of the millions of Jews who perished under the Nazis. Yad Vashems devoted staff is working against the clock to collect stories and memories from elderly survivors before its too late.
The only remaining record
The story of Erna Falk Weiss and her family is similar to many others that have been documented thanks to Gathering the Fragments, Yad Vashems program to collect and document personal items related to the Holocaust. It all started one day during one of our routine collection days at a retirement home in Jerusalem, recalls Orit Noiman, head of the Gathering the Fragments project. One of the people who showed up was Yona Weiss, who was born in Holland in 1934. She brought us the diary that her mother, Helena Soep, had written during her internment at Westerbork and Bergen-Belsen.
While Yona was explaining about the diary, we understood that she had more items, Noiman continues. She soon returned with reels of film that her father had shot in pre-War Amsterdam, and we told her that Yad Vashem could preserve these films for future generations. Yona then remembered that she had something else – the only remaining record of her mother-in-law Erna Falk Weiss, who had been a successful opera singer in 1920s Germany.
Yona not only gave the team from Yad Vashem the precious music, but also handed them Ernas photo album, which they scanned and returned. Working in cooperation with the National Librarys Audio Archives, Yad Vashem was able to obtain a high-quality copy of Ernas record, which they presented to the family shortly before Passover 2015. Yona called me after the holiday, recalls Noiman, and told me about their emotional Seder, during which the whole family listened to Erna singing for the first time. She then suggested that we contact Atara, Ernas granddaughter who lives on Kibbutz Regavim.
When the team from Yad Vashem arrived at Ataras house, Atara brought out a huge box full of her familys war-time momentos. It proved to be a veritable treasure trove. Ataras grandfather, Jupp Weiss, had been a prominent figure at Bergen-Belsen, and the box contained, among other things, a list of all the people who had been on the infamous lost train from Bergen-Belsen to Theresienstadt in April 1945. Also in the box: Ernas show diary, where she wrote down all her performances until she left Germany for Amsterdam in 1933, and a photo of Erna singing to an audience at Westerbork.
Atara agreed to hand over the entire box to Yad Vashem, saying that it gave her a sense of closure. As the familys unofficial historian, she regularly visits schools and tells the story of her grandparents, Erna and Jupp, and their two sons Aharon and Shalom, who also survived the camps. Aharon was Ataras father and he died when she was a young girl.
Erna, by the way, died only nine days after being liberated from Bergen-Belsen. Her husband Jupp was too weak to attend her funeral. After the War, Jupp remarried. His new wife, Helena, had also lost her first spouse during the war. Yona, the woman from the retirement home in Jerusalem, is Helenas daughter from Helenas first husband. As unbelievable as it sounds, Yona married Erna and Jupps son Shalom – so that Erna would have been Yonas mother-in-law in addition to her step-fathers first wife (and Jupp, her step-father, was also her father-in-law!).
High-tech conservation labs
Yad Vashem is determined to expose all facets of the Holocaust, and most of all the story of the victims, like Erna and Jupp – those who perished as well as those who survived. For decades, Yad Vashem has been collecting testimonials from surviving family members, many on videotape, providing first-hand accounts of what happened to specific people and to specific Jewish communities.
In addition to oral and written testimonies, through the years Yad Vashem has also collected personal items and documents that belonged to Jews during the Holocaust, which shed light on the lives of those individuals. However, it was in 2011 that the Gathering the Fragments campaign was launched, proactively reaching out to Israelis and urging them to share with Yad Vashem personal items that are in their possession and that belonged to Jewish victims.
Since precious old letters, artworks and photographs quickly decay over time, an important aspect of the campaign focuses on increasing awareness of the need to preserve items using sophisticated technology. At Yad Vashem, there are high-tech labs that specialize in conserving all kinds of personal items, greatly increasing their lifespan.
Like other survivors and their family members, Yona felt that Yad Vashem is in fact the proper home for Holocaust-related personal belongings. The staff is extraordinarily empathetic and sensitive, fully understanding the sentimental value of the items and treating them with a great deal of respect and even reverence.
Plans for a Shoah Heritage Building
Many first generation survivors realize that their precious possessions will eventually get lost if they dont entrust them to Yad Vashem, explains Dr. Haim Gertner, Director of Yad Vashems Archives Division. If they have several children, they dont know which one to give them to, and the second and third generations dont always appreciate their historical value. For many people, bestowing items to Yad Vashem gives them closure.
One of Yad Vashems principal goals is to make as much information as possible about the Holocaust accessible to the public at large. To that end, Yad Vashem is investing a great deal of time and effort in scanning materials that are being collected and gradually making them accessible online. Documenting the Holocaust is important for the world and has moral significance, says Dr. Gertner.
To date, over 190 million pages of documents and half a million photos have been collected. Yad Vashem uses advanced technologies and methodology to give access to the material both online and in Yad Vashems reading rooms. Yad Vashems archives are also the repository for more than 127,000 oral, written and video testimonies, and the Museum Division hosts over 30,000 artifacts and approximately 10,000 works of art.
Yad Vashem houses the largest collection of Shoah-related items in the world, affirms Shalev. It is also home to the International School for Holocaust Studies and the International Institute for Holocaust Research, which serves as a central place where the Holocaust will always be commemorated and the public can turn to for Holocaust education.
In light of the growth of its collections and changes in preservation standards, Yad Vashem is planning to construct a new state-of-the-art repository, a Shoah Heritage Building that will allow for proper storage of these effects, as well as conservation laboratories. Through their proper preservation in the Shoah Heritage Building and appropriate display by Yad Vashem, these irreplaceable collections will continue to give the victims back their identities. Future generations will be able to learn about people such as Erna Falk Weiss, whose singing career – and life – were so ruthlessly cut short.
For information about the new Shoah Heritage Building and other Yad Vashem projects: www.yadvashem.org, Tel. +972-2-6443420, email: firstname.lastname@example.org.