Sunday at the museum: Seeing the Holocaust through the eyes of the women

This past Sunday, my husband Mike and I made our first trip to the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center in Skokie. We had been meaning to go for months, and finally found the time to tour the museum before a lecture I was covering for JUF News. The program, titled “Combating Terrorism and the Rule of Law: A comparative U.S.-Israeli perspective,” featured Harvard University professors Philip B. Heymann and Gabriella Blum, co-authors of the award-winning book, Laws, Outlaws, and Terrorists: Lessons from the War on Terrorism. For more on the program, visit next week. 

Since this was our first visit to the museum, we were encouraged to begin by visiting the Karkomi Permanent Exhibition. But first, I wanted us to check out the visiting exhibit from Yad Vashem, “Spots of Light: To be a Woman in the Holocaust,” before it left the Skokie museum on Sept. 6. And I’m glad we did.

The exhibit, a production of the Museums Division of Yad Vashem, is the first to focus exclusively on women and their experiences during the Holocaust. As I walked through the exhibit, large screens with amazing stories of courage, strength, motherhood, friendship and love flashed before me—a ketubah of a couple who married in a concentration camp, stories of mothers who told their children fairy tales while they were in hiding, of women who shared recipes and stories of great friendships. Objects in the center of the exhibit are from the Skokie museum's collection and were curated Arielle Weininger to augment the show, and to tell stories of local survivors. I was amazed to read how women found the strength to carry on and maintain these core Jewish values, even in the darkest of times, and was fascinated by their beauty in the photos. Though many of their stories had tragic endings, it was still somehow life-affirming to read of their experiences.

In an interview, Yehudit Shendar, the museums division and senior art curator for Yad Vashem said:

“This exhibit does not speak about perpetrators. There are [intentionally] no swastikas. There is no barbed wire, no Nazi attire, and no chimneys. This is a refreshing view which only shows the female reaction, and thereby empowers the female story.”

One story on the “love” screen was just captivating to me—a wedding movie shot July 6, 1942. The young couple, Rosa Wertheim and Jim de Zwarte, is seen on their wedding day at the Nieuwe Synagogue (New Synagogue) in Amsterdam. I watched the film over and over and over again, recalling my wedding day just a few months ago. As I looked closer, I noticed the Jewish stars on their sleeves. And then my eyes moved to below the video, where I read that both the bride and the groom died just months later in Auschwitz. The power and sadness of this juxtaposition was alarming to me—a couple seen celebrating the happiest day of their life, followed by such a tragic ending.

Mike and I did not have nearly enough time at this exhibit—each story and artifact drew me in deeper—but I wanted to be sure we had time to see the permanent exhibit, where we spent the next hour and a half.

We quickly learned this was not nearly enough time to get through the wealth of information and artifacts available at the museum. I myself have visited the Holocaust Museum in D.C. and been to Yad Vashem several times, but this was the first time my husband and I had gone through this experience together. It really hit home, as we passed the passports and letters from those who had fled to the Shanghai Ghetto, to hear him remark that he had those same artifacts at home from his grandparents.

Needless to say, we plan to return to finish our tour of the permanent exhibit and I hope those of you who have not yet visited will plan a trip.

Don’t forget, the last day the “Spots of Light” exhibition will be open is this Tuesday, Sept. 6.

For more information, visit the museum’s website.

Stefanie Pervos Bregman
Adventures of a Jewish 20-something, by Stefanie Pervos Bregman... Read More

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