One day, as I was busy researching artifacts for the exhibition "No Child's Play," (which describes the story of children during the Holocaust through their own journals, paintings, toys, etc.),
an American couple turned up at my office in Yad Vashem's Museums' Department. The wife -- an attractive,
well-dressed, lively woman introduced herself as Ann Shore, president of The Hidden Child Foundation. The almost chance meeting turned into a fascinating talk that lasted for hours and included several members of the Museum's staff. Ann was most enthusiastic about the subject of our exhibition and promised to help find artifacts for it.
he shippers asked to assess the value of the [bear] for insurance purposes. I answered with a question: "Do you know the Mona Lisa?" They replied, "Yes." So I explained: "Well, the bear is worth more than the Mona Lisa because it is the lifeline of its owner."
In the following weeks, we discussed on the telephone various ideas for the exhibition. One day, Ann told me
the story of a toy bear that belonged to a child survivor, Fred
Lessing, a psychologist from Michigan. In 1987, Lessing had come across a photograph of Dutch children wearing the yellow star. A jacket worn by one of the boys in the photograph had helped Lessing to identify himself. Looking at the picture, he had recalled scenes from that period. A family had separated and gone into hiding. The boy's bear had had its head bitten off by a dog. While visiting a seriously ill and lonely child, the boy's mother asked him if there was anything he wanted; he said, "Yes, a new head for my bear." She promised to repair the bear and she sewed him a new head with material from the boy's jacket -- the same jacket as in the picture. As Lessing recalled this scene, he realized he was indeed that very same boy. In the meantime, after receiving a new head of brown fabric and a new face embroidered by the boy's mother, the toy bear had taken on a new look. No longer a yellow, hairy teddy bear, it had assumed an almost human appearance.
In the course of the same telephone conversation, Ann informed me that it was highly unlikely we would be able to obtain the bear for the exhibition because Lessing never parted from it. The bear traveled with him wherever he went for it was the sole surviving object from his childhood -- a childhood spent in the shadow of fear.
I decided to try my luck and called Lessing directly. I introduced myself and told him about the exhibition we were planning at Yad Vashem and that, through it, we wanted to tell the story of the children of the Holocaust to our own children. Lessing was very friendly and communicative despite the fact that this was a transatlantic conversation on a very sensitive subject with someone he had never met before. After a while, he said outright: "You know that my bear and I never part." I replied that I was aware of this and I knew that my request was very difficult for him, but I felt I had a duty to inform him about the exhibition and whatever decision he came to would be entirely his. We agreed to talk again within a few days.
I called Lessing a few days later. The answer he gave me and the words he spoke bring tears to my eyes whenever I recall them: "I spoke with my bear and I explained to him that, for the first time ever, we would have to part. The reason was that he had to carry out an important task -- he had to travel to Israel to take part in an exhibition with other toys from the period of the Holocaust and there he would tell our story to the children who came to visit the exhibition." It seemed to me that it was not only I who cried as I heard these words across the ocean.
I called an international shipping company that specializes in transporting museum artifacts and asked them to ship Lessing's bear to Jerusalem. After taking down a few details, the shippers asked to assess the value of the item for insurance purposes. I answered with a question: "Do you know the Mona Lisa?" They replied, "Yes." So I explained: "Well, the bear is worth more than the Mona Lisa because it is the lifeline of its owner." There was silence on the line.
After a while, the shippers informed me that the bear would arrive on a Friday, which is a short working day in Israel. Haviva
Peled-Carmeli, head of Yad Vashem's Artifacts Retrieval Department, and I decided to wait together for the delivery. In the early afternoon, a large car drew up to the Museum. Emerging from it were the courier who had traveled with the bear, the shipping company representative and the driver, bearing a large shipping carton. The representative and the driver were in a great hurry to return to Tel Aviv.
The trio carried the carton to the artifacts department where Haviva and I requested they open it. The driver, pressed for time, became more and more annoyed, but the shipping company representative proceeded to open the carton. The procedure took time as meters of protective wrapping had to be unraveled before revealing a small box. Our emotion was palpable as we cautiously opened it and found something that looked like a human fetus, gazing at us with red eyes full of wonder. The bear had lost all signs of its original yellow hair. In more than 50 years of being cuddled, it had lost all its hair and had taken on the appearance of a tiny human being. Both Haviva and I burst into tears as we held the little bear in our arms. A deep silence reigned in the room; the only audible sound was our weeping. Suddenly the young driver exclaimed: "What on earth is going on? There's this courier who delivers a large carton and in it is something that looks like a small bundle of rags and you ladies burst out crying..." He had forgotten he was in a hurry; he sat down on the carpet and waited for an explanation. As we recounted Fred Lessing's story, he too had tears in his eyes.
From then on we called Lessing's bear the "Mona Lisa." He is on display in our exhibition and stares at visitors from his glass case, with red eyes and a look that says -- don't leave me. Displayed at his side are two photographs of Fred Lessing as a 5-year old Dutch boy, with a sweet face, dark curls and a mischievous look.
It is rare for visitors not to stop in front of Lessing's bear. Sometimes as I prepare to leave the office in the evening, I am sad at the thought of leaving him alone in his glass case. But the next day, I am always happy to find him again. The little bear tells his story to everyone who comes to see him -- children, youths and adults.
Sometimes I take visitors around the exhibition and I always recount the story of Lessing and his bear. One day, a group of Palestinian kindergarten teachers came to visit the Museum. As the shy young women, their heads fully covered, sat in front of the little bear, I told them his story. We all cried together as we recalled the children who were murdered and the lives that were brutally cut short.
Many eminent dignitaries visit the exhibition. One day, we were visited by a group of board members of the Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture, which helped to sponsor the exhibition. The group included Professor Nikolai Cajall and his wife
Bibi. Professor Cajall is the head of the Jewish community in Romania and the head of the Bucharest Medical Academy. A few months later, Professor Cajall returned to visit us again, this time with then-Romanian Prime Minister Rado
Vassili, who was on an official visit to Israel. As they toured the exhibition, Professor Cajall recounted the story of Lessing's bear to the Prime Minister. Vassili was visibly moved.
As Haviva Peled-Carmeli was showing the dignitaries around the exhibition, she approached Vassili with a request. He replied that she could have whatever she wanted. Haviva explained that we very much wanted to obtain from Romania the remains of a synagogue that had been destroyed during the war.
(Yad Vashem had tried many times to acquire the remains of an Eastern European synagogue, but without success). The Israeli ambassador to Romania, who was accompanying the visitors, stared at
Haviva, exclaiming: "A lot of institutions make similar requests, but it is out of the question."
Professor Cajall intervened: "We are not talking about any institution, we are talking about Yad Vashem where the tiniest artifact takes on the value of a Mona Lisa. How much more so for a synagogue!" On hearing this, Rado Vassili turned to Haviva and said: "You will receive the synagogue you are asking for."
After months of negotiations and intensive efforts on the part of the entire Romanian Jewish community under the leadership of Professor
Cajall, and after receiving the appropriate authorization from the Romanian government, Yad Vashem succeeded in acquiring the remains of, not one, but 10 Romanian synagogues destroyed during the war. There has not been such a rescue operation since the early '50s when Dr. Shlomo Umberto Nahon succeeded in bringing to Israel the remains of 15 Italian synagogues.
Whenever dignitaries visit our exhibition, I ask if I can photograph them next to Lessing's bear and I always send the photographs with my greetings to
Lessing. Every major leader has been photographed next to the little bear and it seems to me that it is they who feel the honor. Presidents, prime ministers, tough army generals ... all change their expression when they stop at the little glass case from which Lessing's bear stares at the world with sad, accusing eyes.
Recently, Hillary Clinton and her daughter, Chelsea, visited the exhibition together with Nava
Barak, the wife of the Israeli Prime Minister, and her daughter, Michal. They, too, stopped at Lessing's bear and were photographed at his side. I told them the story and that because of the success of the exhibition and, in particular, because of the many educational projects for young people that have been organized around it, Yad Vashem has decided to turn "No Child's Play" into a permanent exhibition.
So, once again, I approached Fred Lessing with a difficult request. I asked him if he would be prepared to extend the loan of his bear. Then, with great nervousness and deference, I ventured to ask whether he would consider donating his bear to Yad Vashem on a permanent basis. Some time later, I received a letter from Lessing in which he thanked me for the photographs and greetings I had sent him. At the end, he explained how hard it was for him to part from his bear, even though it was now over two years since they had separated. Then he asked: "... and if, ultimately, I agree to giving him to you on a permanent basis, where will he live?"
I doubt if there is a museum curator anywhere in the world who has had to answer such a difficult question. And the truth is, I do not know the
Director, Museums Department, Yad Vashem, Jerusalem, Israel