Yad Vashem marks 80th anniversary of start of WWII with online exhibit

‘1939: Jewish Families on the Brink of War’ explores the lives of Europe’s Jewish communities with many unable to comprehend the impending horror the war would bring

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

The Majer family from Belgrade, in a happy moment before the Second World War; 19 people in the photograph were murdered in the Holocaust (Courtesy Yad Vashem Photo Archive)
The Majer family from Belgrade, in a happy moment before the Second World War; 19 people in the photograph were murdered in the Holocaust (Courtesy Yad Vashem Photo Archive)

Eighty years have passed since the start of the World War Two on September 1, 1939, an anniversary being marked by Yad Vashem with a new online exhibition, portraying the experiences of a dozen Jewish families in those first months, when they had no way of knowing the events that were going to unfold.

The exhibition, “1939: Jewish Families on the Brink of War,” describes the progression of the war using Holocaust-era documents, photographs and artifacts from Yad Vashem’s archives, many which were donated by Holocaust survivors and families.

One diary entry, written by Mira Zabludowski in September 1939, records her thoughts during the first months of the German occupation of Warsaw. She had already immigrated to pre-state Palestine and was visiting her parents in Warsaw at the time the war broke out.

“The time is 4:00 p.m. The sound of artillery fire has been going on nonstop for twenty hours. The noise of machine guns and the thunder of the planes overhead have been reverberating in the air and increase the terror. My ears and head ache. You can’t hear what’s being said. Just boom! Boom! Boom! A block of houses in the city center is on fire. Suddenly there is a terrible noise, then moans and screams — houses collapse in the old city and we run to save those buried alive under the rubble. Suddenly the sky darkened — a cloud of smoke descended over the city.”

Fela Zabludowski and her son Alexander in Zakopane, 1939 (Courtesy Yad Vashem Photo Archives)

Zabludowski escaped Poland and made her way back to Israel. Her father died in July 1940 in Warsaw while her mother was deported along with other family members to Treblinka.

One photograph shows the Majer family from Belgrade, displaying Refael and Rivka Majer and their eight children and grandchildren, dressed in their holiday best in a moment captured before the war.

Of the 21 people featured in the family photograph, one died before the war, 19 were killed during the Holocaust and only one survived: Isabella Baruch, Refael and Rivka’s daughter.

Drawing and dedication from P. Moreno to her classmate Sarika Kalderon, Belgrade, 4 August 1939. “Remember me sometimes” (Courtesy Yad Vashem Photo Archive)

After the Germans occupied Belgrade, the Majers did not sense that they were in danger, according to Yad Vashem.

The older members of the family recalled that the Germans had behaved appropriately during the first world war, and assumed they would make it through the latest turn of events as they had the first time.

Less than a year after the German invasion, 90 percent of the Jews of Belgrade had been annihilated, including most of the Majer family.

“Even 80 years on, it is still hard to understand the huge discrepancy between Jewish life before the war and their tragic fate during the Holocaust,” said Yad Vashem researcher and curator Yona Kobo.

“We see families from Yugoslavia, Germany, Austria, Poland, Romania, Greece and Czechoslovakia in their happiest days – weddings, births and other joyous events – but also searching for escape routes, struggling to cope with their worsening daily lives – and in the end, the mass murder of the Jews without distinction between men, women and children,”  she said.

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