New online exhibition from Yad Vashem on the 80th anniversary of the beginning of WWII

August 30, 2019 by Simmy Allen
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Yad Vashem will mark the 80th anniversary of the beginning of the Second World War by uploading a new exhibition featuring personal stories depicting Jewish family life in Europe in 1939.

Rivka and Refael Majer surrounded by members of their family, Belgrade, 1935. Nineteen of the individuals in the photograph were murdered in the Holocaust.
Bottom row, from right: Refael Ruben, Moni Ruben, Rivka Majer, Sarika Kalderon, Refael Majer, Klara Toby, Avraham Kalderon (above Klara), Isak Toby’s mother, Sasha Toby
Top row: Nissim Ruben, Moric Cohen, unknown, Isabella Majer, Chana Cohen, Stella Toby, Moric Kalderon, Eleonora Ruben, Regina Kalderon, Isak Tobi, Matilda Baruch, Asher Baruch
Rivka Majer passed away in 1938. Isabella survived. All the others appearing in the photo were murdered in the Holocaust.
Credit: Yad Vashem Photo Archive

The personal accounts included in this exhibition describe the progression of World War II using Holocaust-era documents, photographs and artifacts housed in the Yad Vashem’s archives, many of which were donated to Yad Vashem by Holocaust survivors and their families.

“The time is 4:00 PM. 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 centre 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
Credit: Yad Vashem Photo Archives

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

In September 1939, Mira Zabludowski wrote this entry as she found herself caught in the eye of the storm while visiting her parents. In her 56-page-long diary, she records her impressions of the first months of the German occupation of Warsaw. Mira luckily managed to escape Poland and made her way back home to Eretz Israel; her father died in July 1940 in Warsaw while her mother was murdered after being deported along with other family members to Treblinka.

The exhibition also presents the story of the Majer family from Belgrade. Refael and his wife Rivka Majer had eight children and many grandchildren. One of the photographs on display in this exhibition captures a happy prewar moment, with the extended family dressed in their finest holiday clothing. Of the 21 people featured in the family photograph, one died before the war, 19 were murdered during the Holocaust and only one survived: Isabella Baruch, Refael and Rivka’s daughter.

After the Germans occupied Belgrade, the Majers did not sense that they were in danger. The older ones among them remembered that the Germans had behaved appropriately during WWI and said, “We’ll make it through this like we did then.” Less than a year after the German invasion, 90% of the Jews of Belgrade had been annihilated, including most of the Majer family.

While German aggression over the first days of September 1939 was not aimed at the Jews of Poland and Europe at large, this exhibition captures the overwhelming sentiment of the Jewish population on the precipice of an unknown future, which culminated in the extermination of six million Jews and centuries of Jewish life in Europe.

“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,” explains Researcher and Curator of the online exhibition 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 in hard financial times, 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.”

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