The Ghetto Fighters' House museum

Tanja Ronen is educational historian and responsible for the European Desk at the Ghetto Fighter's Museum.

Tanja Ronen

We live in a world where the borders between countries have changed and in some places have vanished altogether. The media are forming public opinion and are shaping our culture. Sites of perpetration have become remembrance sites. World War II is told in Museums. The German historian Alaida Assmann in a lecture in Dresden on February 13th 2008, named "The Long Shadow of Memory" claimed that we remember in symbols and every new picture added to our memory suppresses the old one and puts a new layer of memory, added to our collection of facts. Today, we are at a stage where our commemoration is based on the remembrance of the memories. 65 years after World War II and the Holocaust, questions such as its importance for the education, ethical and political thinking in an individual world of multi-cultural societies are only fractions of the discourse based less and less on personal memory and more and more on research.

The Ghetto Fighters' House Museum, the first commemoration site in Israel, built in 1949 has placed itself as a unique realm of remembrance and commemoration, relating its educational concept to new research and the cultural developments in Israel and around the world. Educational work was one of the main reasons the founders saw when building a memorial in their Kibbutz.

The museum invites passers-by to become part of a developing and changing commemoration. The constant vacillation between the individual memory in time and space is a recurring motive. The human being is the focus, highlighting the choices made by humans, the power of hope and human spirit.

The heart of the museum's building is "The Pillar of Remembrance". Around it are three floors of exhibitions. The path of remembrance starts with stating the facts presented in the lowest level of the building telling the story of "The Final Solution". – industrial death and the open archive. It goes up to the level of "correcting the evil" – building a new life and commemoration, on the one hand, and remembrance on the other. On this level are the "Hall of testimony and the historical stories connecting through openings in the walls. They hint to the historical source on which the discourse is based. The highest level of memory is art. Art collection is on the third floor, which is the top level of the museum. The gallery was named after Miriam Novich, survivor of Vittel Concentration Camp who vowed to "collect the Jewish tears" and succeeded in collecting artifacts, documents and art pieces of the European culture that was lost. It points to the unbreakable connection between human beings, culture, and human thought.

The museum has no historical timeline. Each exhibition presents a topic. The unique character of the building is a leading component in the pedagogical work that is done there. Every group will work in the museum's exhibitions according to age, level of knowledge, requested topics of discussion, and the length of stay. The leading educational principle is "talking to visitors at their level". Study visits of soldiers and police will emphasize the responsibility of carrying weapons and wearing a uniform, high school students will put the focus on human behavior and ethics added to the historical facts. 

A special part of the museum, in a separated building is allocated to visits of children. The children memorial museum "Yad Layeled", is especially designed to facilitate visitors from the age of 11 and onwards, Being active in art – drawing, painting, drama, music or creative writing, is intended as a means to deepen the understanding on the concrete reaction of young children. It gives the visitors an opportunity to express themselves in a language that does not need words and crosses cultures and the boundaries of time.

Most of the museum's visitors are Israelis and the discourse depicted in the exhibitions is an Israeli one. 20% of the Israeli population is Arab and Druze. They regard the Jewish majority as new comers to this land. This makes it important to discuss the Holocaust as a very meaningful factor in the Jewish Israeli identity and the "Naqube" as a major component of the Palestinian identity. For an Israeli Arab or Druze a visit to a Holocaust museum or a discussion on World War II is not to be taken for granted. In many cases their image of the Jew is the "neighborhood bully". For the visiting Jew it is not simple to give up the personal focus on the victim role.

It is extremely difficult to give up the position of a group representative when confronted with two competing narratives on pain and victimhood and stand as an independent individual with doubts and questions. On such cases even the language used has meaning and becomes a topic for debate. The moderators need training in multi cultural dialogue facilitation. A meeting between Jewish and Arab or Druze needs skills in debate and conflict management. A special language has to be developed. This needs time, an on-going process and moderation, in a discussion in a homogeneous group to be developed into a multi-cultural and a pluralistic dialogue. A journey back and forth of the visitor between the exhibitions and daily life over a period of time is necessary. The questions raised in the museum have to be confronted with the complex reality of life in Israel and in the world.

FOR ALL THESE REASONS, A SPECIAL CENTER FOR HUMANISTIC EDUCATION WAS OPENED IN 1995. The process is designed on activities during a period of 3 – 4 month. This enables the making meaningful of processing the information, turning it into understanding and above all into assimilation and drawing lessons a lot easier. This kind of pluralistic dialogue is achieved in four stages:

  • Exposure activity – potential participants are exposed to the program.
  • Basic workshop – on-going weekly meetings to discuss chosen historical aspects on the Holocaust and their background.
  • Multi-cultural seminars – the graduates of the different basic workshops create meaningful interactive acquaintances with participants from other groups in a multi-cultural seminar.
  • Graduates' groups – graduates of the multi-cultural seminars are invited to a second year of activity and continue to discuss current Israeli issues and strengthen those relationships they have developed

Meeting groups from abroad who are on a study tour in Israel is a different dialogue. It needs special consideration. The Israeli discourse has to be explained or ignored altogether. A much more universal approach is important. The cultural background of each group is an important factor.

For all groups it is important to discover a different approach that turns an unknown culture to a mutual historical event shared by many. A discussion on a shared history can open multi-cultural routes of communication, develop social networks of new understandings and open the discourse of the culture of tomorrow. Taking into consideration, that groups from overseas can't come to work in a long on-going process, it is necessary to make the long process in one day or a seminar of 2-5 days. The principle for a seminar program will remain – modular activity moving from a focus on the historical narrative to an introduction to other perspectives. The pedagogical work is based on a verbal dialogue between facilitator and the group, and on group discussion in the exhibitions themselves, including films and workshops if time frame allows.

The objects, the photos, the testimonies are all primary sources that are permanent. What is dynamic are concepts and understanding that change from group to group and from one point in time to the next. The open archive hall gives all visitors an opportunity for individual research of the archive material. It makes a journey between past and present, for the individual visitor as well as for a group, from a personal commemoration visit to a group discussion on memory, remembrance and commemoration. The visitor is invited to make a personal decision what to remember, how to move throughout the room, and with whom to identify. A facilitated group will make the group discussion into a discovery of a multi facets understanding. "The strength of a society is measured by its ability to cope with dark chapters of its past and its ability to create complex collective narratives." (Joanna Michlich, "The Polish debate about the Jedwabne Massacre" Hebrew University, Jerusalem, 2002). If so a multi-cultural dialogue that will create a collective language is crucial and a collective open "talking", and an inclusive memory on a universal level are also of utmost importance.


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