Toys That Tell the Story of the Holocaust’s Youngest Victims

In a special Yad Vashem exhibit that has lasted nearly two decades longer than expected, dolls and teddy bears give children a voice.

Dafna Arad
Dafna Arad
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Dolls at the Yad Vashem exhibit on toys during the Holocaust, September 2014.
Dolls at the Yad Vashem exhibit on toys during the Holocaust, September 2014. Credit: Emil Salman
Dafna Arad
Dafna Arad

A 1996 exhibit at Yad Vashem, “No Child’s Play: Children in the Holocaust: Creativity and Play,” was supposed to be temporary. It would include children’s artifacts from the Holocaust like dolls, toys and drawings.

The title was taken from the book “Rules of Life: A Childhood of Dignity” by Janusz Korczak, the Polish-Jewish pediatrician famous for accompanying the orphans under his care to Treblinka.

The exhibit was supposed to be open for three months, but it’s still there, maybe because it’s painful to close an exhibit that touches the hearts of young ones. Included are children’s descriptions of the toys they played with during the Holocaust – toys that their parents improvised or that they made themselves. There are also teddy bears and board games.

But the exhibit is finally being closed – in six months. Some artifacts will become part of a larger exhibit at Yad Vashem. The new version won’t just deal with play and creativity, but with the entire world of childhood during the Holocaust. Still, the old exhibit will be remembered as a classic.

“While this is perhaps the most difficult exhibit imaginable, it contains nothing frightening. At first glance the objects are old children’s games,” says Yehudit Inbar, the exhibit’s curator and director of Yad Vashem’s museums.

“My daughter was 8 when she helped me one summer at Yad Vashem. About this exhibit she said, ‘There were children like me in the Holocaust.’ That’s all right; a person doesn’t have to understand the story at that age.”

Inbar says she wanted to find a way to humanize the Holocaust. All Yad Vashem had was a Monopoly set from Theresienstadt and a doll dressed as a Jewish prisoner. She thought about putting the Monopoly game in a display case, putting down a rug and books, and inviting child visitors to read and write about it.

“But then I said to myself, ‘What are a game and toys doing here? People were murdered in the Holocaust. Who played back then?’ I was afraid the survivors would be angry with me,” Inbar says.

Curator Yehudit Inbar and Yad Vashem's famous teddy bear, September 2014. Photo by Emil Salman

“When I told Prof. Israel Gutman, a Holocaust survivor and a researcher in the field, that I was afraid the toys were a sensitive point, his eyes filled with tears. He asked me to do the exhibit and said he would speak with anyone who had a problem with it.”

Monopoly sets with a twist

So Inbar sent letters to Holocaust survivors who had been children during the war. At first they treated the idea of play during the Holocaust as if it were a heinous accusation. One survivor living in Haifa was furious, so Inbar phoned her.

“Afterward she constantly sent me little letters with her memories of the games she had played,” Inbar says. “The exhibit grew to include several dolls and teddy bears and countless stories.”

As Inbar puts it, children have a unique way of thinking and enormous potential. “Sometimes I think we grown-ups block their creativity,” she says.

“What interests me is how the Jews behaved during the Holocaust as human beings in a crisis .... You couldn’t survive for a minute during the Holocaust if you didn’t have help.”

A Monopoly set at Yad Vashem, with special 'taxes' levied by the Nazis, September 2014. Photo by Emil Salman

Yad Vashem has three Monopoly sets from the Holocaust. The first one, which a father made for his newborn daughter in Hungary in 1941, is based on the streets of Budapest.

“He was taken for forced labor shortly afterward and never returned,” Inbar notes. “The cards in the game refer to events of the war – ‘Pay a hunger tax,’ ‘Your wallet is stolen on the train,’ ‘Pay a sick tax,’ and so on.”

The second Monopoly set is from Theresienstadt. It was made in 1943 in a graphics workshop, where people worked for the Nazis during the day and for the children at night. Children who were destined for Auschwitz and Treblinka would pass the games on to kids who stayed in the ghetto.

“The big prize in these games is a day of rest. The children in Theresienstadt lived through this Monopoly game and learned about the situation they were in. The game is based on a bird’s-eye view of the ghetto,” Inbar says.

“From it they learned the locations of the main kitchen, the prison, the storage building and the parents’ house – all the information and an element of play. The game was made in such a way that it could be colored. For small children, it was an experience of drawing.”

There is also a Monopoly set that a child played with in the Shanghai ghetto, where Jews had fled the Nazis. But it’s simply an ordinary set that survived the Holocaust with the people.

Photo by Emil Salman

A teddy bear like no other

Walking around the exhibit, it’s clear the curator knows the story of every item she worked so hard to collect. She still weeps at the most painful stories.

“We searched for items all over the world,” Inbar says. “At survivors’ conventions in Eastern Europe, at associations of child survivors in the United States. The items always arrived as a result of personal connections, and each one is heavily charged.”

Inbar calls Fred Lessing’s tattered teddy bear “the Mona Lisa of Yad Vashem.” Lessing, who survived the Holocaust as a boy in the Netherlands and is now a psychologist in the United States, never parted with the cuddly toy until the exhibit was set up.

“As a psychologist, Lessing gave workshops to American Jews who had survived the Holocaust as children. He always went to the workshops with his teddy bear, which had survived the Holocaust with him,” Inbar says.

Photo by Emil Salman

“Ann Shore, the head of the Hidden Child Foundation in the United States, told me about it and said ‘Yehudit, you don’t have a chance. He never gives that teddy bear up for anything.’

Still, Inbar phoned him and told him about the exhibit, which would only last three months. Through the teddy bear Yad Vashem could tell Lessing’s story.

During the Holocaust, Lessing’s mother hid each of her three children in a different place. At Fred’s hiding place, a dog grabbed the bear and tore its head off. Fred was ill with diphtheria, had a very high fever and was near death. His mother showed up despite the danger, and Fred asked her to make a new head for his friend, whom Fred simply called Bear.

“She took a piece from the lining of his jacket and somehow sewed a new head from it, with eyes. Today the teddy bear looks like a fetus. All its fur is gone,” Inbar says.

“Since then, all the world’s leaders have been photographed with Fred Lessing’s bear. I always ask if I can take their pictures so I can send them to Lessing. When Margaret Thatcher was here, she broke down in tears. Tony Blair, all the chiefs of staff, all the who’s who.”

When Inbar and colleagues were invited to a child survivors’ conference in Seattle, they took the teddy bear with them so Lessing could be reunited with it.

“We left a note in its display case saying that the teddy bear had gone on a family visit,” Inbar says. “We prepared a special box for it, went and met with Fred, and he took Bear to sleep with him that night. In the morning he said ‘Bear is yours.’”

The people at Yad Vashem correspond with Lessing to this day.

“We send him greetings from children who stand near it, hugging the little box and crying. Only rarely do people pass by Lessing’s teddy bear without stopping. Sometimes when I’m about to leave the office in the evening I feel sad that I’m leaving the teddy bear alone in his glass box,” Inbar says.

“But the next morning I’m always happy to see him again. In many ways, this teddy bear carries within him the essence of the Holocaust, that terrible pain.”

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