Netanyahu pledges funds to finally finish museum honoring Jewish WWII soldiers
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Netanyahu pledges funds to finally finish museum honoring Jewish WWII soldiers

After years of stalemate over funding, PM vows Latrun project will be completed to honor the 1.5 million Jews who fought the Nazis

The unfinished museum honoring Jewish World War II veterans, in Latrun, Israel, April 18, 2017. (AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov)
The unfinished museum honoring Jewish World War II veterans, in Latrun, Israel, April 18, 2017. (AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday said the government would allocate the funds necessary to complete the long-promised establishment of a museum honoring Jewish World War II veterans.

Netanyahu told the weekly cabinet meeting he has “immense respect” for the Jewish fighters and they “deserve” a memorial.

The project in Latrun, between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv has been bogged down in bureaucratic stalemate for years as donor money dried up.

The museum appeared doomed when Netanyahu’s government did not renew its matching funds commitment four years ago.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chairs the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s office in Jerusalem, Feb. 17, 2019. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner, Pool)

The story of the 1.5 million Jews who fought the Nazis — and the 250,000 who died in battle — has long been lost in Israel amid the larger tragedy of the Holocaust.

The 550,000 Jewish-American soldiers who fought with the Allies, for instance, are often overlooked, including those who were among the first to liberate the Nazi death camps, many of them comforting the dazed, emaciated prisoners in Yiddish.

The museum aims to rectify that oversight while some of the fighters are still alive.

With the backing of then-prime minister Ariel Sharon, the Israeli government committed to the museum in 2002 and vowed to match any funds raised from donors. Successive governments have renewed the pledge and roughly $6 million (NIS 22 million) already poured into the project has gone toward collecting artifacts and testimonies and erecting a 2,200 square-meter (23,500-square-foot) structure in Latrun, near the site of one on the most significant battles in Israel’s 1948 War of Independence.

Dachau, Germany. Concentration camp prisoners raise the American flag after liberation. (Courtesy Yad Vashem Archives)

In 2015, after more than a decade of deadlock, both Netanyahu and President Reuven Rivlin attended the official ceremony marking 70 years since Victory Day in Europe and acknowledged that the contributions of Jewish veterans who fought with the US, British, Soviet and other country’s militaries have often been overlooked.

They vowed to find the remaining $10 million (NIS 36.5 million) needed to complete the museum.

But later that year, Netanyahu transferred responsibility for the project to Minister Ze’ev Elkin’s office, and the government did not renew its matching funds commitment.

Repeated pleas from aging veterans for Netanyahu to keep his word were unanswered, and critics accused Elkin — who was born in Ukraine — of stalling because he favors securing funds from oligarchs who want to disproportionately recognize the actions of Jews in the former Soviet Union.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a ceremony marking the 70th anniversary of VE Day in Latrun on May 7, 2015. (photo credit: Gili Yohanan/POOL)

Elkin denied the accusations and said that as a grandson of a veteran himself he had a great incentive to see the museum come to fruition.

He said the association tasked with establishing the museum had failed in its mission and the government’s hands were legally tied. He called on the association to either quickly find a donor or step aside and let the government handle the project instead.

There are no museums devoted solely to Jews who fought the Nazis. Individual memorials exist in Israel, and a dwindling population of Soviet veterans still struts out on Victory Day, their medals pinned on old uniforms. The Yad Vashem museum in Jerusalem also has exhibits devoted to the partisans and rebels in the various ghettos.

But veterans say these are just snippets, and the museum in Latrun will be the one place that will serve as their legacy.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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