ERUSALEM Near the entrance to Israel's new Holocaust History Museum, a collection of snapshots, some with charred edges, is displayed against the backdrop of a grisly scene: the partly burned bodies of Jews killed by the Nazis and local collaborators in Estonia in September 1944.
The snapshots, found in the pockets of the victims, show images of a vanished world family photos, soccer teams lined up for a group picture, people at the beach.
The display underscores the declared mission of the new museum, to tell the story of the Holocaust from the perspective of the Jewish victims, using objects they left behind, their writing and artwork to narrate the events.
The museum is to be formally inaugurated today in the presence of Israeli and foreign dignitaries, including United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan. The event promises to be an assertion of what Israel sees as its leading role in international Holocaust commemoration.
A $40 million, decade-long project, the museum is the centerpiece of an ambitious expansion of Yad Vashem, Israel's national Holocaust memorial, a 45-acre campus of monuments and museums on a pine-clad mountain on the outskirts of Jerusalem.
The new museum, a concrete, prism-shaped structure that bores through the mountain, was designed by internationally known architect Moshe Safdie. The structure is part of a complex that also includes a Holocaust art museum, a study center, a synagogue and a new Hall of Names, housing the retrieved names and biographical details of Jewish victims.
In contrast with the current Yad Vashem historical museum, which is more than 30 years old and whose exhibits consist mainly of black-and-white photos and texts, the new museum is a multimedia experience. It uses drawings, diaries and letters by the victims, personal belongings, video testimonies of survivors, video art and reconstruction of scenes from the period to convey a vivid sense of the events.
Avner Shalev, chairman of Yad Vashem and chief curator of the new museum, said it was designed to use new technologies to inform a new generation of visitors, accommodate more people and present the Holocaust in a more personal way.
"We wanted a museum that will tell the history of the Holocaust while balancing between knowledge, experience and emotion, which together is the essence of a good museum," Shalev said.
The idea is to "give the victims a face and a name, to tell their personal stories, so the victims are looking at us eye-to-eye," he added. "We want to build up empathy and identification, a personal dialogue with the subject."
There are 90 personal stories told through the exhibits.
In one room there is a postcard thrown from a train by Ester Frankel, a French Jew killed in the Auschwitz death camp, in which she pleads to see her 2-year-old son, Richard, who was left behind.
In another hall are the braids of a 12-year-old Romanian Jewish girl, Lili Hirsch, cut by her mother and left with neighbors for safekeeping before deportation.
Other exhibits show personal possessions of the victims: a pile of shoes, bits of necklaces, rings and watches.
In one area a typical living room of a German Jewish home is re-created, its comfortable interior reflecting a sense of well-being that contrasts sharply with scenes visible through a window: streets filled with Nazi flags and signs calling for a boycott of Jewish businesses.
There also is a re-creation of a street from the Warsaw Ghetto, complete with original cobblestones, street lamps and tram tracks brought from Poland. In another room there are original prisoner bunks from the Auschwitz and Majdanek camps.
Large panels display excerpts from letters and diaries.
"My only child was taken away for work yesterday," an excerpt on one panel says. "I don't know where they took him. Only G-d knows what I'm going through."
Yehudit Inbar, director of the museums division at Yad Vashem and curator-in-charge at the new museum, said a major challenge facing her team was to overcome the alienated approach to the victims in Nazi photos and films, which form the bulk of the visual documentation of the Holocaust.
"The German pictures showed the Jews as an object of brutalization or murder, as if they were members of a tribe of savages," Inbar said. "We tried to find out who these people were, where they came from, what did they do before the war. Suddenly they come to life, they looked entirely different, as if you have given them an identity."
The prominent display of artwork by victims and some color photos are meant to offset traditional black-and-white images of the Holocaust, Inbar said.
"When you ask people to close their eyes and think of the Holocaust, most see it in black and white, and when you see it that way, you can dismiss it as something from another time, another culture, another planet that has nothing to do with us," Inbar said. "But the Holocaust was in color, and when you show it that way, it suddenly brings it very close to us. It happened in our civilization, not long ago. It makes it relevant."
While Yad Vashem officials say the museum was built to meet new needs, some critics have suggested that its real purpose is to assert Israel's primacy in Holocaust commemoration after the opening of similar museums abroad, most prominent among them the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.
"I see it as a statement by the state of Israel that the largest Holocaust museum cannot be in Washington or Berlin, but only in Jerusalem, and it expresses the feeling that Israel has a monopoly on the Holocaust, and this is important in order to emphasize the Zionist lessons of the Holocaust," said Tom Segev, an Israeli journalist and historian.
"In recent years the Holocaust has become a universal code for evil, but ... we are holding on to the Holocaust as if it is only ours and teaches us that we need a state, and the state has to be strong, and we have to be strong. This museum is an attempt to reclaim the Holocaust for ourselves after it slipped a bit from our hands."
Shalev, the Yad Vashem chairman, said the new museum consciously focuses on Jewish victims and tells their particular story, "which is the way it should be done in Jerusalem." But he asserted that telling the Jewish story was the most effective way to convey broader lessons about the meaning of the Holocaust for humanity at large.
"I do believe that only a very particular story can convey a universal message," he said.