LATRUN, Israel – A new museum near Jerusalem aims to honor and expand the Jewish story of World War II. The result turns that story from one of victimhood to victory.
A talking time elevator plays a film that recounts the story of that era: “From the start of the war til its end, the Germans and their allies made a methodical effort to eliminate Jews from the face of the earth. But the Jewish people did not surrender – they fought back against those who persecuted them (and) joined the armed forces en masse.”
When most people think about the Jewish population and World War II, they picture the Holocaust.
Now, the Chaim Herzog Museum of the Jewish Soldier in World War II seeks to expand that perception.
Retired Brig. Gen. Zvi Kan-Tor is one of the museum’s founders and serves as C.E.O.
He told CBN News, “What we are trying to do in our museum is to say, listen, there were 1 million and a half Jewish soldiers who participated in the war. 250,000 of them were killed during the war, and nobody mentioned that. So, this museum, as I see it, it is a kind of changing (of) mind(s).”
Kan-Tor, who served in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) for more than 30 years, believes that while Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center, covers the story of those murdered in great detail, there’s another chapter that gets lost.
“I think that the way of education in Israel, because of concentration (on) the Holocaust – nobody (says), ‘Yes, we suffered. We had a lot of victims. They killed one-third of our people. But on the other side, we also participated in the war and we contribute to the victory (over) Nazi Germany.’ And nobody mentioned it before,” Kan-Tor explained.
The interactive experience starts with the time elevator that depicts volunteers, such as Chaim Herzog, who later became Israel’s sixth president.
As Kan-Tor walked us through the museum, he remarked, “Now you are on the deck in Pearl Harbor. You see the Arizona, the Japanese attack. You understand that the State fought in the Pacific, the State fought in North Africa, and they invaded in Normandy.”
We entered the museum’s next wing, which was the Warsaw Ghetto, where thousands of Jews corralled by the Nazis in Poland, conducted an uprising and bravely died fighting the Nazis rather than be forced into the death camps.
After that, Kan-Tor said, “We are going to the forest, joining the Partisans.”
There in the forest, the museum’s visitors are waiting with the anti-Nazi Partisans, the underground European militia, to blow up a train.
“We spoke about underground all over, and when I say all over – France, Poland, right?”, Kan-Tor instructed. “Just touch it and (you’ve) got there, the information of each one of them.”
When we reached the end of the museum, there’s a shift from the victorious end of World War II to the battle for the new State of Israel just 3 years later.
That’s when they formed the Mahal Brigade, comprised of soldiers from other nations who had fought in the Second World War and came to help the fledgling Jewish state.
“We had only (the Jewish) underground (battling the Arabs and sometimes, the British,during the time of the Palestine Mandate) and suddenly the (1948) war, independence – you had to operate battalions, brigades, tanks, artillery,” Kan-Tor marveled.
The new museum is at Latrun, Israel’s official memorial site for fallen Amored Corps soldiers, known for one of the world’s truly unique tank displays.
A special garden at the entrance to the museum tells the story of war.
War is blood – red, black, smoke, purple,” Kan recalled solemnly. “There is no life, almost no life blooming, green. A garden without green.”
A museum statue is dedicated to some 4,000 solders that came from 43 countries to help Israel fight in its War of Independence.
“On the other side,” Kan-Tor noted, “we built the Garden of the Uprising, the blooming of the State of Israel – and all that garden is green.”
Even before its opening, the museum had a special impact with an American connection. The Jewish Institute for National Security of America brought a group of retired generals and admirals to the museum.
Retired U.S. Navy Vice-Admiral James Malloy told CBN News, “I was staggered by it.”
He added that it had opened his eyes to a part of history he didn’t know about.
“When you say Jews in World War II, the thing that comes to mind is Holocaust. If you say Jews, World War II, fight, then the Warsaw Uprising comes to mind and maybe some Partisan fighting,” Malloy said. “But the thought that – and it shouldn’t surprise me, but that the Jewish people amongst the countries of the allies joined the armed forces in mass and then performed superbly, heroically, as patriots – and set the stage for Israel after the war.”
Retired U.S. Army General John Campbell said he would have liked to spend a lot more time at the museum.
“It was pretty incredible,” he stated. “I thought it was fascinating to see the resilience, the bravery and the way they’ve broken out the museum and kind of go down and you spiral in. It’s got the use of technology there, it’s pretty amazing. It’s got video, it’s got movies, it’s got touchscreens – pretty fascinating.”
The museum also houses a library and a database, with plans for a research center. So far, curators have collected the stories of some 30,000 Jewish soldiers and the names of hundreds of thousands more. They’re hoping relatives and friends of other soldiers will register them on the museum’s website.