Return to the Historical Perspectives | The Cybrary of the Holocaust HistoriansInterview with Uri Aloni…
Uri Aloni Interview
Interview with Uri Aloni
Teacher, Lochmei Hagetaot
The Ghetto Fighter’s Museum
Post Ashrat, Israel
Interviewer: Michael Dunn
June 10, 1993
Lecturer at Lochmei Hagetaot, The Ghetto Fighters’ Museum, outside of Haifa. The kibbutz/museum was started by survivors of the Warsaw ghetto. Aloni is not from Warsaw; his parents sent him to Sweden and his brother to Switzerland in the late 1930s. The brothers never heard from their parents after 1941.
A: The museum has a study center, which gives seminars for longer than one day; you see the educational departments of the museum, one is the so called “guidance” department where the guides take groups for a day tour or for a couple of hours, mainly school groups and army units; the so called “study” center under the names of Yitzhak Zuckerman you know he was second in command of the Warsaw ghetto uprising and his wife Celia, which gives seminars that last at least three days if not more. and that’s my main job. But me, having German as my mother tongue and knowing this, I have to help out the guidance department with groups who come from Germany or an English speaking countries, but I don’t like so much to be only a guide, I like to teach more. Do you want to know anything of my personal biography or something?
A: I am German born in a big city called Essen in an industrial area. My parents were Jewish and I personally was very lucky that my parents in 1937, decided that discrimination at the high schools in Germany was so bad for Jewish kids so they decided to send my brother to Switzerland and me to Sweden. So both of us we, we outlived the Holocaust. I spend a wonderful youth in Sweden in a boarding school and later on I was lucky to get to Palestine in 1941 during the war and my brother stayed in Switzerland until the end of the war and then he came here (Israel). So my parents had the, maybe they we can call it, it wasn’t insight, they just wanted us to study without any interference and without the discrimination because it was quite clear to them that in Germany we could not pass matriculation and things like this. I wouldn’t call it insight because I remember very well that the meaning of sending us away was that in a couple of years, this matter, Hitler, would be over. The German people are clever enough to understand that he leads them into disaster. So in a couple of years they will be rid of him, everything will be back to normal, and then you and your brother come back, you made your matriculation abroad and you can start your studies at the university. Therefore I don’t call it insight because my parents did not make any effort in time to emigrate from Germany so they missed, so to say, the opportunity to do it, and only after the war started they started really looking for something but then it wasn’t possible anymore, because they were ripped of all there all they had. My father had a big business and all that, so I have the farewell letter they sent to my brother in Switzerland and to me in Sweden, dated November 10, 1941, when they were deported to the East. The destination was the ghetto Minsk but I have no idea whatsoever if they ever reached it, because no one returned from that deportation.
So then I here in Palestine I joined the kibbutz, then I make two careers so to say in my life. The first one was a military career, which I would say full-time mobilized in the Haganah, the Jewish underground movement and the Palmach, the strike force of the Haganah, including the War of Independence when the IDF was founded, and I was free, I was released in 1950. I still served a lot in the reserves but my Army career was over in 1950 and in ’54 I studied a new career. I attended Teachers’ College and became a teacher. I started my educational career which lasted for another 27 years. So I was a teacher and a principal of a comprehensive high school of Moshav children in this area, the so called regional high school because the educational system, the school system in the countryside is regional elementary schools and regional high schools. Then I was sent by the Jewish agency as an emissary to Germany, to German Jewry for 4 years, and after my return I joined the staff of the Study Center here. So that is in short my biography, I’m married, I have three children, all married again, nine grandchildren, happily married for nearly 50 years. That’s it.
My wife comes from Czechoslovakia, she lost her parents and her family too. By the way, I told only the story of my parents, but no one of my uncles, uncles or aunts except one aunt who was married to a Gentile and therefore she was safe, No one of them survived the Holocaust. The only survivors I know about, my mother had 6 brothers and sisters, my father had 7 brothers and sisters, no one of them survived and as far as I know it might be 5 or 6 cousins and that’s all that has been left of my family; and my wife she has a sister who survived Auschwitz , she was a prisoner in Auschwitz for 3 years and she survived it, but her parents perished too, so our children grew up without grandchildren (sic) which is a quite common phenomenon in Israel amongst Jews from Europe.
Okay that’s my story. Now you start you questions.
I: I wanted to start out with the museum here, what is your purpose as a teacher? What do you hope to do by allowing this as access for students, especially in the sense of survival because it is so unique. I was talking with Chaim Gouri about the kibbutz being called the ghetto fighters’ kibbutz and how did the children identify with such an important period but their children were apparently questioning it.
A: You are asking about the children of the kibbutz?
I: No, I’m actually asking about the museum, being on the kibbutz, what is your goal of education here, what do you like to do to be able to bring people in and how do you instruct them on what happened?
A: You see we have to understand that there are really two parts: I told you before, there is a department for guidance, that is mainly for school classes, for army units, for tourists Israeli or foreign tourists, who come here for a visit of a couple of yours, maybe a study day. That’s the guidance department and there their task is to guide people towards the museum. That’s especially for the school children so they don’t just rush them through the museum but they take some parts very serious. They do a thorough job when the kids have to answer questionnaires and they discuss certain topics but this museum, which is called the Museum of the Holocaust and the Resistance, puts a special emphasis on the Resistance, on the Resistance. The Resistance in general and active and armed resistance because, as you said, this is the kibbutz of the Ghetto Fighters. That means the founders were either actual fighters of the Warsaw ghetto or other ghettoes, or were members of those youth organizations who were the hard core of the active resistance.
Maybe you know that the youth organizations, especially the Zionists, you know that means Palestine and Eretz Israel, geared or oriented youth movements, they were the hard core of the Resistance, mainly in the ghettoes. All the organization of the Warsaw ghetto uprising was done by those organizations, so maybe there are members who succeeded in fleeing from the ghettoes and fighting with the partisans or being in camps, but they too belong to this kibbutz and they came here . The kibbutz, maybe you know was founded in 1949; that means the survivors here came after the war of ’46, ’47, and ’48, then they grouped themselves . First of all they were dispersed in several kibbutzim in the country and then they built up their group which settled in this place in this kibbutz in ’49. By the way, they chose the date of the Warsaw ghetto uprising to be the founding date of the kibbutz , to be a symbol, because the idea was, it shouldn’t be only another kibbutz in Israel. That’s okay to build the country and to strengthen it, but the other idea was that this kibbutz, with the name the Ghetto Fighters, would be the living memorial for the thousands of their comrades so to say who did not survive, to be a living memorial in Israel for those who cannot make it. To get here and to make Aliyah and to join the kibbutz.
So to go back to your question, I really know more of what is going on in our Study Center. Because I think there is a difference if you get somebody for a seminar of three or more days, or if you have somebody only for a couple of hours, to show him the museum, to talk about this or other topics. But you can’t have workshops, you cannot have lots of films many films you can give them one film, and so you cannot, you nearly have no lectures on a daily tour of the museum. But three days, that means three days and two nights, we have the opportunity to make a much more thorough work, with those people who come to attend our seminars. Therefore I would like to talk mainly about our job. Because I don’t know if the guidance department has somebody, there is only one person speaking English, Gila, if she’s in today and she has time. I could try later maybe , but she could tell you more about the Guidance Department. But what you are interested in (is) what are our aims.
I: Yes, I’m curious about when you conduct workshops, what is your for lack of a better word, goal, how do you introduce this material?
A: You see, in general, if you ask about the goal, and I can only give you my personal opinion of course, I cannot talk in the names of all my colleagues, we are a team of nine at the Study Center. I would say the goal is first of all to give knowledge. So one goal is to give the students knowledge about what happened, historical facts and human facts. This is done by films, by footage and by films, by lecturers, and by workshops, and by eyewitnesses. I would say the regular seminar lasts three days and in those three days, every day we have an eyewitness who tells his story and we try very much to have different personal stories, maybe one who was a child, one who survived the camps, and one who fought in that other way in the ghettoes or with the partisans or with an underground movement, we have somebody who tells from Holland and one who was in the Danish underground. You see, to try to make it have different stories and different topics.
So one is knowledge and the other one is to give them, in the same way but mainly through the eyewitnesses and the help of workshops, a better understanding of the victims, the perpetrators, and what really happened. Because knowledge is not enough; especially, especially historical facts and so on, what is important is to give them a better understanding. Because you see everywhere in the world people will ask themselves, “How could human beings do that to other human beings? ” That means, who were, what are the characteristics of the perpetrators and the killers? On the other hand, how could Jews go to their deaths without any resistance? So these are the two main topics we want to try to give them a better understanding of what happened. The third goal is to show them the uniqueness of the Holocaust, compared to other mass killings, to other kinds of genocide, because first of all the importance of that subject lies in the fact that a third of the Jewish people were killed, no other people has ever suffered so many losses, secondly there is a part of our Jewish history, and third, that we have to learn I want to call it to learn a lesson, but we have to learn consequences from what has happened, personal consequences towards our behavior with other minorities. If it is in Israel and we have other minorities, if it is abroad, where you should at least take a stand if other minorities are being persecuted, thank you.
So if you want to call if the lessons of the Holocaust, I call it consequences because you never can…we all think that the Holocaust was such a huge, immense, un-understandable, phenomenon that you cannot that it would be say too simple, too primitive to say to learn from it, but there are things you should think about and say. I will try to teach mainly younger people that there are some consequences that have to be taken from what has happened. And that is on one hand the Jewish meaning of the Holocaust and on the other hand, the universal meaning of the Holocaust. And we, I think, we should really care that the Holocaust for our youngsters in Israel shouldn’t only be a Jewish problem. Only a Jewish subject, because it is much more. And this is not so simple. So, it’s not simple at all first of all to teach young Israelis, to tell them and to try and make them understand that Jews did not defend themselves, because it is so self understood here that we defend ourselves, we have to be strong, and we have to care about ourselves, no one is going to care about us. That the world has shown during the Holocaust, that the world shows today what is going on in the ex-Yugoslavia, so if you don’t care about yourself, no one will help you, the world will help you only if it has a direct interest in what is happening. So that’s what happened in Kuwait, no one would have cared about that Kuwait down there and Saddam Hussein if it wasn’t for the oil, if it weren’t the oil. So if the big powers acknowledged only one big power, let’s say European power, if they don’t have a direct interest in what is happening, no one is coming to your help.
So the young people think, how could this happen? The Jews went, as it was said, and we, I personally try very much not to use that term about “sheep going to the slaughter”. Because I think we are not allowed _ we who have not suffered _ we have not gone through the Holocaust, we have not experienced that terrible thing, we are not allowed to judge or to call them names and talking about , they went like “sheep to the slaughter” is calling them names, is dishonoring the victims. So it is very important really to teach our youngsters there are circumstances, especially when they are done by a cruel, very well planned, scheme like the Nazi regime. Which was very conscious of all they were doing.
There was a development of the Nazi policy towards the Jews, genocide only came up in 1941, then genocide was decided in ’41, in ’39 and ’40 it was only the ghettoes as an interim solution because they didn’t know what to do with so many Jews they got with their government in Poland. But the German Jews, they maybe had the illusion that they would emigrate sooner or later, but the genocide was decided quite late only in ’41, it started with the so-called Einsatzgruppen in the occupied Soviet areas. So I think that even in three days, we are quite successful, I cannot say that we solve all the problems because there might be mainly students of lower intelligence or education that think only black or white and they think no, I can’t accept that they didn’t do anything. I understand that they didn’t have arms and they couldn’t fight, but at least they should do something and not walk into the gas chambers without any resistance at all.
And we tried to make them understand how things happened, because I always when I talk to those younger people, I give the example of my own parents. I don’t know how they perished but I know exactly the story how my father had still the illusion that this cannot happen and how there is a very good book by an eyewitness, an Israeli eyewitness, which has been translated into English and the name is “Hope is the Last to Die.” It means that a human being always hopes that it will not happen to him. It will not happen to him, it will not happen at all, it will only happen then, not to us, to our ghetto and when it happens to the ghetto, it will happen only to the old ones and the sick ones and the small children and it will not happen to me because I am young and strong, I can work. And when it comes to you then you think maybe it won’t happen to me, they’ll take me to Auschwitz, but at the selection I will be selected to those who go to work and not to those who go to the gas chambers. So people always hope. And if they are told a very well planned lie by the Germans, about the camps about the recolonization the resettlement of the Jews in the huge occupied areas of the Ukraine and so on. They just wanted to believe it.
They heard in the ghettoes, especially in the Warsaw ghetto, they heard from the young people that Treblinka means death. But they did not want to believe it, it is not they did not believe it, they did not want to believe it. So all these things really have to be made clear to the students and I we have the feeling we never made any research about how our students, really, how they keep what they have learned here for years. We only have the sum up, you know the summary at the end of a seminar and everyone talks up. And I must say the most responses we get are that they learned a lot. and now they understand much better. They don’t say that all of them understand what happened, but they understand much better how things could have happened as they did. So I think that in quite a, I think we quite well achieved the goals we have set for ourselves, giving those seminars and teaching those youngsters.
I: How do you feel about the word “relevance” to present events, more from the context, for instance, of the way some outsiders perceive Israel. I read the Syrian prime minister in some vitriol thing was calling them Nazis. What do you think of Bill Clinton calling Bosnia a Holocaust, it’s not the same thing that this sort of what we call “normalization” which makes more of a myth. How do you as a teacher, not necessarily address that, but what are your feelings about that?
A: See, first of all not always do we have time to discuss that topic, that subject, with our students. But when it comes up, I personally try very hard to show to show the students that using the Holocaust and using events of the Holocaust in relevance to up to date or to other events, wherever they happen, is completely wrong because nothing can be compared to the Holocaust.
I: That’s okay, that’s okay (he shuts door from talking noise in the hallway).
A: But there is one very important thing I’d like to try to discuss with my students, and that is the manipulation of the Holocaust by politicians. Of course I talk to them that many times it happens that demonstrators call the police Nazis and Gestapo and so on, and maybe they are just a little bit out of their minds, but manipulation of the Holocaust. For instance I do not like when any VIP from abroad arrives on an official visit to Israel, immediately on the first day, the latest is on the second day, they grab him and bring him into Yad Vashem. Because in my eyes _ this is my personal opinion _ that this is some kind of manipulation of the Holocaust. They should let people ask for seeing Yad Vashem, and not first of all bring them there, look what they have done to us, and now we can talk about our problems, our daily problems, our up to date problems and so on, that means.
The Holocaust is a very important part of our history , no doubt that the state of Israel was founded at that time because of the Holocaust and its consequences. I want to emphasize “at that time” because I believe that there are people who say that the Jewish people have to thank Hitler for that they have a state today, because otherwise they would have never got it. We would have got it maybe 50 years later, because Zionism existed, Aliyah existed, and it would have taken more time until the world would have agreed that a Jewish state should be erected here. Even the partitions between us and the Palestinians, which is the core of the whole problem we have with them, they did not accept the United Nations resolution in ’47.
So I would say dragging a very important guest, dragging them to Yad Vashem, I do not personally like it. For me it’s some kind of manipulation, and then on the other hand I would say there is another danger in teaching the Holocaust and that is that the consequence of youngsters, mainly young people, could be all the world the entire world is against us, so we have to be strong, we have to be strong, we have no one to allow to endanger in any way the existence of Israel and our response should always be very powerful and have a strong army. Whenever it starts to respond in a very aggressive way and I must say mainly the right wing parties in my eyes they play too much with frightening the people, all the world is against us, everyone is against us, so the consequence is we have to be strong, we need a big country so the borders have to be as big as possible, as far as possible from the mainland from the main concentration of the population and so on. But I personally think we cannot live with this, and they use not even once the Holocaust to say listen, that happened to us and if we are not strong enough it could happen to us again, in any way, especially it could be a Holocaust of Israel.
I: How does the motto, “Never Forget”, there is a difference between a politician or somebody using it to their advantage or manipulation, where would the “Never Forget” come through to a student or normal human being? What would be beyond the myth making, just the realization and an understanding that this could happen and be aware of it, or is there a way to really integrate it into like you said, you can’t refer to present day events, it’s not the same, but on the other end there is this theme not to forget, to make sure that it doesn’t happen again. So obviously there is something there that for all human beings I mean obviously the Jewish population is different, but there is something that was shown there that should not be forgotten. I don’t expect a concrete answer to this but it’s almost one of the frustrations that a student has, what is it to learn, it’s not to relate to events of the present day, where can you go with the subject matter?A: As long as we do not forget the uniqueness of the Holocaust and we do not use it to compare to actual events, then there are lots of consequences, I even said it before, the consequence is human relationship one to the other, the treatment of minorities, democracy, freedom and personal freedom, and so on and so on, you can learn a lot of lessons out of the Holocaust. For instance, just now I am preparing, see this is a book about the German the Nazi policy against the Jews in the Third Reich, I am preparing a workshop about the Nazi legislation against the Jews from ’33-’39, until the beginning of the war, of World War II, and I went through a book this is a booklet of all the laws, the anti-Jewish laws that were given in Germany during the Nazi time. It is very interesting to show how consequently the personal rights of people especially the Jews, were discriminated, were taken away from them, until really there was nothing left, until they were completely victims in the hand of the Nazis whatever they wanted to do with them. There is no integrity of personal rights, no integrity of your belongings, no integrity of your organizations, of your communities, nothing! Nothing was left. Until the war started you can say really they crushed, not only by laws, they crushed not only the Jewish individual, the human being, but they crushed the community, they crushed the school system, everything. So the Jews were really left for only to live, to all of a sudden I lack a word.
I would say the only thing that was left to the Jews was to stay alive. And not yet in camps, and not yet in ghettoes, neither yet in camps or in ghettoes but by legislation the German Jews were brought to a point where they could just think about staying alive. Their life, their personal life was not in danger yet, but that was the main thing, to live from one day to another, to somehow get along with all those laws and I personally was lucky to be away already. I really, personally very little I have suffered, because on one hand you see my figure. I was strong enough even if there was some clashes with the Nazi youngsters I got along quite well, and on the other hand the Jewish youth movement was such a compensation for what we were lacking that I must say until I left Germany in ’37 I didn’t feel so bad about our personal situation, of Jewish youngsters in Germany. So if we couldn’t take part in these sports organizations with the Gentiles, there were sports organizations of our own. If we couldn’t go to the theatre anymore there was a Jewish theatre, the so called cultural organization of the Jewish community in Germany.
So really I do not have, it’s not out of forgetting things, I really do not remember _ those times it was nearly 4 years and I still lived under Hitler so to say _ that it was very hard for me. The only thing that was really hard was the discrimination at school. So I’ve gone through terrible things, so as I said, this is very interesting for me now, I can tell you the legislation and the fact how Jews in Germany really suffered. If I give a workshop on that, this is one of the ways to teach young people, to teach people, how slowly, slowly, step by step, the German Jews who lived under Hitler until the war started for six years, and then another until the you know deportations started, another year and a half, two years, slowly step by step they were deprived of their rights. They were used to being somebody who really could only care about living for the next day or keep on living, staying alive.
Of course, completely different what happened to even to the Jews of Austria. Hitler took over Austria, the Anschluss was in ‘March ’38, so they at once were put into the situation, from one day to the other, the situation that German Jews lived through five years. And the Czech Jews even later, it was after the Crystal Night and the Pogrom, the State Pogrom, so it was even harder for them. But you cannot even the Czech Jews who were at once brought into the legislation of ’39 it was really severe at the time, cannot be compared to the Polish Jews when the war started and the German war machine rode over them from one day to the other and this was so traumatic that they really did have time to even get used to what was happening. They remembered, especially the Russian Jews, they remembered the German army from World War I, they looked at them then as liberators, because they came from an advanced, a progressive country, compared to the Russia of the Czars. So they hoped that the Germans would bring them progress. What else could I do for you?
I: Do you ever teach workshops, are they mostly Israeli children, are there other groups?A: We are not giving seminars to children, only to adults, people who are after the Army service. We have some exceptions, these are groups of youngsters, mainly 17 years old, who go as delegations to the camps in Poland. And they get the preparation seminar at our study Center. But these are only groups of youngsters, of teenagers they are 17, who have no other possibility to prepare themselves for their trip to the camps in Poland. To the sights of the Holocaust in Poland.
I: Are there special groups?A: There are groups of kibbutzim in the deep south who have the opportunity to go to Yad Vashem and take three or four days to get a daily seminar, or those who come from the North, down to Hadar and so on who come here for daily seminars, given by Guidance Department, but these are exceptions, mainly we are planned, we are prepared, for adults. After the army service and that means something in Israel and especially the men who serve in the territories and so on, they have some experience with minorities, with being strong, armed, so we think it is very important for them to get this seminar. I: Have you ever taught a group of non-Israelis?A: The only group of non-Israelis we have had, first non-Israelis, first non-Jews you see non-Israelis we have some groups from the English speaking countries because we give seminars only in English. The first exception was made this year (1993) that we gave a study day, two study days, for groups from Germany, in German. But this was a complete exception. Now non-Jews are in seminar of American teachers which is given during the summer, they come from nearly all the states of the United States, it is a specialty.
So this seminar is for American teachers, it is organized by the Jewish Labor Committee of New York. I don’t know really how they handle it, a certain survivor named Lam Gamed is very busy and her husband was one of the initiators of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington and she built up a group of American teachers from nearly all of the states and she brings them on a so called Holocaust seminar which has three parts. One is they study in Poland, visiting the sites; then they come to Yad Vashem and they finish here with us, the last 10 days they stay with us.
And I would say the average about 70% of those teachers are non-Jews, and from them I learned the most important lesson about the universal meaning of the Holocaust; Because the first question you ask a non-Jew, what are you so interested in the Holocaust? You go to Poland, and to Yad Vashem, and to here and then we get the answer: that for those people who are not Jews, and there are even colored people among them, they say listen, this is a lesson which has to be learned, what human beings have done to other human beings, this has to be learned, and this has to be learned in a very thorough way because we are teachers, we are teaching the future adults in America and they should know about what has happened and they should learn from it. So I always had some idea about the universal meaning of it but the first time when I had to encounter who are non-Jews and show such an interest in it and have learned so much about it. Some of them, I even have contact with them, they tell us about what they are doing with their classes, that is really I would say that it enriched my entire view of the Holocaust. Now here you are coming, a non-Jew, and still I say yes, we have to know more about it in our educational world.
I: What about Germany in general. Ely Ben-Gal was telling me that he didn’t mind Germans, that he had no problem with the people, but for him it was something that he could never go back there, or never visit, I should say. He could never visit it because for him it was too much…You did a seminar in German, what was their contact with you?A: But now I have to draw a clear line between the official attitude of the museum towards Germany and my personal opinion because it is quite different. If I told you before that I went as a missionary, a missionary? An emissary, that I went to live in Germany for nearly four years as an emissary for a Jewish agency for Israel, then it must be clear to you that my attitude to those Germans is much more open than Ely you told me about who doesn’t want, who will never put his foot on German soil. The official attitude of the museum for many years, maybe until two or three years ago, was no contact with Germany and no contact with Germans at all. That means German groups were not officially accepted by the museum, or guided by the museum in German. They would be guided in English rather than German, if let’s say the German ambassador wanted to visit the museum he would not have been accepted as the official personality but as a private person who comes to see it, but this has changed a little bit.
Because more and more groups are asking to visit the museum and being guided and now it’s it has been put into my hands, my personal hands, to decide which group is going to be accepted and being guided in German. And I would say I decide the groups which are accepted are youngsters, young people who want to come here and learn about the Holocaust, then what the Germans call, they call it if I put it into English, they are called multiplicators, these are people that multiplicate what they have learned. That means teachers in all kinds of schools and universities and people of the media who multiplicate also what they see and learn. And then sometimes officials who we think it is important anyway if they come, maybe it could be the head of a state in Germany or maybe the Burgermeister of a big city, that I decide to accept him here and guide him in German. But still until now only two groups have been accepted this year for getting a full study day at our museum. Both groups have seminars in Yad Vashem, and Yad Vashem asks us to give them a special day about Jewish resistance, all kinds of Jewish resistance. Because this museum is the museum of the Holocaust and the Resistance, and quite a much bigger emphasis is put on resistance in this museum than it is in Yad Vashem and of course is given in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum where a very small part, if any, talks about Jewish resistance. Because maybe that’s not too important in the eyes of American Jewry.
Now who are those two groups? One is a group from the city of Bremen, who had a special program for the 50th anniversary of the Warsaw ghetto uprising. They had a special program and they sent 8 people here who should carry out this program and they wanted them to get first hand information about the Holocaust, so they had a seminar in to Yad Vashem. The second one was a group of people who work at memorials in Germany, memorials of the Nazi period, that means the camps, people from Buchenwald, Dachau, from Neuengamme, from the Wannsee village in Berlin, which is an extraordinary exhibition and study center about the period. So those people were sent by the Germany Ministry of Information for a Holocaust seminar of two weeks in Yad Vashem.
You asked me about any contact we have with the German institutions of remembrance and teaching the Holocaust or the Nazi period. A colleague of mine and I for the first time we were officially sent by the museum to Germany in November of last year to a convention an international convention of people who work at institutions of remembrance about the Holocaust under the name, Education after Auschwitz. And there we made a lot of contacts with people from institutions in Germany and Poland and Boston institution “Facing History in Ourselves.” I don’t know if you’ve read the name of it, and so now we have some contact and now we help the museum of Bergen-Belsen which has been erected only for the visit of President Reagan in Bitburg. The nearest camp was Bergen-Belsen and they didn’t have an exhibition so very fast they made an exhibition and now it’s a study center of the Nazi time and just now we sent them materials about lists we have of prisoners that were in Bergen-Belsen that we have in our archive and sent it to them. In short, there would come one of the participants of their team, they would come here to go through the photo archive, to look for pictures of Bergen-Belsen, of people who have been there, and the guards. The perpetrators and things they might not have so they will copy it from here. So we have to start contacting people in German institutions which until a couple of years ago I would say would be completely…you couldn’t even think of it, it would be unthinkable a few years ago, and I hope that we will warm up more and more until maybe we will give a seminar in German. But we are getting older and older because in our team we have 3 German speaking teachers but they are all more or less my age, 70 or around 70, so we would not last that long so there won’t be people who speak German for German groups who might come.
I: So what about the whole issue of Resistance? You really are unique here in the teaching of resistance. Do you have an idea of what , I don’t know how to put it, why is it so difficult? Why isn’t it being taught and focused on the element of resistance? We were talking about, with Yehuda Bauer, where somebody at their last in the concentration camp was told to sacrifice their Jewishness; they were humiliating them and he said no. That’s resistance, it doesn’t have to be armed and why don’t we want to accept that, like you are saying, why are we getting stuck in this sheep/beast thing. What would be the value of learning resistance?A: You see what’s important, why does resistance get so little emphasis in many Holocaust museums. Because the term of “resistance” or the meaning of resistance is understood only as active resistance, that means more or less armed resistance. For instance, when I speak to Germans, there was some little, little, little resistance in Germany too. The people in the communist organization tried to do something and the attempt on Hitler’s life and so on, they understand resistance as something you really act on. But we, and I think, for all the world resistance is understood as something really active too, if not with arms then in any other way, but we understand and therefore so little emphasis is put on it.
Even in the United States Holocaust Museum, because if you understand resistance, as Yehuda Bauer more or less if I’m not wrong defined it, gave it definition, it is any now I lack a word, any “conscious” act which is aimed not to fulfill the will of the oppressor is resistance. And sometimes I give an example to my students, a personal example, the only personal example I can give of resistance, active resistance, any kind of resistance, and I always tell them this is an atomic example. Sometime in ’36 we were four Jewish kids in our high school in that class we were set on the last bench somehow separated from the rest of the students to humiliate us. And at some time in ’36 the Hitler greeting was imposed on every class so when the teacher came in we all had to jump up and he shouted, Heil Hitler and Sieg Heil and we shouted, Heil Hitler. Now us, the four kids, now we were asked to hail Hitler, you know what I mean to hail him, to hail Hitler, and we didn’t want to do it, so what do we do, we shouted “not Heil Litters, but “Drei Liters” you know drei liters means three liters. Now you see in the general shouting they could not here that we were shouting “Drei Liters”. Now this was a conscious act not to fulfill the will of the oppressor as Jews, to make us hail Hitler, they told us we were hailing him, but we knew we weren’t doing it. We shouted “Drei Liters”. Now as I said this is a very small example, it’s not a big act of resistance.
But going so far by giving this example shows you how we understand the meaning of resistance, because resistance may mean taking pictures in the ghettoes, schooling in the ghettoes, when schools were closed, praying in the ghettoes when all the synagogues were closed, writing diaries, listening to radio, we had up here in our museum we had the radio from the ghetto Lodz, an illegal radio they kept there to listen to the news which was completely forbidden, publishing some kind of newspapers, newsletters spread out, many many kinds of resistance, all these are acts of resistance. Not with arms, but not, to act against the will of the oppressor and because of and now I can only repeat what I said before, that people do not understand well enough of what resistance means as we think, and if they only look upon armed resistance it was such a small percentage of the entire phenomenon that was called the Holocaust that they can say, well a small corner over there is enough.
But of course I must admit I have to admit that especially the act of resistance, the heroism of active resistance, was really told and taught in, out of proportion in Israel. Because our remembrance day of the Holocaust is called the Remembrance Day, officially, of the Holocaust and the Heroism. That means we couldn’t, when it was made a law in ’51, then our leadership could not admit that it is only a remembrance of a day of sorrow, only of those 6 million victims, and one and a half million of children, so it has it has to be given some meaning of heroism too and therefore the day was chosen, the remembrance day of the Holocaust the official day of remembrance we have is on the day of the Warsaw ghetto uprising, more or less, because it was on Passover eve and you couldn’t have a day of remembrance on Passover eve so it was postponed a little bit, but this is the meaning of the day.
Because you see the Chief Rabbinate, in the Jewish religion we have a certain day, according to our calendar it is the tenth day of the month Quebbet it is called the day of Fast for orthodox Jews, it is the day for the common mourning prayer. This day you say the mourning prayer for people whose day and place of death is unknown. Now this fits exactly for the victims of the Holocaust. I do not know when and where my parents perished, where they were killed, I do not know, so I should say that the mourning prayer on that day. Our leadership they know it can’t be, if we take this day it is only mourning, it is only sorrow, we want the heroism too, so they choose the day of the Warsaw ghetto uprising to be the national remembrance day. So you see I tell you this additional to what I said before, it was made out of proportion, but today when we define, can you say define or give definition, resistance any act, conscious act, against the will of the oppressor, then it has a much broader meaning and therefore we think today we teach it in the right proportion and in the right way, the correct way. So maybe that gives some answer to your questions.
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