Just across from the massive stone arch of Jerusalem’s Zion Gate, a staircase leads to the low, dark entrance of a Crusades-era cavern and a warren of underground rooms filled with somber items — a concentration camp uniform, a bloodstained Torah scroll.
The objects, donated by Holocaust survivors and victims’ families, make up the collection of the Chamber of the Holocaust, started by Holocaust survivors in the late 1940s as a memorial to those who perished.
Now, after decades of near-dormancy, the memorial has been renovated and turned into a museum.
It’s a job that began more than 60 years ago, when the chamber, the world’s first Holocaust memorial, was established on Mount Zion.
For several years, people came in droves. Then everything changed when Yad Vashem, Israel’s official memorial to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust, was established in 1953.
The Chamber of the Holocaust and Yad Vashem
Created within five years of each other, the chamber and Yad Vashem, Jerusalem’s much larger, more familiar Holocaust museum, have a long history — often of conflict. When the chamber was established just before 1950, it was the only place in Jerusalem dedicated to commemorating the Holocaust.
It was mainly intended as a place where Holocaust survivors and victims’ family members could mourn the dead, especially if they didn’t know where their loved ones were buried. It had the added distinction of being on Mount Zion, housed in the Diaspora Yeshiva, the only Jewish-owned building on the hill. At the time, it was as close as Israelis could get to the Old City and the Western Wall prior to the 1967 Six Day War.
During Yad Vashem’s first few years of existence, the two entities clashed.
“Yad Vashem was certainly a game changer for us,” said Ilan Goodman, the chamber’s new curator. “Before it opened, we were the only Holocaust museum in Israel. Because of all (Yad Vashem’s) resources and connections, it rose to the top, and in doing so became the Holocaust museum in Israel. For us, this meant going from No. 1 to not even being in the race, all very quickly.”
Initially, Ben Zion Dinur, Yad Vashem’s then-chairman, argued that because Yad Vashem was government-sanctioned and had been prompted by the passage of a law, the Chamber of the Holocaust should cease to serve as a memorial, according to “Between the Chamber of the Holocaust and Yad Vashem: Martyrs’ Ashes as a Focus of Sanctity,” a paper written by Doron Bar, dean at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies.
Others argued, though, that the chamber was an important site for Jews and even served as a substitute for the Western Wall during the time that site was not accessible to them.
The two entities’ locations were significant as well. Yad Vashem is situated at Mount Herzl in West Jerusalem, the site of Israel’s national military cemetery — a government-sanctioned spot.
The chamber, in contrast, draws attention from its proximity to the Old City and the traditional holy sites there. The Diaspora Yeshiva owns a good part of the land on Mount Zion. But with much of the property built during the Second Temple and Crusader periods, or during Suleiman the Magnificent’s rule, it falls under the authority of the Israel Antiquities Authority, Goodman said.
“Because we’re built in a Crusader dungeon, we can’t even put a nail in the wall without getting authorization,” he said.
He added that the Vatican has recently asked the Israeli government to gift it some of the property on Mount Zion, a move that would remove Jewish authority over the area and limit its visitors. For now, all of the chamber’s officials’ work, he said, is completed with the knowledge that the area could be removed from their control.
Other conflicts arose again, several years after Yad Vashem opened, when Dinur wanted Holocaust victims’ ashes to be buried at Yad Vashem’s Mount of Remembrance.
“The Ministry of Religious Affairs officials and other leaders in religious circles used all their clout to assure the exclusivity of the Chamber of the Holocaust as the only place in Israel where Holocaust victims’ ashes would be buried,” wrote Bar. “The intention of burying ashes at Yad Vashem stirred anger in religious and ultra-Orthodox circles countrywide.”
Eventually, some ashes were buried at Yad Vashem, but others remained at the chamber.
Slowly, people began to forget about the Chamber of the Holocaust. Yad Vashem added a historical museum to the complex in the 1970s, which was replaced by its current Holocaust History Museum in 2005. In addition, the Old City was re-opened to Israelis after the 1967 Six Day War.
Yad Vashem became the go-to spot for Holocaust commemoration and education — now, about 1 million people visit the complex each year.
One of Goodman’s goals today is to put the chamber back on the map. Right now, most people haven’t even heard of it, he said. But he isn’t interested in proving anything to Jerusalem’s other Holocaust museum.
“The way I see it, there’s no way we can compete with Yad Vashem, and we don’t want to,” Goodman said. “Besides having the resources we could never dream of matching, they do wonderful work. We have a lot to offer, and our efforts should be on focusing on our own strengths.”
As its renovation continues, the chamber is working separately from the Diaspora Yeshiva, an Orthodox college for men that owns most of the property on Mount Zion, including old houses built during the Crusades that house teachers and students, Goodman said.
“We don’t want to be a museum for Orthodox Jews; we want to be a museum for everyone,” Goodman said. “A Chinese tour group or a Belgian backpacker should feel just as at home in the Chamber as the Jew down the street. We don’t want to make anyone feel uncomfortable.”
“Well,” he added, “I mean, we are a Holocaust museum, so we want to make people feel a little uncomfortable.”
Holocaust commemoration today
Yad Vashem is centered around remembrance, education, documentation and research. It has 170 million pages of documentation, ranging from Nazi source documents to letters, diaries and photos, said Estee Yaari, a spokeswoman at Yad Vashem. In addition to the historical museum, Yad Vashem’s 45-acre complex also includes a museum of Holocaust art, an exhibitions pavilion, learning and visual centers and a synagogue. It is open Sunday through Friday and is free to visit.
“A goal of a visit to Yad Vashem is to come away with a deeper sense of responsibility for oneself and one’s environment and society,” Yaari said. “We should be moved to grapple with the issues raised by the subjects one encounters at Yad Vashem — including issues of personal responsibility, empathy, the struggles to maintain human dignity even during the Shoah, and more.”
Like the Chamber of the Holocaust, Yad Vashem has many items donated by Holocaust survivors and victims’ families. It also has larger items, such as cobblestones from the Warsaw Ghetto. And its collection is not stagnant — Yad Vashem is conducting a project called “Gathering the Fragments,” asking people to donate personal items they have that are connected to the Holocaust. During the past three years, almost 6,000 people have donated more than 111,000 items, Yaari said.
The chamber’s environment is very different. Although it is now being presented as a museum more than ever before, it still has elements of the religious memorial its creators intended it to be.
The chamber’s walls are covered with more than 1,000 tablets — each one a symbolic headstone that represents a Jewish town or community destroyed during the Holocaust and the people it lost. In the middle of the museum, a large structure that resembles a grave serves as another symbol, representing the people killed in the Holocaust and never found. The emblematic grave became a literal one when ashes found at concentration camps were buried beneath it the same year the chamber was created. An official state ceremony honoring the burial took place several years later and drew thousands of attendees.
For years, the chamber was a place for Holocaust survivors and victims’ descendants to light memorial candles, recite the Kaddish mourner’s prayer, remember and mourn.
“It’s important, because it’s the tomb of the unknown,” Goodman said. “People who don’t know where their families are buried can come here, and the ashes could be them.”
Yet when Yad Vashem rose to prominence and visitors to the chamber trickled almost to a stop, the site fell into disrepair. Until Elly Merenstein saw it and fell in love.
Merenstein, a New Yorker who moved to Israel and started Camp Emes, a Torah-based summer camp in Israel for teenage boys that also offers a trip to Poland, was struck by the chamber the first time he saw it.
“I discovered a place that had a personality, authenticity and spirituality that simply could not be had anywhere else, and that is the Chamber of the Holocaust,” Merenstein said in an email.
He is paying for renovations at the museum and for people to sort, repair, catalog and display its contents. Goodman, the chamber’s new curator, is working with a team of historians to complete the job. Goodman estimated that Merenstein has put about $30,000 into the museum, all but clearing out his savings.
“For (Merenstein), this is all very personal,” Goodman said. “His family has survivors, and a lot of his family died in the war.”
It was Merenstein who approached the Diaspora Yeshiva, which still owns the building housing the chamber, asking if he could renovate it. He then found Goodman, who has worked at Balboa Park in San Diego — which incorporates many museums ranging in topic from photographic arts to cars to history — and asked for his help in turning the chamber around.
Now, items that had been out in the open, unattended, are ensconced in new display cases. Mold and bug infestations are being combated.
Goodman’s team includes Karen Spira, a doctoral candidate at the Department of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts. Spira, who has studied Israel and the Holocaust for 10 years, has been in Israel since September, conducting research for her PhD dissertation on Holocaust history at the end of the war and the surviving Jews’ exodus from Europe.
She volunteered to consult on the chamber’s renovation.
“They’re really interested in getting the facts straight, and I think that’s a noble cause to work with,” she said.
Spira is helping to write and revise the scripts that will be displayed in each room at the chamber, and she will also help sort the artifacts.
“What I see there is not necessarily anything new in terms of items and artifacts, but it’s interesting to see how one individual person or group of people can bring these things and they can survive this long,” she said.
She’s also asking questions about the artifacts, wondering how long they’ve been in the chamber and what is the chamber’s responsibility to the artifacts.
The chamber’s dark rooms contain dozens of items that offer insight into the Holocaust and Judaism, and each one tells a different story, Goodman said. There’s the old book from a town near Auschwitz that was used to record deaths, births and illnesses of many people who ended up in the concentration camp.
In the next room, a large, old Torah scroll, covered with brown splotches, is propped up in a display; Goodman said it was used to wrap a rabbi who was stabbed to death. Another display case contains hats, boots, bags and other items made by Nazis from Torah pages “to try to dehumanize and desecrate (Jews),” he said.
He added, “What people don’t see about the Holocaust is it’s also about the physical world. They were trying to destroy who we were as a people. … We’re trying to show this wasn’t just a war against a people. It was a war against an idea.”
One of the most significant items in the museum, he said, is a jacket, also fashioned from pages torn from a Torah. It was commissioned by a Nazi soldier who wanted to wear it to mock the Jews, Goodman said — but the soldier commissioned a Jewish tailor to create the garment. The tailor used pages containing the 98 curses found in the Ki Tavo portion in the Torah — and the soldier was none the wiser.
“As he wore it, he was cursing himself,” Goodman said.
The jacket, as with many other items in the museum, was in bad condition when Goodman began his work; it had bugs crawling through it.
One of the museum’s most controversial items — sharing a room with reproductions of the ovens used to kill people in the camps and a container of Zyklon B, the pesticide used to kill Jews in the death camps’ gas chambers — is several bars of soap believed to be made out of human remains.
“If they did make soap out of people, this is the most authentic item here, because it was taken from the camps,” Goodman said. He hopes to have the bars tested when the chamber has more money to work with.
The renovation, at times, has been somber and upsetting — both because of the items’ meaning and their condition. Goodman said he wanted to cry when he first saw the museum’s disrepair.
“You see these one-of-a-kind artifacts; some of them have literally been destroyed,” he said. “I saw it, and it broke my heart.”
But it was also historically fascinating, he said — the curator likened the job to Indiana Jones movies.
One day, museum employees found piles of artwork created by Holocaust survivors that Goodman hopes to someday incorporate into a gallery; the next, ashes in a plastic cup turned up in the back of a drawer.
When he’s finished, Goodman said, it’ll be a whole new place.
The chamber, located on across the street from King David’s Tomb, is open to visitors now from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., Sunday through Friday. Admission is free, but donations are appreciated, Goodman said. He hopes the chamber will be ready for a grand opening by summer.
The future of Holocaust remembrance in Jerusalem
Although the Chamber of the Holocaust is re-presenting itself as a museum, there are still vast differences between it and Yad Vashem.
“Any museum has different aims in what story it’s trying to tell and how it places the Holocaust in the larger history of Jews and Zionism,” Spira said. “That’s something the memorial never did before, and maybe it’s trying to now.”
She added that although the two museums are markedly different, the lines between them might be starting to blur.
“Yad Vashem is a place more interested in strictly telling the history, I think,” she said. “(The Chamber of the Holocaust) is unique because you walk into it, and it feels like a cemetery. It feels much more geared as a place for mourning. You go to this place for a far different reason than you’d go to Yad Vashem.”
There is no coordination or relationship today between Yad Vashem and the Chamber of the Holocaust, Yaari said. She added that at one point, Yad Vashem contacted the chamber about combining the entities’ lists of Holocaust victim names, but officials at the chamber declined.
Goodman said he wouldn’t turn down a similar suggestion now.
“Sadly, the previous administration had a bad habit of rejecting help for poorly justified reasons,” he said. “One of the things I’m trying to do is reach out to members of the museum community. Frankly, we can use their help.”
Indeed, the two museums are different enough that Bar said he couldn’t see them ever working together — although he believes each has something different to offer and should continue to operate.
“People interested in the Holocaust will go to Yad Vashem,” he said. “Only a minority will go to the Chamber of the Holocaust. I don’t see any way these two places will collaborate or do anything for the other.”
At the end of the day, Goodman said, the Chamber of the Holocaust is different from other Holocaust museums or memorials because of the intentions of those who created it.
“This is where the survivors come,” he said. “And this is what they decided to do.… The fact is, we’re telling stories from survivors — not just telling their story, but telling it how they want it to be told.”
“This isn’t just a story about the Holocaust; it’s part of the story itself.”