Two Holocaust Museums Rethink Their Missions

At a time when there are increasingly fewer Holocaust survivors and witnesses, the last year has seen a surge in anti-Semitism and other forms of racism and bigotry (such as White Nationalismon the rise. Of even greater concern, these forms of bias and hate are moving from the fringes to the mainstream. The Washington Post recently called on Congress to take action. These worrisome trends have had at least two Holocaust museums re-examine how they present their collections. The first involves a young girl, a name world famous but a history often misunderstood. The second commemorates the ghetto uprising in Korczak’s home of Warsaw.

 

The Anne Frank House, Amsterdam

Although attendance at this Amsterdam landmark has increased sharply over the past seven years, the curators have noticed that many of the younger and foreign visitors have a limited knowledge of the Holocaust and Anne Frank. The challenge, according to and article in the New York Times, is how to make this history relevant to today without trivializing it. The museum has expanded both its exhibition space in an building adjoining the old house and its educational outreach efforts, especially to enable these audiences to experience the what happened in the house. The museum also has traveling exhibitions, such as the new “Let Me Be Myself.” Anne Frank has long been a metaphor for hope and the belief in the inherent goodness of people even in the worst of circumstances.

Anne Frank Card Stamps with Korczak

 

Lohamei Hagetaot – Ghetto Fighters House Museum, Israel

In another recent New York Times article, the Ghetto Fighters House Museum, which commemorates the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and honors notable people of the city during the Holocaust, including Janusz Korczak. Yad Layeled commemorates the children. According to the article, “…instead of dealing with the Holocaust as a static historical event, and only a Jewish tragedy, the museum is advocating a more dynamic approach with a focus on the moral lessons for all of humanity.”

Ghetto Fighters House 50

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Remembering the Past – Finding a Direction for the Future

Some thoughts as Tisha B’Av passes by…

This is a time to remember.  Tisha B’Av is also the saddest day of the Jewish calendar, as it was the day of the destruction of both the First and Second Temple.  In addition, the Nazis, in their warped ideology, decided it would be a suitable day for the liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto.  This was the time of Korczak’s famous last march, two days after he penned his last diary entry.

Shamor v zachor – observe and remember.  It’s uniquely Jewish and it’s a mitzvah, a moral duty.  Or, as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks said, “Do remember the past, but do not be held captive by it.”  Learn from the past; don’t dwell on it, but use it to take the right direction, to do good deeds.

With both themes in mind, it is good to reflect on the life of Emmanuel Ringelblum.  Like Korczak, Ringelblum had the opportunity to flee the Warsaw Ghetto but saw it was his duty to remain for a purpose.  Knowing that an event of historic importance was taking place and fearing that nobody would be around to write it, Ringelblum assembled a staff of historians and witnesses to record what they saw.  This information he used for his own journal, to be published as Notes from the Warsaw Ghetto and for an archive.  He called his project and group of witnesses “Oyneg Shabes,” normally a term denoting the joy, oneg, of celebrating Shabbat; these priceless documents telling of the suffering of hundreds of thousands he hid in milk containers buried beneath the rubble.  The Nazis eventually found and executed Ringelblum but were not successful in silencing the voice of the Warsaw Jews.  Historian Samuel Kassov tells of this tragic story in his brilliant, compelling book, Who Will Write Our History?

Both books will be reviewed in this space in greater depth.  For now, let us take the time to remember those who remembered, history guarding memory to tell history.

Emmanuel Ringelblum Warsaw Ghetto Journal

Notes from the Warsaw Ghetto: The Journal of Emmanuel Ringelblum. First English-language hardcover edition. New York: Macmillan, 1958.

 

Kassow Warsaw Ghetto Ringelblum Oyneg Shabes archive history

Samuel D. Kassow, “Who Will Write Our History? Rediscovering a Hidden Archive from the Warsaw Ghetto.” New York: Vintage, 2007.