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Every April 19, Jews eulogize the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, when 750 under-armed, massively outnumbered, and malnourished Jewish militants revolted against their Nazi oppressors. For 28 days, the rebels unexpectedly quelled the onslaught in a battle that has become the stuff of legend.
In their need to seek some sort of salve in a sea of despair, many Jews take away a message of heroism and self-empowerment from the uprising, which was brutal, fiery, and deadly for almost every Jew involved. So too, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum accords the ghetto and uprising disproportionate attention, framing it as a sliver of hope and inspiration to soften visitors’ emotional exhaustion as they confront the visceral punch that unfolds within the permanent exhibition.
As a scholar and frequent visitor to the museum when I was researching my book about the Warsaw Ghetto in US culture, I’ve had mixed feelings about this emphasis on a silver lining.
The museum animates stories about resistance, in particular the Warsaw Ghetto, while other wall texts and objects more realistically underscore the Holocaust as beyond optimism. There can be conflicting tension between these two.
The museum’s third floor uses artifacts, photographs, film, and audio to document the ghetto’s establishment, deprivation of about 500,000 inhabitants cramped inside three and a half square miles, unnerving restrictions, and the helpless wait for deportation to Treblinka. Yet here visitors also linger with heroes and objects at the center of the Holocaust’s most uplifting story.
With former ghetto cobblestones underfoot, visitors cross a narrow wood-planked bridge, flanked on either side by wall-size photographs of Jewish masses in the Warsaw and Lodz ghettos that transport viewers to that horrific time and place.
An eight-foot-tall, 35-foot-long cast of the Warsaw Ghetto’s largest remaining wall stretches down a long hallway. A milk can that once housed part of the Oneg Shabbat Archive, excavated from its grave in 1950, appears within an enclosure before the wall. Hidden as future testimony at great risk, these precious documents supply authoritative information about the ghetto, providing one of its most lasting legacies.
The milk can’s display confirms the view of the museum’s founding director, the late Jeshajahu Weinberg, who considered it one of the museum’s most important historical artifacts. Lit from above, the corroded can, treated to retain the mud that caked it, glows in its case like a gemstone. Set against dark red bricks that accentuate its false golden hue, the vertical can rises upward dominating the space. Here, the can assumes the power of relic and talisman — a gift unearthed from the rubble to preserve something of the ghetto’s destroyed lives.
A handful of paper artifacts surround the can: a photograph of the doomed Emanuel Ringelblum, spearhead of the archive, and samples of documents from the archive and other ephemera. But the milk can is the clear star, and around the 47th anniversary of the uprising, the museum symbolically buried two milk cans, each enclosing a scroll signed by survivors under its Hall of Remembrance. The museum commissioned a play to honor the 10th anniversary of its opening, centered around the milk can, which was also the rebellion’s 60th anniversary.
Throughout the section of the museum near the milk can, wall labels bluntly convey the miserable conditions of ghetto life. But another key artifact and marker of the ghetto, a manhole cover, also tells a redemptive story. Some ghetto inhabitants escaped to the city’s Polish side through urban bowels.
In a large installation devoted to the uprising, Mordecai Anielewicz, who led the rebellion, receives pride of place atop photos of the battle’s principal figures near a three-dimensional map of the ghetto. The map demarcates the ghetto’s perimeter in 1940 and 1942, as well as the partisans’ bunkers.
A few artifacts appear below this “hall of fame” arrangement, notably survivor Vladka Meed’s false identity card. A Jew who could pass as a gentile, Meed smuggled weapons into the ghetto for the revolt. Deliberately underscored by strong light, a glass case holds the remnants of a rifle and two artillery shells recovered from the decimated ghetto. Above, a screen flashes photographs from the walled city. Anielewicz’s picture appears every three minutes.
A quote from Anielewicz’s final letter to second-in-command Antek Zuckerman, “Self-defense in the ghetto has become reality. Jewish armed resistance and revenge are facts,” overlays that photograph. To stress the resistance theme, a panel characterizes the insurrection, in all capital letters, as “A REVOLUTION IN JEWISH HISTORY.” The same panel reproduces Anielewicz’s celebrated description of the uprising at greater length, which extols “the magnificent, heroic struggle of the Jewish fighters.”
To soften the unrelenting bombardment of atrocities elsewhere in the permanent exhibit, the museum presents visitors with a super-heroic act led by a Jewish Superman: Anielewicz, the leader of the uprising, brave and wise enough to die on his own terms, a great redeemer leading the great redemption. The museum has transformed the uprising and Anielewicz into a flicker of inspiration amidst segregation, humiliation, and the systematic murder of Europe’s Jews, along with millions of others. Here, the museum meets its audience’s needs and falls into a trap.
Anielewicz and the uprising lose nuance. They provide an understandable panacea, but in reality, as ghetto fighter Marek Edelman recalled: “It was always death that was at stake, not life…. All it was about, finally, was that we not just let them slaughter us when our turn came. It was only a choice as to the manner of dying.”
The museum hasn’t minimized atrocity. Indeed, those very atrocities demand the respite of the uprising. It displays a cast of a crematorium door from Majdanek, 5,000 victims’ shoes, barracks from Birkenau, a railcar that transported Jews to their deaths, and a dissecting table. Narratives accompanying these objects unflinchingly reveal the Holocaust’s mercilessness. But among these monstrosities, one finds a few small antidotes: a milk can that concealed an unprecedented archive, a sewer cover that set some condemned free, an uprising against all odds, and Anielewicz, a Jewish Superman.
Researching my book in 2013, I visited the Holocaust Museum’s permanent exhibition dozens of times. I was conflicted about its sensationalizing the ghetto’s story through its persistently honorific presentation. But I now better understand why the museum indelibly impresses upon us, in a very public and influential instance, the reprieve of physical and spiritual resistance mounted in the sealed city within a city.
Amidst the destabilization and trauma we currently face, I find this longing for reprieve even more relatable. So many of us crave it today.