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The International School for Holocaust Studies

Interview with Shulamit Imber, Pedagogical Director of the International School for Holocaust Studies

Interviewers: Franziska Reiniger and Sheryl Ochayon

Shulamit ImberShulamit Imber

Question: How would you say that our understanding of what constitutes resistance has changed over time?

Answer: I would say that in the past there was a debate about what we call resistance. There were many years when the Israeli society focused on armed resistance; it was something with which the society could more easily identify. The gap between the Diaspora and Israeli society led to a kind of thinking that the fighters were the group that Israelis could identify themselves with. When I was young we talked a lot about the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. And at that time when you talked about the uprising, you only focused on those who physically fought – these were the real fighters in terms of resisting in the Holocaust.

When I began to work here in the eighties, I began to feel a big shift. There began to be a lot of discussion about the everyday life [of the Jews in the ghetto]. We talked about different resistance already and asked all the time: Who is a hero? At that time it was still kind of "either/or."

Then the pendulum swung in the other direction. It's not that we didn’t talk about armed resistance. But I would say that there were quite a few years here that we did what the Rambam[1] says. The Rambam says when you are on one side of an issue, you sometimes need to go to the other side in order to get to the middle – in other words, to find a compromise position. It is the nature of things. We had invested so much in speaking of armed resistance as the main resistance, and now, the shift changed the dialogue. We began to talk about everyday life, about resistance by women and children, and about the fact that people survived in the world of chaos.

Our educational philosophy talks a lot about this.

It was a shift to the other side to say that there were all sorts of resistance in the Holocaust. It even led to an extreme: saying that everything that someone did in the "world of chaos," as Professor Fackenheim says, is meaningful resistance.
Because we are educators, and I don’t need to be a historian to say exactly what resistance means, we can say that there was a lot of resistance.

I think now, 70 years after [the Uprising] as opposed to 60 years afterwards, we also feel that armed resistance occupies a significant position. We have finally reached the middle ground now. That is, I can talk about either armed resistance or more spiritual resistance, and I am not speaking of one at the expense of the other. I think we have found a way here to include both types of resistance in our Holocaust commemoration and education. One can see this in the materials we wrote for the 70th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.

For example, in order to discuss armed resistance, we must begin by talking about the youth movements and the leadership of youngsters. When I grew up, the discussion was about resistance: these youth movements rebelled against the Nazis and they fought. The fighting was the main thing.

Now, when we speak about armed resistance, we talk more about the leadership of the youth who, at a specific point in time, took it upon themselves to resist because of "three lines in history." But before we speak of the fact that they fought, we do a lot of talking about the youth before the Holocaust as leaders, and what they did before the Holocaust. They dealt with education. They dealt with ideology. They saw themselves as the leadership in leading a revolution in the Jewish world of new ideas that only youngsters can talk about.

Only after this do we talk about these youngsters in the Holocaust – and we start at the beginning. They did not begin with armed resistance when they were imprisoned in the ghetto at first. They began taking the responsibility for education, for the welfare of the youth, in the soup kitchens that they worked in. And suddenly you see them involved very much in everyday life in a kind of resistance that we were talking about.

And what is "everyday life"? The youth was a great part of it. The more I read the archives of Emanuel Ringelblum, the more I see that these youth took a lot of responsibility in the apartment blocks – in the houses – for education, for gathering the youth together, for giving some meaning to life, for having all sorts of celebrations in the ghetto, for being part of the soup kitchens in the ghetto. I never knew when I grew up that they began as educators and ended up as commanders.

Do you see the difference in the story that is told now? Today, half of the story of resistance begins in the youth movements and their main ideal of leadership in the Jewish world. And at a certain point it becomes armed resistance. So, it is a different story. It is not just the same old story that they were the group who rebelled against the Nazis.

I'll give you a comparison: the dialogue used to be like the Rapoport sculpture where you see two opposing pictures, and on one side were those who went – I don’t want to say “like sheep to the slaughter”, because I don’t agree; I think this is a slogan that simplifies things too much. It's like saying the commanders were the "good" people, and the others were the "bad" people. This is not how we grew up. But we did grow up in terms of "these were the people who fought." Once upon a time we didn't discuss the fact that these were the people who, when the ghettos were first established, dealt with education and other social welfare projects. We understand now that this is how they began, but that once they understood what was happening, once they internalized that the Germans were going to kill the Jewish people, and this occurred [in Warsaw] during the time of the deportation in the summer of 1942, they said: "We have to resist in a different way." I never knew this when I grew up. The story was told differently then.

And I think when we reached the 60th anniversary of the uprising, ten years ago, we were still apologetic. Yes, we accepted that there are different types of resistance, not only armed resistance. We understood that there was also resistance implicit in everyday life.

Today we no longer apologize when we speak about armed resistance. We understand the role of the youth in the realization that the Jewish people were going to be killed. We acknowledge that they were brave people who decided to resist in a certain way and fight the Nazis. And as Professor Yehuda Bauer said, very few people fought the Nazis in the circumstances that they did. I no longer need to apologize that they were brave people. On the one hand, I don’t need to say that this was the only type of resistance, as we learned in the sixties or seventies. On the other hand, I don’t need to apologize as we did ten years ago that there are also other types of resistance. I think that today we have made peace with the fact that there were different kinds of resistance. Yes, it is brave to fight against the Nazis with two or three guns when you know that you are actually going to die and you say, "I’m going to die in a different way." But that is not the only kind of resistance. And the youth themselves only understood this at a certain moment in the life of the ghetto. Before this they were actually resisting in the same way that every other person in the ghetto was resisting. I think this is the major point here.

Q: What influenced this shift in Yad Vashem?

We say in our educational philosophy, “Don’t judge, have empathy!” When you have empathy toward a person you don’t need to judge him and you don’t need to find yourself in him; just have empathy toward him. You can see the story in a broader way, in a more compassionate way. I think we have more compassion today. When you have more compassion, this is the shift. You can take a broader perspective and build a different narrative. Yes, there were people who engaged in armed resistance. The fighters had to be very brave to do what they did. That doesn’t mean that others weren’t brave. When I say they were very brave today, the fact that they took the guns and they were there on the roofs and fought the Nazis, or whatever, yes, it’s a brave thing to do. But it doesn’t mean that I don’t have compassion for the others who didn’t do it.

Q: Do you think the compassion came from things like the Eichmann trial?

I think that it came from the shift in everyday life. We needed for the pendulum to swing to the other side in order to see: what did it mean to live in a world of chaos? It took some time for us to understand that you can't put the Jews who were imprisoned in the ghettos on a scale and judge whether one reaction is better than another. We had to first see the broader story. Here is a woman, here is a doctor, they were confronted with dilemmas. And we saw people in different places saying: "Look, I did not give up. I was trying to live my everyday life." And suddenly you had compassion. And this compassion led to seeing their unique struggle in the fact that they rebelled. I don’t need to say, "Well, everyone is the same." I can see the unique things that they did at a certain time and give them the honor and the respect that comes from living like that. My understanding is that it comes from compassion: when you don’t need to judge, when you don’t need to build your role models all the time from there, when you can see a broader picture.

Q: So, you would say that the approach changed with time?

Yes, I think that was part of it. But I think that it was also necessary to have compassion. Empathy and compassion towards the victims in the Holocaust led us to have the ability to see something broader; to look at them with less judgmental thinking and to accept more narratives.

Q: If we used to talk about the heroes, and the heroes were only the people who fought, and then the pendulum swung to the other side, and the heroes were not just the people who fought, but also the everyday people in the ghettos who were providing for their families and finding food and all that, then haven’t we turned everyone into a hero? And if everyone is a hero, then haven’t we made the concept of heroism very cheap?

No. We don’t call them heroes. I call it leadership. When I look at Mordecai Anielewicz, he is not my hero. He is a leader.

Q: And what about the woman who is trying to find bread for her children?

I think she is a kind of leader. If I see a person in the world of chaos, what you expect is for them to lose their sense of humanity and to be like wolves. And when I see a mother who still has ethics, for me she is a leader. That’s why I don’t call them heroes. I don’t need heroes. I look for something, some lesson, that I can take and apply to my own life in order to see it as an example of something. And Mordecai Anielewicz is an example for me of leadership. He was a leader before the Holocaust as well, because he focused on the value of life for the youth even before the war. So, I don’t call them heroes: not the fighters and not the everyday people.

The issue is broader for me. I look for something meaningful from that time period that translates into a message or a lesson for our life today – that's the difference. I find it in a variety of things. For instance, as we put together lectures for the next teachers' conference we are choosing meaningful things from diaries of the time.

Q: One last question on resistance. Would you say that those everyday people who didn’t lose their morality were resisting?

Think about what Chaim Kaplan[2] said, "Everything is forbidden to us, and yet everything we do." I believe that starvation and dehumanization are the enemies of spirituality. In the conditions in which the Jews were trying to survive – when you are starving and eating only 200 or 300 calories a day – you don't have much room or the wherewithal to deal with spiritual things. And yet, from the depth of the dehumanization, people imprisoned in the camps and ghettos still found meaning. These are leaders for me.

Thank you!

[1] The "Rambam" is an acronym for Rabbi Moshe Ben Maimon, a preeminent medieval Spanish, Sephardic Jewish Torah scholar, as well as a philosopher, astronomer and physician.
[2] Chaim Kaplan was an educator who lived in occupied Poland and kept a diary during the time of the Warsaw ghetto.
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