Experience the Warsaw Ghetto

Visitors to a new exhibit at the Yad Mordechai Museum can take a virtual train to a virtual death camp, and feel the cannon-fire in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Is the Disneyland approach the only way to interest today's kids in Holocaust history?

Yuval Saar
Yuval Saar
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Yuval Saar
Yuval Saar

One of the first stops made by visitors to the new Warsaw Ghetto Uprising exhibit in the Yad Mordechai Museum, in Kibbutz Yad Mordechai, is the projection of a yellow star on their clothing. By moving your body, you put the virtual patch in the place where it belongs. It's part of the concept of bringing viewers into the experience.

Later on, in order to peek at a model of the Warsaw Ghetto one takes a virtual journey on a railway car to a death camp. After the doors shut, with a realistic-sounding noise, the trip begins. A subwoofer speaker under the car simulates the sounds of traveling by train, while images of the ghetto, and then of the extermination camps, go past the barbed-wire-covered windows.

The museum's model of the Warsaw Ghetto.Credit: David Gary

The freight car doesn't actually move. Its "journey" leads to two of the exhibit's high points.

The first is a huge, 1:100 scale model of the Warsaw Ghetto, with all the buildings as they were prior to its destruction. As stories from the ghetto are projected onto a background screen, walls and buildings in the model are lit in accordance with the narrative.

The second high point is the sound-and-light show of the main stages of the ghetto revolt and the recreation of a room in Mila 18, the famed bunker headquarters of the Jewish resistance. Against a background wall of burned bricks, the events play out, with museum visitors in the middle: Cannons fire shells, houses explode and fall down, guns are fired, planes are bombing, sirens, shouts and the crying of babies - fire and death all around. All in order to thrill audiences and make them part of the experience. The jury is still out as to whether this Warsaw-Ghetto Disneyland, whose official public opening is tomorrow, is the only way to make the history of the Holocaust real to young viewers.

Yellow stars are projected onto museum visitors. Credit: David Gary

The Yad Mordechai Museum is not the first one in Israel or abroad to tackle the challenge of conveying history in a way that will grab the attention of today's "instant thrills" generation, for whom the Holocaust is not a top priority. That is apparently also the reason that the museum staff often use words like "exciting," "unique" and "experiences," demonstrating a surrender to trends that are problematic at best, or populist at worst. A press release boasts that the new exhibit "has not yet been seen in museums that deal with the Holocaust in Israel and the world over."

The designer of the exhibit, David Gafni, doesn't hesitate to say that among his sources of inspiration were Epcot Center in Orlando, Florida. "I wanted to cause people who come from far away to say that there's something very special here that doesn't exist anywhere else, something that's impossible to send in a picture or by email," he explains.

Sparking the imagination

The exhibit in Yad Mordechai is one of many designed by Gafni during his 40-plus years spent preserving Jewish and Israeli heritage sites. He was the chief designer of Tel Aviv's Beth Hatefutsoth, the Museum of the Jewish People (former the Museum of the Jewish Diaspora ); Jerusalem's Western Wall tunnels museum; the Ghetto Fighters' House Museum, in Kibbutz Lohamei Hageta'ot, the Illegal Detention Camp Museum in Atlit, the Timna Park exhibit, the Historical Museum of Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, the museum at the memorial site for the fallen of the Israel intelligence community. In addition, he was the house designer of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art.

Gafni says the challenge of historical exhibits is "to leave a strong impression on the visitors by creating a 360-degree environmental experience, and not to create another conventional museum with framed pictures hanging on the walls." He says the Yad Mordechai exhibit is meant to give visitors "the experience that the entire surroundings are shaking and walls are falling, to see a spark of fighting by Jews who had no choice, of an uprising the likes of which wasn't seen anywhere in Europe; to present a heroic story."

Isn't it a little tasteless to project the yellow star onto visitors' clothing?

"Images that are close to the truth or reality is important. When a group passes through and receives a patch, they can feel as though they're in the ghetto. I didn't want to attach a real patch to their clothing, I wanted to spark their imagination."

I can already imagine visitors who will see it as a game and will move the patch to various parts of their bodies.

"Children may play and not understand, but the moment the patch becomes a game you can ask about it. You can describe to them a situation in which they have to wear a patch."

Isn't it a gimmick?

"It's a stimulus. I search for hints. Of course there was some opposition. I suggested the idea in the past, and the director of Yad Vashem was opposed to it and said that if we screen a patch on people, we'll have to station an intensive care ambulance outside the museum to take care of Holocaust survivors who come to visit the museum."

Most of the museum's visitors are high-school students or soldiers on organized tours. Vered Bar Samakh, the museum's director and chief curator, says that in 2010 there were nearly 25,000 visitors, two thirds of whom were on school trips. Only a few were foreign tourists. The museum staff say it's very important that teens who are about to go on school trips to Poland visit the new exhibit, because it shows them where they'll be going and can help them to better understand how the Warsaw Ghetto used to looked when they see its remains.

Bar Samakh says that at first she opposed the idea of projecting the yellow star on to visitors, but came around to supporting it "as long as it's at the discretion of the guides." She mentions a study that examined children's responses to having a yellow star put onto their sleeves during educational trips about the Holocaust: "Some of the children spoke of a positive experience, a feeling of belonging to the same people. Some said it was humiliating. It's important to us that there isn't only experience here, because then it really does become Disneyland. We ask the children how it affected them."

"There's something exaggerated in walking around with the object itself," Gafni said. The same thing was true with the railroad car. Someone said that she was scared by the idea of people going into the car, that it would be creepy. That's why some of the doors don't close, and why we put in mirrors, so the experience won't be too difficult. Even in Yad Vashem they took a car, cut it and put it on the wall. For 15 years I worked in Beth Hatefutsoth, and eventually Israeli visitors stopped coming. If you want them to come, you have to excite them," Gafni said.

Barriers, then and now

The new Warsaw Ghetto Uprising exhibit is part of a larger program to redo all of the old Holocaust exhibits in the museum so that they relate to Mordechai Anielewicz, the Hashomer Hatzair youth movement member from Warsaw who became the leader of the uprising, and for whom the kibbutz is named. The exhibit will be dedicated tomorrow in a ceremony attended by senior representatives of the government and the Israel Defense Forces, including the chief of staff. The opening remarks will be made by Simha "Kazik" Rotem, one of the last surviving Warsaw Ghetto fighters, who rescued dozens of Jews via the ghetto sewers.

Although it is difficult to evaluate the exhibit without the docents' explanations, it is hard to shake off the feeling that the pyrotechnics, multimedia and special effects act to heighten the "Holocaust porn" aspects of the horrors of the period rather than teaching the humanitarian lessons that can be learned from it. When Bar Samakh is asked to respond to this and to explain the message that visitors are supposed to take away from the exhibit, she first discusses the technical aspects, and she seems uncomfortable with them.

"It depends mainly on the group," she says. "There are groups to which must explain what a ghetto was, what the Judenrat was. If it's a delegation going to Poland, I find out what they've already learned. I don't want to turn it into another school lesson. On the other hand, there isn't any point in turning the visit only into an audiovisual show."

Nevertheless, what's the message?

"First of all, for them to understand why the Jews couldn't fight. To understand how the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising made the Jewish people proud after the establishment of the state. In the past, Holocaust Remembrance Day was a memorial day for the Holocaust and the uprising. The visitors must understand that the uprising is part of the Holocaust. Today they already speak about Holocaust and heroism, but for me both those who survived and those who went like lambs to the slaughter are heroes.

"Second, they have to understand what the Ghetto Warsaw is, that the aim was not to win but to die with honor. The Jewish people have honor, and if they don't allow us to live with honor then we'll die with honor. That the point. They once asked Yitzhak Zuckerman, one of the commanders of the uprising, what the IDF can learn from the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. He replied that the IDF doesn't have to learn anything from the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, that the uprising belongs to the university of the human spirit, not that of the IDF."

Still, the fact is that the IDF sends soldiers here. It still wants to get something out of the visit.

"This is a historical chapter that should not be taken lightly, they never thought they would defeat the Germans temporarily, and that's said in the film that is screened in the restoration of the bunker - that the Jewish people is not something that can be wiped out in an instant. In addition, they wanted to lay the foundations for the proud new Jew, who was willing to fight for his life.

"We try to connect the soldiers to the present. I don't come and talk to them the way Holocaust survivors tell them: 'Guard our country, we must preserve the country because we have no other country.' I have a different problem. In the wake of everything that's happening in the country, we're going to prepare a guidance program dealing with racism and xenophobia. There's no value to sending groups to Holocaust study centers or to Poland if in the end they don't learn a lesson from that period and behave the way they do."

Don't you and the museum have a part in that?

"Of course we have to think about that too. Kibbutz Yad Mordechai was established on that basis: on the basis of the question of how to live in peaceful coexistence. Our plan is to see what lesson can be learned concerning today, you have to learn a lesson from everything. I don't want to get into it, but the abuse at the checkpoints of the Warsaw Ghetto bridge isn't far from what's happening today at our checkpoints in Judea and Samaria."



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