New Imperial War Museum galleries show where innocence ended and Shoah horror began

Holocaust Galleries also highlight the vibrancy of pre-war Jewish life through family stories and images as a counterpoint to Nazi atrocities


View of the new Holocaust Galleries at IWM London, opening 20th October 2021. Personal stories will be at the heart of the new The Holocaust Galleries, along with a breadth of objects and original material that will help audiences consider the cause, course and consequences of this terrible period in world history. The new galleries will explore three core themes of persecution, looking at the global situation at the end of the First World War; escalation, identifying how violence towards Jewish people and communities developed through the 1930s; and annihilation, examining how Nazi policy crosses the threshold into wide-scale state-sponsored murder in the heart of twentieth century Europe. By robustly interrogating the identity of the perpetrators, the galleries will explain who was responsible for these crimes, what motivated them and how ordinary they often were in every other way. Photographed 30th September 2021.

On entering the new Holocaust Galleries at the Imperial War Museum London (IWM), visitors will see a 1942 quote from Nachum Grzywacz.

“I want the coming generation to remember our times,” it reads. “I don’t know my fate. I don’t know if I will be able to tell you what happened later.”

There is deliberately no indication of what became of the author (head of content James Bulgin tells the JC that Grzywacz died during the Warsaw Ghetto uprising).

For beyond that prescient quote, the initial space in the impressively detailed and diverse galleries is devoted to photographs and film clips of Jewish life in Europe and beyond, before the Shoah — family portraits, businesses, celebrations and holidays. Images of innocence, gaiety, hope and ambition, which contrast starkly with the grim spectre of what was to come.

Open to the public from next week, the Holocaust section is part of a £30.7 million project, six years in preparation, which also incorporates adjoining Second World War Galleries and a learning centre.

The Holocaust areas alone contain some 2,000 objects and 4,000 images. Mr Bulgin said the museum team had wanted to accurately depict “the massive diversity and plurality of Jewish life pre-war”. And also to show what it means to be persecuted — and to persecute — and to demonstrate that the Nazi atrocities were “done by people to people”.

In one of innumerable chilling insights into the Nazi mindset, on show is the callous Juden Raus (Jews Out), promoted as a “thoroughly enjoyable party game”, whose goal was to round up Jews for deportation to Palestine.

In an early display, Hitler and other Nazi leaders loom large in pre-1933 images: “We wanted to show them before the men they became,” Mr Bulgin explained.

Information for each sub-section is headed by a quote from a Jewish individual or organisation. In later attributions, the profession of the speaker is in whitened shadow to reflect the opportunities denied them. In an effective subliminal touch, images taken by Nazis are differentiated by a black border.

Moving further into the galleries, space around the exhibits is more constrained, the walls literally closing in as Jews in Germany and other countries were encircled.

Kristallnacht is instead referred to as “the November pogrom”, Mr Bulgin stressing the importance of conveying that it was about more than shattered windows and the destruction of synagogues.

“It was the first incursion of the Nazis into safe spaces,” he said, pointing to a photo of a ransacked bedroom. Tallitot recovered among the debris in the Vienna streets the following morning had been fitted on the display by Rabbi Nicky Liss of Highgate Synagogue, one of those who had advised the IWM. “We worked really hard to contextualise Jewish religious practice,” Mr Bulgin said. Also featured is a selection of heart-rending final messages from those killed, and possessions such as a tefillin bag found by an American-Jewish soldier on the body of a death march victim.

A key display showcases a metal box from the Oneg Shabbat archive, a secret and comprehensive account of how Jews were treated in the Warsaw Ghetto.

As part of the exhaustive research process, the museum worked with Yad Vashem to trace every deportation journey, with a 40-minute film linking all footage discovered.

Mr Bulgin added that in documenting the “visceral, bloody and barbaric” nature of the Shoah, the IWM had wanted to show the wider context. “People have a sense of the Holocaust being around camps. It also happened to people in environments familiar to them.”

The difficulties facing those attempting to start afresh elsewhere are also given prominence — for example, the UK interning refugees as “enemy aliens”.

Announcements placed in the personal columns of The Times under “married couples and manservants” included: “Couple, middle-aged, husband former higher clerk of a banking house, wife very good cook… refugees from Austria [still abroad], with excellent character, seek post.”

A display of personal effects reveals the differing circumstances of Jews who made it to the UK.

Mr Bulgin reported that many survivors were consulted during the research. “If a survivor wants to talk to me, I will go anywhere,” he said.

One was North London-based John Hajdu, 84, whose contributions included the translation of a postcard dropped by a Hungarian from a train presumed bound for Auschwitz in June 1944.

“I think it will all be over soon and yet up to now, I had hoped to see you again,” the author wrote. “My dear, try to understand that in these conditions, one cannot expect a natural end. In any case, I am fighting for life and I will die with you in my heart.”

Praising the IWM on the new galleries, Mr Hajdu said: “It is wonderful what they have achieved. I will do anything to support and teach a new generation.”

On display for the first time is the birth certificate of Eva Clarke, one of only three babies born in Mauthausen concentration camp who survived the Holocaust. Also donated is a coded postcard from her mother’s sister, written on arrival at Auschwitz and including the word “lechem” (Hebrew for bread) to indicate she was starving. She and other family members were killed shortly afterwards.

“My mother was amazed after the war when her cousin gave her this postcard that her sister even knew the word because I don’t come from an observant family,” Mrs Clarke told the JC. “But goodness knows what one can dredge up from the subconscious if you have to. They may have common elements but each story is unique.”

Another exhibit is a red woollen jumper which helped protect Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, a cellist in the women’s orchestra at Auschwitz, against the harsh winter elements, having been acquired in exchange for some extra bread she had received.

“Anita liked the way it is displayed,” Mr Bulgin said. “It’s very important to them.”

He hoped visitors would “go through once to get a sense but come back again and again to get different perspectives”.

But the galleries have also been geared to satisfy the one-time visitor “who never breaks stride”.

The challenge had been to “get beyond some of the clichés and think about how catastrophic the loss remains — and how senseless it was”.


The Second World War and Holocaust Galleries open at IWM London on October 20




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