Yad Vashem: A mission to remember the victims of the Holocaust

CBSNews

Cut into a Jerusalem hillside is a striking, modern memorial to an unthinkable past. Part museum, part archive, it's called Yad Vashem, which in Hebrew means "a memorial and a name."

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The Yad Vashem museum and archive in Jerusalem.  CBS News

More than a million visitors come here each year, to try to comprehend the magnitude of the Holocaust. 

"I didn't think that a building, business-as-usual-museum with all of the trimming of architecture, is the right place to tell the story of the Holocaust," said famed architect Moshe Safdie. "I wanted it to feel like it was part of the Earth." 

He took correspondent Seth Doane around this museum, which he designed with few embellishments. He sets a reflective tone with simple lines, austere concrete, and the careful use of light.

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Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. CBS News

"I hope that the architecture and sequence of spaces and the quality of the light make that experience of getting all this information which is so difficult to take in something that stays with you forever," said Safdie.

"How much of a responsibly, how much of a weight, is it to design something like this?" asked Doane.

"This, by far, was the most trying, emotionally trying experience I've ever had as an architect," he replied.

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The Hall of Names at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. CBS News

Eighty-four-year-old Rena Quint barely remembers what was before the Holocaust. What's followed is everywhere in her Jerusalem apartment. Photographs fill nearly every surface. "I love these pictures," she told Doane. "Each one of them represents part of my life."

Except there's a big part missing: her childhood. There's not a single photo of her mother, father or brothers who were all killed.

"I don't remember what my brothers look like," Quint said. "I don't really remember playing with them."

"How about your parents?" Doane asked.

"I don't remember them, either."

"You can't visualize their faces?"

"No. I can't. I can't. No."

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Rena Quint has photos of her life after the Holocaust, but no pictures of family members who perished.  CBS News

Quint was just three when war broke out, and she wound up at the work camp Bergen-Belsen, where she survived pretending to be a boy to get work, until British troops liberated the camp in 1945.

Yad Vashem helped her to uncover files and paperwork, and slowly she began piecing together her past. Dry documents provide a glimpse of what was, such as her parents' pre-nuptial agreement dating from 1930, detailing what her mother owned. "It's one of the few things you know about her?" Doane asked.

"That's right. I know she had furniture," said Quint. "But I don't know what she looks like."

She's contributed to Yad Vashem's 70-plus-year effort to compile "pages of testimony" of those killed, a vital part of its mission. Quint filled out four, for her murdered family members, noting name, age, and "circumstance of death." 

"My mother and brothers were put into gas chambers," she said. "My father, I don't know when, where, how? No idea when he died. The 'Pages of Testimony' are, sort of, they're buried on paper."

Millions who perished – buried on paper – are housed in the museum's "Hall of Names." "This is the whole idea behind Yad Vashem, behind the whole institution, to commemorate and to do it on the level of a human being," said archive director Haim Gertner.

He showed Doane the black binders filled with more than four million of those testimonies, and the empty shelves left for some of the two million victims yet to be named. "It will take us a lot of time, but we will do our best efforts to locate all the names as much as we can," Gertner said. "You are traveling in an unknown back hole in your own memory, like in the case of Rena Quint. You find here something, here something, then we copy some document there. So, we have a process of recovering histories here."

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Binders of testimonies of four million lives lost; shelves await information on those still to be commemorated.  CBS News

Gertner oversees a research staff of more than a hundred who collect and preserve documents and stories in 60 languages, from neighbors and friends from towns across Europe. Sometimes all that's left of a life is a note, drawing, or signature.

Prisoner cards, filled out by Nazis, were discovered in an attic: "You have the whole description: height, color of hair, size of nose, things like that," Gertner said. "It's very humiliating."

At 88, Berthe Elzon still volunteers here every day. During the Holocaust she pretended to be Christian. She took Doane to the exhibit most meaningful to her today: a bicycle. When asked what is represents to her, Elzon replied, "It symbolizes the goodness! People who were ready to give their lives in order to help."

The bicycle was used by a French woman rode it to check on and protect Jewish kids, a reminder that, while humans carried out this atrocity, humans also helped save lives. "Marie-Rose Gineste – only to tell her name, I'm moved," said Elzon. "I owe her my life, and I don't forget it. And in part, it's why I'm here. Because I'm alive, and I have to tell why and how."

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The bicycle of Frenchwoman Marie-Rose Gineste, a social worker active in the underground, who delivered messages supporting Jews to Catholic parishes across the Montauban diocese.  CBS News

Survivors, including Rena Quint, told Doane sharing their story, documenting the past, was not so much a choice but a duty. 

"If I had not survived, I wouldn't have put in my mother and father and brother's names," Quint said. "And there are families where nobody survived."

In the Hall of Names at Yad Vashem, the pictures soar skyward in this archive-turned-tombstone, where the victims of one of history's horrors are named, and remembered.

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Preserving artifacts of victims of the Holocaust.  CBS News

Editor's Note: Due to an incorrectly labeled image from a photo agency, a picture originally used in our report, attributed to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, was actually taken at Auschwitz. We regret the error.

      For more info:

Yad Vashem: The World Holocaust Remembrance Center, JerusalemFollow @YadVashem on TwitterFacebookInstagram and YouTubeArchitect Moshe Safdie

       Story produced by Michal Ben-Gal. 

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