Yad Vashem’s new exhibit, “They Say There Is a Land,” is a powerful narrative tracking the Jewish people’s 2,000-year desire to return to the Land of Israel. It was a yearning that became most urgent during the Holocaust.
The Jerusalem-based Holocaust museum created the exhibit in honor of the State of Israel’s 70th anniversary. The display highlights Israel’s historical and religious importance to the Jewish people, before turning to European Jewry’s connection to the land through Zionism between 1933 and 1948.
Holocaust survivors whose memorabilia is on display and museum curators met with members of the press Tuesday morning before the exhibit opened to the general public later in the day.
The contents of the exhibit — children’s artwork, letters to loved ones, photos and hand-drawn maps — hung on freshly painted navy walls and sat in glass cases still noticeably free of fingerprints. The collection presents a look at Zionism as a beacon of hope — freedom for a Jewish people helplessly trapped in Hitler’s grasp.
The exhibit is divided into three parts. The first portrays European Jewry’s connection to Israel during the rise of Hitler and the outbreak of the war. The second section focuses on the period between 1940 and 1944 which saw the Jews moved into concentration camps for their extermination. Finally, the exhibit looks at the liberation of the camps and the struggle for survivors to legally make their way into British-occupied Palestine.
The final segment showcases an oft-forgotten piece of history, recalling Jewish refugee camps in Cyprus and the many failed attempts to reach Israel’s shores between the war’s end in 1945 and Israeli independence in 1948.
According to Yad Vashem chairman Avner Shalev, “Longing for Israel was a cornerstone to building the Jewish and national self through generations. It was always changing, but present.”
“Before World War II the majority of European Jewry were not Zionists, and then after the victory of the allies, the majority were Zionists. Something changed in regards to Israel and the Zionist movement,” said Shalev.
“Survivors said, ‘We should come and support Israel. This is the direction that will ensure our survival,’” he said. “I’m not claiming that the Shoah [Holocaust] brought about the State of Israel — not at all — but other Jewish ideas disappeared, whereas Zionism survived.”
Longing for Israel during this period is perhaps most clearly observed through the evolution of the tone of European Jewry’s letter writing.
Director of Yad Vashem’s Museums Division and head curator of the exhibit, Vivian Uria, says she sees a shift in the language of Jewish correspondence between 1940 and 1944. Uria says that the connection to Israel began to be more consistently articulated as a Zionistic desire, rather than an abstract religious ideal.
For example, author Baruch Milch, who thought he would never reach Israel while he was in hiding in Poland, wrote to his cousin in 1944 about the importance of an independent Jewish state.
“I am writing this letter to you as one who has been condemned to death before my execution since this is my situation right now… The Jews need freedom… Only in [Mandatory] Palestine will they be granted independence, and only there will the Messiah appear… Do not be silent; work day and night until you achieve this goal,” wrote Milch.
Milch eventually reached Israeli soil in May 1948, and his words are now boldly displayed on a wall of the exhibit.
Professor Dina Porat, Yad Vashem chief historian and the exhibit’s historical advisor, said only 10 percent of European Jews were Zionists before the Holocaust. But the influence from this small group spread through the ghettos and camps.
“For Jews during the Holocaust, the main thing was to survive. And where is Israel in that? It’s not practical. But still, it was something to cling to,” said Porat.
Noting that two-thirds of Holocaust survivors moved to Israel following the liberation of the camps, Porat said Zionist youth movements in ghettos and the underground were crucial in making the ideology more tangible to the younger generation. Porat says the youth movements were particularly effective when it came to coordinating later evacuations to Israel.
Holocaust survivor Elina Landau donated a map to the exhibit that was drawn by her brother, Emil, of the siblings’ journey to Israel. Landau and her brother were among the children brought to Israel through the Gordonia Zionist youth organization.
Landau’s brother gave her the map for her 10th birthday on September 7, 1943, shortly after their arrival in Israel.
Standing in front of the display case holding the map, Landau spoke of their journey from Warsaw to the Promised Land via Siberia, Uzbekistan and Tehran.
Landau came from a well-off family in Warsaw. When the war broke out, the family attempted to escape to Ukraine in their car. Landau’s father was captured and forced into the Red Army, where he eventually died from typhoid. The siblings and their mother were released and taken to Samarkand, Uzbekistan.
Landau’s mother, penniless and unable to feed her children, handed over the brother and sister to a Christian children’s home where the Zionist youth movement, Gordonia, found them and led the Landaus on a jagged route to Israel. They were part of a group known as “The Tehran Children,” the approximately 1,000 Polish children who received permits from the British Mandate to immigrate to Israel via Iran.
A note to Landau accompanying the map reads, “Blessings of health, happiness and success. May you succeed in your studies and especially in Hebrew. And most important of all – may we be reunited with Mummy soon.”
The siblings later learned that their mother died from hunger. Immediately upon arriving in Israel, Emil joined the Palmach, the elite Jewish fighting brigade, at age 16 and was killed in Israel’s War of Independence.
The 84-year-old Jerusalemite said she did not realize the map would be of such value to Yad Vashem, but was happy her brother’s story could be shared.
“My brother dreamed of being free in Israel. He wrote and talked about this dream. This was his desire,” Landau said.