The Yad Vashem Holocaust museum in Jerusalem moved two non-Jewish brothers to create their own memorial and tribute in rural Nottinghamshire. Laurence Alster explains.
Few are so moved by a visit to a museum that their lives are changed forever. For non-Jewish brothers Stephen and James Smith it was very different. A visit to Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem in 1991 so overwhelmed them that they resolved to create their own Holocaust Memorial Centre in Laxton, a village at the heart of rural Nottinghamshire.
Funded by the brothers and private donations, Beth Shalom (House of Peace) opened four years later. As elegant in realisation as it was laudable in conception, the centre is an unmissable venue for those who want to learn about the horrible crimes of that time.
An octagonal lecture hall dominates the site. A separate building houses a small library, a cafe and seminar rooms. Directly beneath these rooms are displays and devices depicting the development of European anti-Semitism and its culmination in the endlosung - the Nazis' "final solution".
Of all the many strengths of the exhibition, perhaps the greatest is its stress on the victim as unique individual. Hence the initial focus on Bedzin in Poland, the fate of whose Jewish inhabitants was typical of those of so many other Polish towns and villages. Photographs show family gatherings, children's parties, social groups and individuals. Only 1,000 out of an original 27,000 Bedzin Jews survived the Nazi onslaught.
The remainder of the exhibition presents this as the ghastly finale to a script written over centuries. Cartoons, caricatures, quotations and carvings from medieval to modern times show the Jew as, variously, social parasite, sexual pervert and ritual killer. Such representations generated an enduring anti-Jewish animus that, in some quarters, provided adequate motivation for genocide.
When Hitler addressed the Reichstag in January 1939 and prophesied "the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe", he was not speaking rhetorically. Several excellent displays make this clear: photographs, for example, of German passports marked with a J (for Jew), of public signs that read "Jews are not wanted" and of Germans being "scientifically" measured for signs of racial origin. A striking tableau of a broken shop window, the epithet "Jude" daubed across it, dramatically represents the horrors of Kristallnacht, the orchestrated destruction of synagogues and Jewish businesses across Germany on November 9, 1938. The catastrophic climax is evoked with equal force.
Interactive computer programs chart the growth of ghettoes. On a nearby video, camp survivors speak of their experiences. And dozens of photographs show a season in hell: of gypsy children subjected to dreadful experiments, of arrivals at Auschwitz shuffling uncomprehendingly towards the distant chimneys, of men on the edge of death made to pose for their tormentors' cameras.
All these and the dozens of other displays, mementoes, models and artefacts form a narrative of enormous emotional impact. It gains yet more force when, at the very end, visitors come to two large pictures, one facing the other, of an unidentified girl and a boy. Both died in the Holocaust. Between them, in a glass case, rests an unnamed little girl's shoe from Majdanek death camp. The fate of its former owner is only too easy to guess, if not to imagine.
Beth Shalom Holocaust Memorial Centre, Laxton, Newark, Notts NG22 OPA. Tel: 01623 836627. Sunday to Friday. Schools pound;3 per head, sixth forms pound;5 per head. Teachers free