"As I stand on the border between life and death, certain that I will not remain alive, I wish to take leave from my friends and my works… My works I bequeath to the Jewish museum to be built after the war. Farewell, my friends. Farewell, the Jewish people. Never again allow such a catastrophe."
From the Last Will and Testament of Gela Seksztajn, 1 August 1942
On the precipice of death, amid the transports from the Warsaw ghetto in the summer of 1942 and only half a year before she and her daughter Margalit were transported to Treblinka, artist Gela Seksztajn wrote her last will and testament. The words reveal, in an unsettling manner and leaving no room for doubt, that she was well aware of what fate awaited her: murder at the hands of the Nazis.
Despite the total destruction unfolding before her eyes, however, Gela possessed complete confidence that the Jewish people would arise from ruin and that they would erect a "Jewish museum" where her artwork would find a home. Gela Seksztajn’s last will was in fact that of all the artists who were murdered in the Holocaust.
During the Shoah, an entire universe was shattered and dispersed in myriad directions. The remaining fragments vary infinitely in size, shape and texture. Each fragment tells its own story, which, when interwoven with others, helps to recreate the rich and extensive tapestry of Jewish life in Europe before the war, the events that led to its destruction, and the lives that continued to be lived while the devastation unfolded.
In the immediate aftermath of the Holocaust, survivors sought a suitable venue to which they could entrust their cherished memories that survived the inferno; this has continued for nearly seven decades. The name “Yad Vashem” – a memorial and a name – itself highlights the important mission of being the home to the memories of the Jewish people. Since its establishment in 1953, Yad Vashem has striven to collect all relevant names, items and sources of information that can help enlighten the world about the six million Jews murdered during the Holocaust. Today, Yad Vashem houses the world's largest and most comprehensive Holocaust-era related collections. It is Yad Vashem's moral obligation to the Jewish people and humanity to preserve every item and use them to educate about the Holocaust worldwide. These personal effects, or those that served communities, range from diaries and letters to official documents; from paintings and drawings created in the face of death to children’s toys; from Torah scrolls to crude work tools used by prisoners in the camps; from Schindler’s List to ration cards; from private photographs and personal film reels to clothing that miraculously endured the hardships of fleeing persecution.
Now, as the torch of remembrance is being passed to the next generations, the survivors and their children are more willing to submit private material and entrust it to Yad Vashem for safekeeping. Since the 2011 launch of the "Gathering the Fragments" campaign to rescue Holocaust-era items that are still kept in private homes and are at great risk of deterioration, Yad Vashem has received over 265,000 items, significantly adding to its unrivalled collections. The process of collecting the items was accompanied by documenting the narratives that lie behind each one, a mosaic of accounts that make up the more complete story of the Shoah.
In light of this huge increase in volume, Yad Vashem recently launched of a campaign to build the Shoah Heritage Campus – with the Shoah Heritage Collections Center at its heart – to serve as a home to these precious treasures for generations to come.
The Shoah Heritage Campus will include the Joseph Wilf Curatorial Center; the Heritage Gallery for display of treasures from its collections; and an auditorium, including a main hall and a Family and Children’s Exhibition Gallery. The Family and Children’s Exhibition Gallery will respond to the needs of an important population of visitors who come to Yad Vashem with children who are too young to enter the Holocaust History Museum, yet are seeking a meaningful family experience.
The central component of the new Campus is the Shoah Heritage Collections Center, with state-of-the-art storage facilities for artworks, artifacts and archival materials. Situated in a strategically prominent, highly visible location – opposite the Hall of Remembrance, one of the most frequently visited sites of Yad Vashem – the Shoah Heritage Collections Center will comprise four subterranean levels covering a total area of 5,880 square meters (63,300 square feet).
The Center will comprise, among other elements, an entrance gallery, intake and registration station, cataloguing station, digitization room, and specialized conservation and photography laboratories, as well as the storage facilities featuring climate-controlled settings, air filtration and fire suppression systems, and advanced security and safety controls. Due to the compromised physical condition of the items upon their arrival at Yad Vashem, they often require immediate conservation work to prevent further decay. The cutting-edge conservation laboratories will specialize in different fields of preservation, and as such will be able to treat the range of materials from which the items stored in the Center are made – wood, paper, textile, metal, stone – thus providing Yad Vashem's dedicated conservation experts with the optimal conditions to perform their delicate work.
Visiting dignitaries and supporters of Yad Vashem will receive behind-the-scenes tours of the Center, where they will have the opportunity to see Yad Vashem's wealth of artifacts, documents and artworks not on display in the Museum Complex, but all of which tell their own unique stories. The items in the Center will also serve as an essential basis for the educational and research materials Yad Vashem produces for and implements in their various international seminars and workshops for curators, educators and researchers.
"The Nazis made a concentrated effort not only to murder the Jews, but also to obliterate their identity, memory, culture and heritage. For many, all that was left behind were the artworks and personal artifacts, photos and documents that survived the harshest of conditions and were entrusted to Yad Vashem to keep the stories of their creators and their owners alive. Through the preservation and display of this intellectual and spiritual property, the Shoah Heritage Collections Center will give the victims back their voice and identity, ensuring that they will never be forgotten.”
Yad Vashem Chairman Avner Shalev