MONTEVIDEO – Their names were Maria Klein, Pinkus Frank, Ide Taube and Alex Sofer, but the Third Reich knew them only as Israel or Sara, the standard designations for male and female Jews during the years when Adolf Hitler was in power.
All of them survived the Holocaust and came to Uruguay, where they began new lives and donated personal items to help create the first Holocaust memorial center in Latin America.
The unmistakable striped prison clothing of the concentration camp, a comb kept with the dream of looking as dignified as possible when freedom was regained, the trumpet of a music fanatic, a little girl’s doll and even the surgical instrument of a Spanish veterinarian interned in Mauthausen are some of the personal items on display there.
The Holocaust Memorial Center, located in Kehila, the Uruguayan Jewish Community, in Montevideo, Uruguay, was founded in 1953 as the Association of Survivors of Naziism, which in 1965 opened the museum in a different location, although it moved to its present site in 1988.
The museum was reopened in November 2019 after more than two years of adaptation to new technologies and, as historian and lecturer Andres Serralta said, “changing the ... museum’s story to take advantage of the stock (of items) and to have a space that would allow visitors to put everything into context.”
The Simon Wiesenthal Library, named after the famed “Nazi hunter,” who devoted much of his life to bringing fugitive war criminals to justice, is one of the jewels of the center, holding some 2,000 titles, including encyclopedias, essays and items related to the “Shoa,” as the Holocaust is known in Hebrew, and to human rights in general.
Museum manager Silvina Cattaneo told EFE during a visit to the center to mark the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp that young people, foreign students, researchers and even theater groups come to the library looking for documents.
It’s “specific material that they’re not going to find elsewhere, and it’s open to all members of the public and is free,” the librarian said, adding that “it’s a real pedagogical challenge” to explain the Holocaust to young people, but she insisted that it’s fundamental not to allow the memory of what the Nazis did to fade.
“Educating a child makes a difference when later they have to welcome a refugee, when they have to deal with victims of war, with different (people),” she said, giving as an example the way Germany has treated Syrian refugees after having acknowledged “its mistakes” as a society during World War II.
“In the long term, education is the best investment, and Europe, with the Syrian crisis, was proof that it’s not the same thing” forgetting and teaching about the past, she said.
Serralta said that the Show Museum is designed “to be able to transmit ... the importance of respect for human rights, civil liberties, to inculcate tolerance, respect for others and, above all, to try and foster empathy” to have “a more tolerant and more peaceful society.”
“What we teach here ... is an opportunity to address how we fulfill our role as citizens and to what degree we participate in increasing the level of tolerance, the level of empathy with others as individuals” and also discovering if “we have certain attitudes that don’t favor this change,” he said.
Despite the fact that the museum’s board of directors includes descendants of Holocaust survivors, including museum director Rita Vinocur, and one of the lecturers, Sandra Veinstein, neither Serralta nor Cattaneo are Jewish.
“I grew up in a family in which human rights were very much in the forefront, meaning respect for others. If atheists and Judeo-Christians have one thing in common it’s the concept of fraternity. Other people are my brothers, they’re just the same as me,” Cattaneo said.
“At times in societies, it’s very difficult to spot the moment of breakdown where freedoms are being lost little by little and there comes a moment where you can no longer do anything,” she said.
However, she added that “often we tend to be very pessimistic regarding the number of instances where human rights have been lost, where there’s been massive violence ... and we have to think that everything repeats itself and we haven’t learned anything.”
Allied forces liberated the Auschwitz camp, which is in southern Poland, on Jan. 27, 1945, and the 75th anniversary of that date is now being marked to pay tribute to the victims of the Holocaust.
While experts try to transfer “concepts of the Holocaust to current issues such as ‘bullying,’” visitors to the museum can examine the timeline there, maps and photographs that give a more personal touch to the Holocaust, look over the personal items and learn about the stories of those who survived it, as well as the millions who died.