Part II (See Blog "The Artifacts at Yad Vashem: Silent Witnesses to the Shoah” part I)
After almost four decades of hiding in the shadows, artifacts now play an important role in providing testimony and attesting to the events that occurred during the Holocaust. The Yad Vashem Artifacts Collection contains a wide variety of items that survived the Holocaust, from personal effects to objects of worship or other everyday items used in the camps and in hiding. Some were created in extreme circumstances with limited means at hand; others reveal artistic qualities, and serve as witnesses of the prewar splendor of now destroyed communities. However, all of them, whether large or small, play a major role in preserving the memory of the Holocaust and its victims.
Since the 1990s, the Artifacts Collection has grown tremendously, with approximately 42,000 new artifacts added. In a race against time, the Artifacts Department of Yad Vashem’s Museum Division plays an active role in gathering Holocaust-era items from across Europe and North Africa. "The more time passes, however, the more difficult it will be for us to locate new objects, and reveal the stories that accompany them," notes Artifacts Department Director Michael Tal.
Collect, Restore, Conserve
Each artifact Yad Vashem receives comes with a number of trying challenges. After it is donated, the item undergoes a long process of cataloging, research an extensive conservation process.
Yad Vashem receives items from all over the world, and the origin of each requires a team of researchers who specialize in the different regions in which the article originates. "In order to understand the history of the family to which the item belonged, one must have a historical understanding of the place in which they lived," explains Tal. "For example, the history of the Jews of Greece is very different from that of Belarus."
Another challenge the department faces is the diversity of materials from which the artifact is made. Items donated are manufactured from glass, wood, metal, fabric and more, each requiring specialized conservation techniques according to the material. Over the years, Yad Vashem has acquired experts with the required skills and know-how in order to conserve these unique and fragile items.
Furthermore, the department is also tasked with storing the items, which greatly vary in size and shape – from pendants and spoons to cradles and even pianos. Although space is currently limited, Yad Vashem plans to open a new facility in the coming years. With construction expected to be complete by 2022, the Shapell Family Collections Center will comprise approximately 6,000 square meters (65,000 square feet) of new conservation and storage spaces for Yad Vashem's unrivalled and invaluable growing collections of Holocaust-era art, artifacts and archival materials. The Collections Center will also provide optimal conditions for the dedicated professionals, conservationists and archivists taking care of these items each day, as well as designated work spaces for researchers. Tal continues, “It is important for us to fulfill to our mission of commemorating the victims for future generations. The new Shapell Family Collections Center means we can preserve and investigate every authentic and relevant item we receive."
The Strength of the Collective
Today, Yad Vashem’s impressive and diverse Artifacts Collection is the largest in the world, with some over 42,000 pieces. Tal and his team continue the important mission, instituted by former Artifacts Department Director Haviva Peled Carmeli z"l, to understand the artifact in its entirety – including any connection to similar items already housed at Yad Vashem.
"Our current approach is to try to understand the article in a general sense and also to identify any common denominator with other items in our collection," Tal continues. "A single item can tell us not only about an individual or a family, but also how a group of items speak to each other, and thus shed new light on the Shoah overall.
"For example, we have about twenty chess sets, which come from widely varying people and places. It is probable, therefore, that there were or still are many more, which unfortunately did not survive. This sparked our curiosity: Was there was a particular relationship between chess and the Jewish world? We began researching, and soon concluded that this game was very popular at the time within the Jewish community, and that being easy to transport, it frequently accompanied the Jews in their flight from homes and communities. In spite of the fear and oppression they faced, they continued to play, which gave them a brief respite from their harsh reality."
Another unique phenomenon during the Holocaust were recipe books. Yad Vashem houses several copies that were written in ghettos and concentration camps. They give a glimpse into daily life in the camps and how they were used by prisoners to help deal with loneliness, to create friendships and to fight hunger by imagining that they were eating those foods. Michael Tal comments, “By researching these different recipe books, we were able to discover that astonishingly, women prisoners created them in the camps, where they were literally starving to death. It was of course impossible for them to actually create these recipes, but they wrote them down anyway from memory, as a way for them to remember their pre-Holocaust life. This very act paradoxically gave them strength. "
This blog was translated from French.