Enlarged Shoah Heritage Campus to include millions of documents and artifacts, from a toddler’s shoe marked with the day she died to a portrait of a Nazi painted on a Torah scroll

During a behind-the-scenes tour of Yad Vashem’s new curatorial center this winter, the Israel Holocaust museum’s Sarah Shor held up a petite child’s shoe and pointed to a pair of knitted gloves. Shor told the group of Jewish journalists seated in the glass-walled room that they had once belonged to two-year-old Hinda Cohen, who was born to Tzipporah and Dov Cohen in the Kovno Ghetto in Lithuania on January 18, 1942.

The table was littered with dozens of artifacts, from a portrait of a Nazi soldier painted on a Torah scroll to the striped pajamas of a camp intern. Every item had a story behind it, attesting to the life of the former owner. But there are few things more chilling than seeing the physical remnants of a life cut too short: blue gloves with a purple design worked in by the hands of a loving mother, and well-polished minuscule shoes.

Father Dov etched the date into the shoe, found under her bed with scant few other items and vowed to keep it until his death, a promise he kept.

Yad Vashem’s Sarah Shor shows a group of journalists the ‘canvas’ for the portrait of a Nazi soldier — a Torah scroll, at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, December 18, 2018. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/Times of Israel)

Hinda and the children were taken to Auschwitz, where they were immediately murdered.

Now, on Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day, the day commemorating the loss of six million Jews in the Holocaust, Israel’s Yad Vashem will break ground on a new state-of-the-art subterranean center to house and conserve millions of artifacts such as these. The more than 210 million documents, 500,000 photographs, 131,000 survivor testimonies, 32,400 artifacts and 11,500 works of art in Yad Vashem’s collections to date bear witness to the lives of those lost to the Nazis’ genocide, not only their deaths.

“The German Nazis were determined not only to annihilate the Jewish people, but also to obliterate their identity, memory, culture and heritage,” said Yad Vashem Chairman Avner Shalev in a press release.

“For many, all that remains are a treasured work of art, a personal artifact that survived with them, a photograph kept close to their person, a diary, or a note. By preserving these precious items – that are of great importance not only to the Jewish people, but also to humanity as a whole – and revealing them to the public, they will act as the voice of the victims and the survivors, and serve as an everlasting memory.”

A shoe and gloves belonging to two-year-old Hinda Cohen, who was killed at Auschwitz on March 27, 1944. Her father Dov etched the date on the sole upon discovering his daughter was taken during a ‘Children’s Aktion.’ (Amanda Borschel-Dan/Times of Israel)

Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center, was founded in 1953 and immediately began gathering such artifacts. Today, its storerooms are overflowing and conservationist Shor told the journalists that her team does not have the resources to properly treat items on site.

This overflow is in part due to a wildly successful eight-year campaign, “Gathering the Fragments,” which urges the public to deposit Holocaust-related artifacts with the museum. The granddaughter of Tzipporah and Dov harkened the call and brought the etched shoe and pair of gloves to the museum as part of this campaign.

After a groundbreaking ceremony on Yom HaShoa, which this year falls on the evening of May 1 until sundown May 2, a new primarily underground structure will be built. According to a Yad Vashem press release, it will cover an area of 5,880 square meters and “allow for optimal control and supervision of the conservation climate required for preservation of the artifacts.”

A portrait of a Nazi soldier painted on a Torah scroll, at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, December 18, 2018. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/Times of Israel)

Other benefits of the planned center include the ability to “streamline the process of receiving, preserving and cataloguing items collected by Yad Vashem, with the express goal of making them accessible to the public.” In addition to vast, climate-controlled storage spaces, the center will include hi-tech preservation laboratories, which will apparently be accessible in some way to visitors.

According to a Yad Vashem spokesman, there are other upgrades planned for the Mount of Remembrance, including a renovation of its auditorium and a new gallery for families and children.

The campus-wide construction and facelift is meant to be completed by the summer of 2021. According to Yad Vashem, funding has been secured already for much of the project. The institute is confident it will find the rest of the needed money.

“The Holocaust is a very particular story with a deep universal meaning,” remarked Shalev to the group of journalists this winter.

There are few symbols more universal than the little shoe that once belonged to Hinda Cohen.