OSWIECIM, Poland – For decades, the Communist-era memorial to Jewish victims at the barracks known as Block 27 in the Auschwitz-Birkenau complex of death camps stood dilapidated and mostly ignored.
No one visited. They opened the doors, that was it, said Avner Shalev, chairman of Yad Vashem, Israel’s vast and authoritative Holocaust memorial museum and research center.
Key artifacts had gone missing. The history presented in the signage was inaccurate, at best, and dominated by Soviet propaganda.
The two-story site was designated the Jewish pavilion, in memory of the 1 million Jews who were murdered at the camps. But, Shalev said, there was hardly any mention of the Jews.
In 2005, then-Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon tasked Yad Vashem with redesigning the memorial. On Thursday, Benjamin Netanyahu, the current prime minister, joined Polish dignitaries and a handful of Holocaust survivors to dedicate a new permanent exhibition in Block 27, called Shoah, part of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum.
I am standing here today with great pain and great pride, Netanyahu said. The leaders of the Allies knew full well what was happening in the death camps. They could have acted, but they didn’t. We, the Jews, know exactly what the lesson is.
Israel, Netanyahu said, cannot rely on any other country to protect it or to protect the world’s Jews.
He said the murderous anti-Semitism of the Nazi era has been replaced today by religious fanaticism. He specifically cited Iran, which Israel has accused of trying to create a nuclear arsenal to threaten the Jewish state.
One of most moving elements in the exhibit, said the visitors, is a room filled with pencil tracings of children’s drawings, selected and etched by Israeli artist Michal Rovner.
The drawings – presented at waist level, where a child might scrawl on the wall – show increasingly disturbing images. First, there are crude renderings of happy times – a girl with a flower or a family celebrating the Sabbath. Then there is a soldier brandishing a weapon and taking a girl into a forest. He returns alone. There are drawings of hangings at a gallows and bodies in graves. Of the almost 6 million Jews killed during the Holocaust, 1.5 million were children.