Today was a busy day – we went to the Holocaust museum at Kibbutz Lohamei HaGetaot, we visited Tzvat (or Safed, as it is often spelled in English), and we also went to Capernaum, finally ending in Tiberias. Although I enjoyed the entire day, the museum was the most interesting part of the schedule for me, both in terms of Holocaust and kibbutz history. As such, I am choosing to focus my blog exclusively on our experiences there.
Survivors of the Warsaw Ghetto formed Kibbutz Lohamei HaGetaot (the Ghetto Fighters Kibbutz) after the Holocaust, and established a museum for Holocaust education there as early as 1949, just four years after the end of the Second World War. Although the museum did not offer as comprehensive an account of Holocaust history as Yad Vashem, I found that the focus on Warsaw and the ghetto uprising made the exhibit more personal, since the narrower lens provided more depth to that single community. For example, rather than an entire room with millions of records, the museum on the Kibbutz had large books on tables that were less overwhelming (and thus, more accessible).
It may seem strange to dedicate a museum to one uprising, when Warsaw was just one of many Jewish ghettoes. But Warsaw is a central part of Holocaust history, primarily due to the large Jewish population. Before World War II, Warsaw was the capital of the Polish state, and approximately 30% of its 1.3 million population was comprised of Jews. Indeed, the United States Holocaust Museum website identifies pre-war Warsaw as having had the largest Jewish community in all of Europe, and the second largest in the world (after New York City). As a major centre of Jewish learning and culture, the events at Warsaw did not only affect Polish Jewry, but had ramifications for the international Jewish community. Due to the already-large population in Warsaw, and the additional Jews from nearby towns and villages forced into the ghetto, the ghetto population numbered around 400,000. Conditions were harsh, with all 400,000 Jews crammed into a surface area of 1.3 square miles. The average room contained around 7 people. Jewish adults and children alike starved on meagre food rations, consuming an average of 1,125 calories a day. And in such cramped living conditions, disease was able to spread like wildfire. At the museum, we also talked about the reversal of standard familial roles, as children who were forced to obtain food and supplies for their families, being the only ones small enough to sneak in and out of the ghettos, past the ten-foot wall topped with barbed wire. The conditions of the ghetto took a large toll on European Jewry, but in a perverse way, the size of the ghetto also made the consequent Jewish uprising that much more effective and far-reaching.
Since Warsaw was the largest Jewish community in Europe, the revolution that took place against the Nazis reverberated throughout the continent. As Jews were being deported from the ghetto to the death camp at Treblinka, Jewish resistance groups from the right and left joined forces to fight against Nazi oppression. The uprising began April 19, 1943, on the eve of Passover, and continued for almost a month, despite the fact that German forces defeated the organised militaristic resistance within a matter of days. In the end, the Jews were defeated; their leader Mordechai Anielewicz was killed, along with thousands of others, and the Great Synagogue on Tlomacki Street was destroyed. Around 7000 Jews were killed in the uprising, and thousands more were deported to Treblinka and across Poland to be killed. Despite the great loss of Jewish life, and the apparent futility of the uprising, the efforts of these Jews were not completely in vain. A Nazi liquidation that was meant to take all of three days lasted over a month. More importantly, however, the uprising was a significant symbol of Jewish resistance, inspiring other acts of rebellion in the face of Nazi oppression, such as the uprisings in Treblinka, Sobibor, and the Bialystok and Minsk ghettoes.
The resilience of the Jewish ghetto fighters also became significant in the post-war years, as Jews were finally granted a state of their own in Israel. Although on one hand, the trauma of the Holocaust had reiterated the necessity of a Jewish state to ensure the safety and survival of the Jewish people, this new Jewish state could not be characterised solely by victimhood and weakness. Stories like the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising became central, not just in terms of Holocaust history, but also within the Israeli Zionist consciousness. The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising showed that even in the worst circumstances, Jews were not passive victims, but were willing to fight, no matter the cost. Indeed, the Kibbutz Lohamei HaGetaot seemed to me an almost triumphalist expression of Zionist ideology, reframing the traditional Holocaust narrative into a proud demonstration of Jewish strength and fortitude. The notion of Holocaust survivors (and not only that, but survivors of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising) returning to the land of Israel, creating new life and agricultural developments, is an extremely powerful sign of Jewish regeneration. If the uprising demonstrated the resilience of the Jewish spirit, a kibbutz like this would seem to highlight the reclaiming of independence in the form of Jewish nationalism. Although Hitler wanted to exterminate the Jews, and strip away their humanity, Kibbutz Lohamei HaGetaot illustrates not only that Jews have survived, but also that they are stronger than ever.
In commemorating the ghetto fighters, but also in forming new families, the kibbutz both looks to its past in commemorating the martyred Holocaust victims and ghetto fighters, but also forward, to the formation of a new life in Eretz Israel. Indeed, the leader of the uprising, Mordechai Anielewicz, was a member of the socialist Zionist youth movement Hashomer Hatzair (of which I am a member myself), and we saw at the museum the large role of youth movements such as Hashomer and present-day Habonim Dror. It would seem to be no coincidence, then, that the survivors of the uprising decided to form a kibbutz, rather than settle in a city. The kibbutz itself serves as an important symbol of Jewish strength, as the early Jewish settlers saw themselves as pioneers in a new (and yet, old) land. After the Holocaust, Jews once again had to be pioneers, in order to regain the sense of personhood that was so brutally taken from them. Despite the changing character of the modern kibbutz over the last few decades, with many now turning to privatised models, and some members returning to Orthodox religious observance (as discussed in the article by Lee Cahaner and Nissim Leon), I think that even today, this message of Jewish strength expressed at Lohamei HaGetaot rings true.