Bearing Witness: Stories Behind the Artifacts in the Yad Vashem Museum Collection

Prayer book purchased in Auschwitz in 1944 by Zvi Kopolovich

"This prayer book was purchased in Auschwitz in 1944. I received it from a Russian inmate in exchange for a portion of my daily ration of bread. It accompanied me throughout my entire journey of suffering in the concentration and death camps in Germany. I donate today this unique prayer book to Yad Vashem in Jerusalem as a memorial for future generations and in memory of my parents David and Malka Kopolovich z”l, my wife’s parents Shlomo and Zehava Weiss z”l, my brothers and sisters and all of my relatives who were murdered in the Holocaust." Zvi Kopolovich, Holon
18th of Cheshvan, 5750, November 16, 1989

As part of Yad Vashem’s duty to preserve the memory of the Holocaust, we wish to present you with a glimpse of the objects in the Artifacts Collection along with their poignant stories. The Holocaust and the method of the murder of six million are impossible to understand, but through one story, and another and another, the viewer can try to comprehend what happened. The use of a personal story with a tangible, authentic artifact as its focus, with the addition of documents, photographs and testimonies, enables the visitors to understand fragments of the experiences of the survivors.

Soon however, there will no longer be live witnesses to the events. Even now, people who are able to give testimony regarding what happened to them were children or at most youths during the Holocaust. It is important, therefore, to get these objects and the testimony from the survivors themselves who are our link with the events. They are depositing with us their dearest memories – testimony and their object around which we can build their story.  

Though the object may be something of little significance to the world, parting from it is difficult – sometimes this is the only object that is left from the survivor’s former life and family, and as such it carries the weight of the remembrance. Only the perception that the object can transfer the memories to future generations enables the survivor to part with such a precious item. It is as if he projects his life story onto the object and passes it on to us. Often we find that the survivor expresses relief after giving us the object as if he is saying: until now I was responsible for transferring the story to the next generations, now that the object is in your hands, you are taking on the responsibility of telling the story with the object helping you in your mission.

The Artifacts Collection includes thousands of objects that have been collected throughout the existence of Yad Vashem. Included are a wide variety of artifacts that survived the war, among them personal effects as well as objects that served families or communities – some are elaborate and splendidly crafted, and others’ simplicity reflects the harsh conditions under which they were made.

Only a small part of the collection is displayed on a permanent basis in Yad Vashem’s Holocaust History Museum, so here we present you with additional stories of the precious artifacts preserved in the Collection Room. We invite you to view this virtual exhibition that is focused on a number of major themes, and to join us in our mission of  keeping the memory of the Holocaust alive.

Haviva Peled-Carmeli,
Senior Curator of Artifacts & Director of the Artifacts Department

The Artifacts Department is part of the Yad Vashem Museums Division, headed by Yehudit Inbar.