In the fall of 1995, I was choosen to work at the film and photos archive of Yad Vashem.
Yad Vashem would employ three girls annually to carry out their National Service in the film and photos archive. This was part of their huge initiative to catalog and computerize the Yad Vashem archives. I was privileged to be one of those lucky three during the second year of that project. I was 18 years old and much like with every choice I had made in my life until then, I was as certain as only a 18 year old could be, that this was what I wanted to do.
The work was very sensitive and detail oriented, requiring us to assist a wide array of people and needs. Some of the visitors were survivors, looking for photographs of their previous lives, for glimpses of their beloved family members or of memories that would give them a connection to their past. Other times we would assist professors, educational institutions, researchers, clergy and academics in putting together an accurate compilation of holocaust photos, testimonies and films to support their thesis, curriculum or sometimes just a communal ceremony.
But most of the time our job was to catalog.
The photographs just kept pouring in. With survivors passing on, families finding existing memorabilia they never knew they had and survivors with an aging desire to donate their family’s heritage to a sustainable institution, they donated, and donated and donated.
The photographs poured in and needed to be cataloged. Might I remind you that we are Jews, not Germans; Our ability to catalog and document may not have been as good as theirs was, le’havdil. Those new pictures many times arrived containing names and if we were lucky, more than just the minimal tidbits of information about the owners or subjects of the photographs. The thing is, the archive was already filled to overflowing with pictures of people who, more often than not, could no longer offer their input as to what we were viewing.
The photographs were cataloged according to name, place, what we saw in the picture and whom. Of course, I was just a wayfarer in that year of cataloging. There were oh so many educated and skilled people who worked in that archive and who could identify a German soldier and his ranking merely from the number of lines on his shoulder, the boots he wore and/or the shape of his hat. They knew which battle came first, where and with whom.
I wasn’t that smart. I just did what I was told. I was a good little soldier.
Well, most of the time.
You see the thing about working with Holocaust pictures every day of your work week is that you become numb because after all it is work. You stop really paying attention to what you see. You just do what you need to do. It is the only way to work in that kind of occupation. It’s a type of coping. Yes, believe it or not, you still joke and chat and eat lunch and have water cooler talk in between cataloging your collection of Bergen Belsen photographs and those amusing prewar snapshots taken of families in little photo studios with ridiculous props of fake cars and fake skyscrapers wondering what became of them after these snapshots were taken.
After a while the absurd becomes the mundane and so you look for a new challenge and if you are lucky, they give it to you.
I was lucky and so with my fluent English and Hebrew I started to summarize English speaking survivors testimonies into Hebrew. I didn’t need to translate everything but I needed to write down the important details:
What other details?
None survived? Some survived?
Who is the person talking?
Where do they live today?
And then after a while I needed a new challenge. I was like a sponge. I wanted to see and feel everything. If I could see it all then maybe I could understand, or not, or feel, or not, or mourn, or not. Or maybe feel at peace with Humankind. Or not.
And so when I had done a really good job with cataloging or translating, I deserved a little treat and would get a pass to go down and retrieve a collection from the archive itself.
This was a restricted area. No one was allowed in. Well, barely anyone.
It was filled with the history and the well preserved memories of people whom we had committed to never forget. The feeling of going down into the archives, into that temperature and moisture regulated sealed area, was equivalent to the feeling of excitement you feel walking through the aisles of an old bookstore, looking for something to touch and read and smell.
I would walk around and look at the names and numbers on the shelves, I would walk up and down the aisles running my fingers along the metal filing drawers and over the shelves but most of all, my favorite area to visit was where the albums were.
Albums are funny little things because they don’t really need you to catalog them. You see, they have essentially already been sorted and ordered just by the picture’s mere proximity to one another inside the same cover. The mutual binding of a group of pictures lends itself to a story, an event or a group of people.
I was always drawn to the same album. It was an album with a swastika on the cover.
I sometimes would forget that many of the donations to the museum were also from Non-Jews or, how should I put this, material from the other side. This album reminded me of that fact.
Inside the cover of the album were 3D glasses. I would put them on and start to flip through the photographs consisting of a huge mansion which was used as a retreat for German soldiers, their wives, girlfriends and their dogs. The first photo of the German soldier standing in the foreground with his dog at his side seemed to pop out at me. The background consisting of the building and field looking more distant than the dog and his master because of the 3D effect.
The silence in the archive coupled with those 3D pictures would begin to scare me so that I would quickly close the album and put it back on the shelf, grab what I had been sent to retrieve and run upstairs as if the devil were chasing at my heels.
This year, like every year, I think about all of those memories that are being preserved in the vaults of the museum of Yad Vashem. I think about the troves of evidence being kept there as testimonies to the atrocities committed against us. I think about the huge loss we sustained, the viciousness of mankind and the apathy of a world gone mad.
But most of all, I think about how that 3D album was made by the Nazis to document their playtime fun and it is now being held captive in an archive that belongs to us Jews in the heart of our Jewish homeland.
And I smile.