From the age of 8 until he was 10, Yaacov Goldstein lay prone in an attic, passing the hours by reading books, hundreds of tomes, passed to him by the daughter of the Polish family that hid him.
By the time he left the attic, Goldstein — his hair and nails long and untrimmed — could only crawl, his limbs atrophied by months of inertia. His parents and brother didn’t survive the Holocaust, but Goldstein reached Israel in 1947, where he eventually became a professor of history at the University of Haifa.
His education took place in the attic, said Yehudit Kol-Inbar, curator of Yad Vashem’s new exhibit, “Children in the Holocaust: Stars Without a Heaven,” which opened on Sunday.
Several thousand Jewish children survived the Holocaust, but 1.5 million others did not.
“The lottery” — of the children who perished or survived during the Holocaust — “was clear,” said Kol-Inbar. “The question was what path would they take. They had to be little adults, but their imaginations allowed them freedom and an escape from reality.”
Goldstein’s self-education in the attic is one of the accounts told in the museum’s latest exhibit, opened in time for Holocaust Remembrance Day. The installation unfolds the destinies, journeys and stories of a selection of child survivors.
Set in a large, open space, a handful of columns set throughout the room mimic trees in a symbolic forest, each pillar representing eight different topics relevant to children, from family and identity to adolescence, play, home and learning.
The columns feature the stories of child survivors, with brief excerpts about their histories and in some cases, the drawings, poems, or personal items they carried through the war.
Other survivor’s stories are told through animated clips created by students of the Department of Visual Communication Design at the Holon Institute of Technology-HIT, while some accounts were illustrated with glass, porcelain and ceramic sculptures created by students and alumni of the Department of Ceramics and Glass Design of the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design.
To tell Goldstein’s story, Bezalel alumnus Sara Kaminker used porcelain, which she described as “the gold of ceramics,” to create a miniature Jacob’s Ladder that doubles as a fragile-looking bookcase stuffed with volumes. It refers to the biblical Jacob and his dream of a ladder to heaven, traversed by angels.
“Yaacov read books to escape,” said Kaminker, who said she was “amazed” by Goldstein. “He was a treasure in the attic.”
Another pair of art students, Itay Hershkovitch and Kobi Hasson, created a layered video of black-and-white images to tell the difficult, painful story of Otto (Dov) Kulka, a renowned Hebrew University historian and writer, who has written hauntingly and poignantly about his separation from his mother.
“We tried to show the unthinkable situation of Kulka and his mother, their attempt to live a normal life in a camp next to Auschwitz, in a crazy situation that ending separating them forever,” wrote Hershkovitch and Hasson in an email explaining their work.
Both students are grandchildren of survivors, and while they are familiar with the history of the Holocaust and their own grandparents’ stories, it was the first time they ever engaged so deeply in the story of a child survivor.
“It felt like a very big challenge,” said Hershkovitch, who said he wasn’t quite prepared for the verbal fluency and clarity of Kulka’s childhood memory. Hasson, who used his grandmother’s history and his mother’s image when creating parts of the video, said that Kulka’s verbal imagery made it all “tangible.”
Kids, said Avner Shalev, Yad Vashem’s director, were possibly the most vulnerable, naive and innocent group affected by the Holocaust, but were also able to express themselves in ways that adults struggle to.
“They speak directly and without filters,” said Shalev. “Their creativity is still very clear.”
On another column, the story of two sisters, Eva and Vera Silberstein, is told through Vera’s colorful crayon drawings of a happy future in Israel and Eva’s account.
Vera, younger by two years, was sent to the gas chambers in Auschwitz, while Eva ended up in a work camp. But she remembers that Vera smiled as she walked from the selection line, happy that she was finally free of her older sister, who had been instructed by their mother to protect her and fought hard not to be separated, Eva wrote in her account.
Survivor Wlodiemerz Zeev Portnoi stood next to the column featuring pictures of his family, a sheaf of papers in hand, struggling to recount the full story of his four-year journey alone through the Polish countryside. He knew he was Jewish, but didn’t understand why everyone wanted to kill him.
When asked to read the Yiddish poem he had hidden in his boot and committed to memory, he recited it by heart, his voice trembling, his audience silent around him.
“I was still a small lad / when the Nazi beast / took over my life / And took me away from / My parents forever.”
Marta Goren Winter, saved by a Polish family and raised as a Catholic, proudly wore the Catholic medallion given to her by the woman who helped save her; the replica is displayed in the column telling her story.
Nina Abayov, a survivor from Greece who has three children, eight grandchildren and three great-grandchildren, said “it never gets easier.”
Abayov gave Yad Vashem the pressed, cotton shirt worn by her five-year-old brother, Rafael Denty, who perished along with her parents and younger sister.
She was 10 when she was separated from her family, saved by her non-Jewish godfather, and then passed through different families for the next two years.
“Sometimes I just don’t understand why I was left to survive,” she said.
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