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Jewish Warsaw – A Story of the Human Spirit

• Why did the Ghetto Fighters' House decide to focus on Warsaw, a topic that has already been the subject of extensive museum coverage?

The story of Polish Jewry and of Jewish Warsaw is the story of the life and resistance of the founders of the Ghetto Fighters' House. It is indeed a particular case, but one that is nonetheless representative of Polish Jewry and European Jewry as a whole, a microcosm encapsulating the entire story. The singularity of this exhibition is in telling their stories like never before, through the eyes of the Jews that lived before and during the Holocaust, their everyday life, their beliefs and their perseverance. It is a story that begins long before the rise of Nazism and the occupation of Poland, and told from diverse perspectives, using authentic contemporary materials. Rather than yet another story of destruction, it tells a story of life; without understanding the lives of the Jews before the war, their aspirations, their dreams and their hopes, one cannot grasp the magnitude of the catastrophe that befell them. An entire civilization erased without a trace. We return to the ideologies, the languages and the characters on the Jewish street in Warsaw in 1935: Hasidim and "Misnagdim", educated and assimilated Jews, members of both Zionist and non-Zionist youth movements. We explore the Jewish life with all its complexity.
We also portray the turbulent years before and during World War II – the German occupation, the course of the war and the concentration and persecution of the Jews.

 

• What is the message of the exhibition to the Israeli public? Does it hold an optimistic message for Israelis? Does it have a message for non-Israelis? For non-Jews?

"We must fight for our future" – this is the exhibition's main message, and it's relevant for both Jews and non-Jews.
Assimilated Jews, Orthodox, Zionists and Socialists – all struggled for the education of their children, in hopes of giving the next generation the possibilities for a better life. This exhibition outlines dynamics in which individual initiatives turn from an idea to a movement, such as the Zionist pioneering ideology or the Jewish Social Self-Help for refugees.

Another message is the importance of pluralism – this exhibition gives voice to the different groups on the streets of Warsaw before and during the war. The exhibition thus offers a wide range of ideas and experiences.

This is an opportunity to break away from the lachrymose atmosphere and the horror the horror images we have grown accustomed to see in Holocaust exhibitions and to discover complexity and growth inside a seemingly monolithic experience.

 

• How is this relevant for us as Israeli Jews?

After the war, Jews immigrated to many countries, some of them to Israel. The seeds that were sown in their hearts as children, in the places in which they were raised long before the war, the Zionist youth movements and training camps, the prayers for the Yishuv in Mandatory Palestine in the synagogues, the sports associations and the Hebrew press – they all had a part in this choice.
In the future, when the next installment of the exhibition will be established, it will end with the founding of Kibbutz Lohamei HaGhetaot and the first child born in the kibbutz. The circle will thus be closed – from the home that was ruined to the new home built after the destruction: "the past lives on in the present and in the future – otherwise, it is meaningless" (Yitzhak "Antek" Zuckerman)

 

• How was the exhibition designed? How does the architecture narrate the story? What were the curational and artistic guidelines?

The exhibition has three spaces: Warsaw before the War, The occupation and The Ghetto. In the future, the exhibition will be completed with the mass deportation from the ghetto and the uprising, after which we will deal with the survivors and their immigration to Israel. The exhibition draws extensively on the underground Oyneg Shabes archive established in the ghetto by Dr. Emanuel Ringelblum and on wartime testimonies and diaries. The Ghetto features videos of actors reading these testimonies, in order to breathe life into them. The exhibition will also reveal previously unpublished materials from the Ghetto Fighters' House Archives, such as the "Korczak Collection" of letters and other materials from the orphanage. The exhibition also uses many video clips and contemporary photos.

Warsaw Before the War shows the interwoven lives of Jews and non-Jews. The experience of the bustling Warsaw street is achieved through a video-art installation showing a cascade of images.

Next to the thematically-arranged display cases, cultural figures from Warsaw such as the Piaseczno Rebbe, Janusz Korczak and youth movement leaders are given voice, against the background of the turbulent 1930s – political and financial events that affected Jewish lives. This is a sympathetic reality.

The Occupation offers a dissonance. The vivid life of Warsaw is overrun by the sweeping Nazi juggernaut, bringing with it fear, terror and death. The besieged city is flooded by refugees and descents into chaos. The Jews of Warsaw struggled to survive, but many of them nonetheless showed mutual aid and social solidarity. This is a significant and relevant message for us even today.

The Ghetto has three screening areas, which are in fact discussion circles, following the Ghetto Fighters' House tradition promoting an open dialogue with our visitors. This space raises many moral issues, such as the gap between the rich and the poor in the ghetto. Contrariwise, the exhibit underscores the conduct of the house committees as a model of mutual support and partnership, and the formation of the resistance underground.
 
The exhibition also features an interactive exhibition space, a vehicle for a non-didactic conveyance of knowledge. Touchscreens are used for several topics: Jewish life, cinema and theater, press (including titles in Polish, Hebrew and Yiddish), an interactive book about six prominent authors from pre-war Warsaw, and a sports station showing the "muscular Judaism".

 

• Can the exhibition be toured without guidance or prior knowledge? In which languages do you offer guided tours? 

No prior knowledge is required. The exhibition information is in Hebrew, English and Arabic. Guided tours can be provided in many other languages.

 

• What are the main exhibits? Will they be new for scholars and the general public?

Most of us already know the historical documentation of World War II from other Holocaust museums. This exhibition focuses on an often forgotten part – life before the war in all of its complexity. This exhibition shows a bit of this abundance, of which not much documentation remains. We used testimonies, diaries and letters, original films and artifacts, some of which are revealed for the first time. The exhibition draws extensively on documents from the Ghetto Fighters' House Archives.

 

• Which audiences does the Ghetto Fighters' House seek to interest with this exhibition?

The exhibition is relevant for adolescents aged 14 and up, and of course for adults. We believe there isn't a person for whom this exhibition is irrelevant. Naturally, we expect to attract high school students and IDF soldiers, but also tourist groups and independent visitors.

 

• What are the commemoration challenges faced by the museum, now that Holocaust survivors are diminishing? How does the new exhibition cope with this issue and with the potential Holocaust denial?

The first part of the Warsaw exhibition shows Jewish Warsaw before the Holocaust – the diverse culture, the intellectual proliferation, the political effervescence, the extended families, and the community of hundreds of thousands – the immense existence that was wiped out by the Holocaust. Only in this way can one begin to understand the scope of the unprecedented calamity.
The Ghetto exhibit tackles the need to bring the story of wartime living to the young generation, to demonstrate the difficulties of life in the ghetto, to convey the way people experienced the hardships without knowing what goes on outside the ghetto walls, what the Germans have in mind and what the future holds. Using testimonies of people of different ages, classes and social positions, the exhibition gives a different interpretation to the issue of testimonies in general and Holocaust diaries in particular. Testimonies of key figures are presented by actors of the authors' age, reading the testimonies verbatim.

 

• What are the plans for the future? This exhibition is now substituting only some of the older ones. What are the parts still underway? What's the schedule?

40% of the planned exhibition is now open. We will soon build the next stage, which will concern the struggle of Warsaw's Jews to survive. After the mass deportation of the summer of 1942, when most of the ghetto residents were sent to the camps, the remaining Jews realized what was at stake and made preparations for an armed uprising. The next hall of the exhibition will tell the story of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and the rescue thousands of Jews on the "Aryan" side of the city with the help of the Righteous Among the Nations. Later on, the exhibition will tell the story of the regrouping of the survivors to immigrate to settle down in Israel. A full circle of life will thus be drawn: from a terrible catastrophe and back to life and prosperity. The humane, optimistic and proactive message of the Ghetto Fighters' House will be made complete.



• Will other exhibitions are being opened this year? How will they complement this one?

A new exhibition from Amsterdam just opened in December, concerning the 18,000 Jewish children who perished in the Holocaust.
On International Holocaust Remembrance Day, in January 2018, we will open a new exhibition, "Facing the Glass Booth", about the Eichmann trial and the controversy it caused. Focusing on the "glass booth" in which Adolf Eichmann sat during his trial, which was donated to the Ghetto Fighters' House, this exhibition will discuss the responsibility of the bureaucrat sitting behind his desk for the mass murder, the question of the vicious ideology versus human nature, and other ethical questions that concern our lives as well.

 

• What are the museum hours? Will it be open on weekends? Will there be supplemental activities around the exhibition such as lectures, performances, etc.?

The museum is open Sunday through Thursday from 9:00 to 16:00 and on Fridays from 9:00 to 13:00, with regular tours for visitors. The new exhibitions will be accompanied by cultural events: lectures, films, and performances.

 

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