Preserving Holocaust memories

An unforgettable visit to Kibbutz Lochamei Hagetaot.

Haya Helenka Levi’s photo album from her time at Janusz Korczak’s orphanage (1933-39) (photo credit: COURTESY GHETTO FIGHTERS' HOUSE MUSEUM ARCHIVES)
Haya Helenka Levi’s photo album from her time at Janusz Korczak’s orphanage (1933-39)
Although Yad Vashem is Israel’s best known Holocaust museum and education facility, there are others which preceded it, and were even established by Holocaust survivors and resistance fighters. The first of these was Kibbutz Lochamei Hagetaot near Acre in the Western Galilee. It is known in English as the Ghetto Fighters Itzhak Katznelson Holocaust and Jewish Resistance Heritage House.
Established in 1949, it is believed to be the first Holocaust museum in the world founded by Holocaust survivors and resistance fighters. In 1995, a Children’s Memorial Museum was added to the Ghetto Fighters Museum in memory of Jewish children whose futures were terminated much too early during the Holocaust.
A group of journalists was recently hosted at Lochamei Hagetaot, which has undergone impressive progress and change in order to keep pace in the digital age.
We were shown both permanent and temporary exhibitions, and were amazed at what we could call up on the touch screens.
For instance, a showcase with several artifacts salvaged from the Holocaust has information about each object individually computerized. Viewers select what they are interested from a list on the screen. They touch the listing, and the explanation immediately pops up in Hebrew, English or Arabic.
Everything in the museum is riveting, but most of all the permanent exhibition of prewar Jewish Warsaw with its large Jewish population and its incredible diversity.
Although the founders of the kibbutz were secular and politically left wing, the exhibition includes religious and right-wing individuals and writings. Other than the fact that the exhibition is dedicated to Warsaw Jews, there is no religious or political bias. There are many videos and still photos displayed in a manner to instantly capture the attention of the viewer.
Even though Warsaw was rebuilt after the war to look as it had been before the war, a significant part of the Warsaw Ghetto area was for a long time left in ruins, and in the minds of many Jews Warsaw is synonymous with Jewish suffering and Jewish heroism. It is difficult for many people to imagine Warsaw as a vibrant city in which Jews constituted a third of the population.
Individual visitors to Lochamei Hagetaot can take their time to look at what moves them most. But group tours, especially press tours, are time sensitive, and require a guide to explain things along the way and to make sure that the group stays together.
Our guide was Idan Zaccai, 34, who studied history at university with the idea of becoming a teacher, but he sees himself more as an educator than a teacher, possibly because he is imparting more than basic knowledge. Zaccai is not a member of Kibbutz Lochamei Hagetaot, which has third and fourth generation residents. He comes from nearby Kibbutz Rosh Hanikra and is emotionally involved with his job. Even though his grandparents are not Polish and could not in the strictest sense be defined as Holocaust survivors, he is as passionate about his work as if they were Polish Holocaust survivors. Taking us through the prewar Warsaw exhibition he made the point that when you mourn a community, you mourn its diversity and its culture and what it might have been able to give to the world had the lives of its members not been cut short.
Film clips on video throughout the exhibition transport viewers to a thriving Jewish community of Warsaw that cannot be replaced, despite the revival of Jewish life in Poland today. Though most of the clips are more than 80 years old, they don’t look faded or as if they are part of a past era.
Depending on what one reads, there are varying statistics as to how many Jews lived in Warsaw in 1939, the year in which World War II began, but it ranges between 350,000 and 400,000. According to the World Jewish Congress, it is difficult to get an accurate estimate of the number of Jews in Poland today, though most of the country’s Jews live in Warsaw. The WJC puts the overall figure as somewhere between 5,000 and 20,000, but Poland’s Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich suggests the figure is actually much higher.
But back to Lochamei Hagetaot, which has preserved film clips and still photographs of every expression of pre-war Jewish life in Warsaw where there were as many as 50 Jewish newspapers that were published in Polish, Yiddish and Hebrew.
On first entering the main hall of the museum, the viewer is struck by the incongruity of a row of neatly hung striped pajama style uniforms that were worn in some of the concentration camps.
A person ignorant of the Second World War in general and the Holocaust in particular might be forgiven for thinking that these garments represented some kind of a fashion statement.
This is the section where Holocaust artifacts are displayed. “Every one of them represents a person,” says Zaccai.
In addition to the special attention given to Jewish Warsaw, the Lochamei HaGetaot archives contain information about 4,700 Jewish communities that existed in pre-war Europe.
Every Holocaust Museum in Israel carries the messages of “Never Again” and “Never Forget,” but in a sense these are empty slogans.
Jews have not yet forgotten, but who knows what Jews ten generations down the line will choose to remember? Zaccai noted that there have been at least 40 genocides since the Holocaust. “We have to ask ourselves many questions,” he says.
At the start of the extensive section on pre-war Jewish Warsaw, Zaccai emphasizes the importance of the Jewish community in Warsaw where one out of every three of the city’s residents was Jewish out of a total population of one million souls. The Jews were, inter alia, assimilated, orthodox, hassidic, mitnagdic, socialist, Zionist, right-wing, anti-Zionist, Bundist, members of workers’ parties and engaged in every profession.
There are scenes of Jewish mothers wheeling sophisticated baby carriages in the park; couples dancing in an upmarket restaurant on a circular slowly spinning dance floor; Yiddish theater and cabaret scenes as well as posters for the performances, children in heder, young women in sexy swimsuits sitting on deck chairs, bearded ultra-Orthodox men chatting to each other, street scenes in which the shops are identified by the large lettered Jewish names of their proprietors, the exteriors of synagogue buildings, children and adults having fun on playground merry-go-rounds and so much more of this complex, multi-layered community. There are copies of newspapers and magazines published in Polish and Hebrew by heroic educator Janusz Korczak, who went with the orphans in his care to Treblinka.. There are extracts of written works by Polish Jewish poets and intellectuals such as Julian Tuwim whose poetry my Holocaust survivor aunt used to recite incessantly.
Tuwim’s immortal lines – “I am a Jew and a Pole. The Poland I hate sees me only as a Jew” – finds an echo in the hearts of many Polish-born survivors and victims of antisemitism. The words appear on one of the museum walls.
Many of the documents and photographs at the museum were donated by survivors who retrieved them after the war from the places where they had hidden them.
Lochamei Hagetaot was founded by 150 Holocaust survivors, including Zivia Lubetkin and her husband, Yitzhak Zuckerman, leaders in the Jewish underground resistance. Zuckerman took over from Anielewicz when the young commander was killed. One of their granddaughters, Roni Zuckerman, was the first female jet fighter pilot in the Israel Air Force. She received her wings in 2001. Unfortunately, neither of her grandparents lived to enjoy this ultimate revenge against the Nazis.
THERE ARE Holocaust museums and educations centers all over Israel. The best known, largest and the most comprehensive is Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem which was established in 1953 on the Mount of Remembrance, which is part of Mount Herzl in Jerusalem and close to the National Military Cemetery.
But Yad Vashem was not the first. Yad Mordechai, a kibbutz founded close to Netanya in 1930 by immigrants from Poland who were members of the left-wing Hashomer Hatzair, was originally called Mitzpeh Yam. It was renamed Yad Mordechai in 1943 in honor of Mordechai Anielewicz, the commander of the first Jewish Fighting Organization in the Warsaw Ghetto.
His resistance group was largely made up of members of Hashomer Hatzair. The kibbutz has a larger than life outdoor statue of Anielewicz and also has a museum. There were likewise Jewish fighters on the right of the political spectrum led by Pawel Frenkel, a senior commander of the Jewish Military Union.
Beit Berl, on the outskirts of Kfar Saba, is a village housing the largest academic college in Israel, which is primarily a teachers’ college and prepares its students to teach various courses at different levels in Hebrew or Arabic. Such courses include in-depth Holocaust studies.
Givat Haviva, near Haifa, is an international education center that was established in 1949 and named for Holocaust heroine Haviva Reik, who parachuted into enemy territory and organized rescue missions of children sent to what was then Palestine, before she was apprehended and executed by Ukrainian Nazi collaborators.
Its varied programs include intensive Holocaust studies and a Holocaust Heritage and Research Center named for Mordechai Anielewicz. Yet another significant center for Holocaust studies and research is Massuah Institute for Holocaust Studies and Museum at Kibbutz Tel Yitzhak, southeast of Netanya. Although Tel Yitzhak is a veteran kibbutz dating back to 1938, Massuah did not come into being till 1972. Tel Yitzhak’s first inhabitants were immigrants from Galicia, but after the war Holocaust survivors were accepted as members.
In Poland, the government and the Warsaw municipality conduct a joint remembrance ceremony at the site of the Warsaw Ghetto on the Gregorian calendar anniversary date, which is April 19. Many Jews of Polish background, and particularly those with family roots in Warsaw, travel to Poland to participate in the ceremony, which this year has a landmark connotation in that it is the 75th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.