By Marion Reiss
Early this summer, I was given an opportunity to participate in an intensive seminar on Holocaust Studies for Educators and Museum Personnel from Israel and South Africa. I was eager to join the group to learn how to use Israeli resources to help the Benjamin Library in Beit Shemesh utilize my husband's (OBM) Holocaust collection of books and media materials, for educational programs in the area. It turned out to be much more.
It was an incredibly rich experience. Not only did I get the tools that I needed for the Library, but I also had an opportunity to interact with Museum Directors and Educators from South Africa. They represented schools and centers in Cape town, Durban, and Johannesburg, the latter currently in the stages of construction. It became evident early on that for the representatives from South Africa, the history of apartheid was deeply intertwined with their concerns with teaching and commemorating the Holocaust. The Holocaust is taught in all high schools and particularly in Johannesburg, there is a great interest in the subject in the public schools. Our South African educators expressed the need to come to terms with "man's inhumanity to man" in general and with the Holocaust in particular.
In this regard, we were given a special insight at Yad Vashem in a session with scholar emeritus, Yehuda Bauer, who coined a new word for us to define the Holocaust - "unprecedentness", which although he assured us would not be found in any dictionary, defines the uniqueness of the Holocaust as creating the precedent, in terms of industrial production murder, obsession with ideology, racism and the totality of genocide.
The intensive sessions at Yad Vashem followed 3 days at Massua, the Holocaust Study Center near Netanya, visited daily by students and soldiers, and Lehamei HaGeta'ot, the Warsaw Freedom Fighter's Kibbutz near Acco. The title, Lehamei HaGeta'ot illustrates what we learned was the post-war Israeli attitude towards the Holocaust. Although the Kibbutz was in fact founded by survivors, only two of these were survivors from the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. We had learned from Professor Nili Keren at Massua that the original feeling in 1945 in Israel was to emphasize only the physical heroics of Jews during the Holocaust, and indeed the LH gallery devoted to the Warsaw Ghetto is divided 1/4 to life in the Ghetto and 3/4 to the uprising. This attitude in Israel changed dramatically after the Eichmann Trial, Dr. Keren explained, when Holocaust education took root in Israel, and again after the 6-Day War, when survivors in general became considered heroes.
The question of what happens when survivors can no longer give their testimonies was raised, leading to a discussion of the contrast between history and memory. It is the human element, the pain, the choices, and the reactions, which is driving the museum exhibits at HaGeta'ot today. This emphasis was seen in the child's- view wing of the museum that seems 3/4 size and leads the child through the human story. The emphasis is on humanity and the continuation of life. Technology also plays a part in the new exhibition halls.
Throughout we were given tools to use in bringing the lessons of the Holocaust to the younger generations of students. From the Art Workshop at Massua, where we learned to express feelings through letters and plaster, to the poetry readings given us at Yad Vashem, we learned new ways of relating Holocaust materials to students and adults.
We ended our seminar at Yad Vashem with a discussion of Holocaust Denial, and Revisionism, a more dangerous form of Holocaust denial and trivialization. which can be combated by the immense historiography available, but which is also subject to the other agendas which must be understood and dealt with.
There was much, much more packed into the 2 weeks of sessions. But for me, the most meaningful aspect of the seminar was the opportunity to meet and interact with Holocaust Educators and Museum Personnel from South Africa and the Beit Shemesh area. I got a new insight into and appreciation of the different experiences each group brought to the program. There were times when our Ma'amad sessions, with no holds barred, discussing everything from our personal views of Jewish identity to our reactions to media representations of Israeli-Arab relationships, became more intense than the organized sessions that preceded them. It became increasingly clear that especially in Holocaust education, there is a need to be aware of the sensitivities and diverse life experiences of our counterparts in other parts of the world. What came across throughout, however were the strong ties that bound us all together in our search for meanings in our Holocaust studies and our deep connection, whether it be from far or near, to the State of Israel, and to eachother.
I want to thank Mickey Blumberg, our inspiration and leader, Naveh Yogev, our superb organizer and facilitator, and Julian Resnick, our guide extraordinaire from Israel Experts, for making this experience so meaningful, and of course Partnership 2000 for making it all possible.
This program was sponsored and facilitated by Partnership 2000 - Beit Shemesh - Mateh Yehuda -Washington - South Africa of the Jewish Agency.