HomeNewsboxOldest Holocaust Museum Recasts Lessons as ‘a Warning Sign’

Oldest Holocaust Museum Recasts Lessons as ‘a Warning Sign’

Of the 150 Holocaust survivors who founded the kibbutz, Ms. Sternberg — who shared her testimony with museum visitors for years — is one of the last ones alive to bear witness. As her generation fades away, the Ghetto Fighters’ House is grappling, like other institutions, with the question of how to educate future generations about the Holocaust and combat ignorance and denial.

“What will be in another generation from now?” asked Arye Carmon, the chairman of the museum’s board.

“Our answer is to position the Holocaust as a warning sign,” he said, pointing to the international growth of xenophobia, threats to liberalism and democracy, and the challenge of alternative truth enabled by social media. He described Auschwitz as the nadir of what he called “a deteriorating continuum of evil.”

So instead of dealing with the Holocaust as a static historical event, and only a Jewish tragedy, the museum is advocating a more dynamic approach with a focus on the moral lessons for all of humanity.


Dorka Sternberg, 93, at her house in the kibbutz, which she helped found with about 150 other Holocaust survivors.

Dan Balilty for The New York Times

In one sign of change, President Reuven Rivlin of Israel has invited former President Joachim Gauck of Germany to join him at the closing event here on Monday.

It is a stark departure from the past, when prominent German representatives were not asked to attend formal Israeli commemorations, partly in fear of offending the survivors. (The main opening ceremony took place Sunday, the eve of Holocaust Remembrance Day, at Yad Vashem, Israel’s official Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem.)

The invitation to Mr. Gauck, initiated by Mr. Carmon, has prompted criticism. The leaders of seven Israeli youth movements from across the political spectrum, both religious and secular, signed a letter to Mr. Rivlin protesting Mr. Gauck’s presence, saying it could imply the Jewish people’s forgiveness “for the greatest crime perpetrated in human history.” They exhorted Mr. Rivlin to clarify in his speech at the ceremony that this is not the case.

The Ghetto House officials say that is yesterday’s thinking.

Anat Livne, the director of the museum, said the message it was trying to convey was one of courage to go against the grain, inspired by founders like Yitzhak Zuckerman, a leader of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising whose nom de guerre was Antek, and Zivia Lubetkin, an underground commander who became his wife.

The invitation to Mr. Gauck, Ms. Livne said, was “not about forgiveness or atonement, but about being together in an alliance of liberalism and democracy against all those who endanger it.”


Arab visitors at the Ghetto Fighters’ House. Yariv Lapid, director of the museum’s Center for Humanistic Education, said any student searching online for information about the Holocaust in Arabic was likely to encounter a lot of denial.

Dan Balilty for The New York Times

On Wednesday, the anniversary of the uprising and the founding of the kibbutz, senior Israeli Army officers and a group of Jewish and Arab educators attended seminars and toured the museum’s exhibits, some of which are based on documents and objects that the founders brought with them from Europe.

The museum does not shy away from dealing with Israel’s own inner conflicts. Its Center for Humanistic Education, founded in 1995 by Raya Kalisman after she spent a year at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, runs a six-month program for Jewish, Arab and Druze high school students, mostly from northern Israel. The program encourages the students to confront the complexity of their identities as citizens of the country.

Reflecting that complexity, Kibbutz Lohamei Hagetaot was established in the vicinity of Al-Sumeiriya, a Palestinian village that Zionist forces occupied and destroyed in the 1948 war over Israel’s independence, turning its inhabitants into refugees.

“Most Arabs here perceive themselves as victims of the Jews,” said Yariv Lapid, the director of the center, adding that any student searching online for information about the Holocaust in Arabic is likely to encounter a lot of denial. Over time, he said, the program challenges them to examine their own communities, which are often conservative and may be intolerant, for instance, of homosexuals.

Ms. Sternberg, who was born Devora Zissel Bram, grew up in a religious household in Czestochowa and was 15 when World War II broke out. She said she lost her faith in God after her parents, younger sister and brother were taken to the Treblinka death camp and killed. She was taken with other girls for forced labor in a Nazi arms factory. She fled to Warsaw as the Soviets approached, to avoid being taken to Germany.


A view of the Ghetto Fighters’ House. The foundation stone of the museum was laid the same day the 150 Holocaust survivors broke ground for the communal farm and named it Lohamei Hagetaot, Hebrew for “the ghetto fighters.”

Dan Balilty for The New York Times

She remembered Antek Zuckerman’s knocking on the window of the apartment in Warsaw where she was staying after the war with other young women who had been left alone, without any family, pondering what to do and where to go. Mr. Zuckerman was recruiting Zionist pioneers to build kibbutzlike communes in Poland and to organize the Jewish youths there before leaving for Mandatory Palestine, or the Land of Israel.

“We looked up to him as if he were a god, an emissary from heaven,” she recalled.

After working as a youth counselor in Poland, Ms. Sternberg arrived at Kibbutz Lohamei Hagetaot in March 1950 and soon married. She cleaned toilets and worked in the fields before being assigned a role in education.

The kibbutz has since been largely privatized. Cooperative but no longer egalitarian, it still has a dairy and orchards, but its main income is from Tivall, a company that produces vegetarian, meat-substitute products. A majority stake in Tivall, which kibbutz members founded, has been purchased by an international food corporation. Today, families on the kibbutz make their own living independently and run their own households.

A widow, Ms. Sternberg has two daughters, one of whom lives on the kibbutz, as well as five grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.

One of her grandsons, Yehonatan Stein, 35, said he had never left the kibbutz, other than for his army service. He was with his son Michael, 2, in a playground teeming with other toddlers.

“It is living evidence that after the Holocaust we enjoy life. We have parties; we have a swimming pool,” Mr. Stein, a history teacher, said of the kibbutz. “To grow up in a place like this means living a normal life alongside the memory.”

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