The Museum of the Warsaw Ghetto (MGW) has opened an exhibition entitled “The Ghetto is Burning,” which was intended to showcase Jewish female couriers during the Warsaw ghetto uprising. However, it so happened that more space is devoted to German men than to Jewish women.
The exhibition consists of several panels selected from a cartoon also published by the MGW. The selection gives the impression of being completely random, as the successive panels do not add up to a narratively coherent whole. Each panel tells the story of something different, not directly related to the previous one. The female couriers, who were supposed to be at the core of the exhibition are basically left out of the story.
On the first panel we meet Mira Fuchrer, who along with Mordechai Anielewicz comes to Shmuel Asher’s bunker, but it is Asher who is the central figure of this panel. Asher, as the leader of the Jewish criminal underworld in Warsaw, had his men build the shelter and made himself comfortable in it – smoking a cigar and drinking alcohol in the company of a half-naked woman.
In the end, he lets Anielewicz and Fuchrer in, promising to take care of them. We have no idea what was Fuchrer’s role, what were her duties in the Jewish Combat Organization, or what happened later in the bunker. What is even more surprising, all these people speak among themselves in Polish! That’s directly tied to the current “history policy” (or historical propaganda) of the Polish state – recruiting Jews for the Polish cause in order to sign up these victims in the nightmarish rivalry of suffering.
True, Jews – the assimilated ones in particular – knew Polish language well. But it was Yiddish that was the language of the ghetto! Addressing his criminal underlings, Asher most certainly did not speak Polish! Anielewicz and Fuchrer, did they speak among themselves and with Asher in Polish? I doubt it.
This drive to “polonize” the Jews is particularly galling when set against the panels which show the Germans. They use their own language, and translations from German to Polish are added at the bottom of each panel. The authors of the exhibition wanted – so much is clear – to convey thus the alien character of the occupant – and they succeeded. There are, however, way too many panels devoted to Germans. We see the fight in the ghetto and its liquidation through their eyes; they dominate the panel which speaks about the Umschlagplatz (staging area for death trains destined for Treblinka). But the exhibition promised to talk about female Jewish couriers, who are completely lost in the mish-mash of poorly chosen panels.
The last panel offers the strongest but, at the same time, the most unacceptable and historically inaccurate depiction. Chronologically, we are already after the end of the Uprising, after the blowing up of the Warsaw’s Great Synagogue, which symbolically marked the end of the Jewish struggle.
That’s when we encounter the image of two mysterious people raising side by side two flags: one is red-and-white and the other one white-and-blue. We can see in the background burning buildings and two elevated elements of construction: electric poles or crosses. Who are the people raising the flags in a ghetto which has just been burned to the ground, where the synagogue has been blown up and the last Jews have been killed? Is it the Poles, who abandoned their merry-go-around and other festivities related to Easter (which coincided with the Uprising) and who decided to pay homage to their Jewish brothers and sisters?
The same panel boasts a quote from one of the leaflets of the Jewish Military Union (ŻZW): “who fights for his life, can save himself! Who refuses to defend himself, has already lost!”. How should we understand this final message of the exhibition? Jewish mothers, who could have saved themselves but decided instead to go to the wagons of death together with their children, are they the “losers” in this narrative spun by the Warsaw Ghetto Museum? The parents, who – until the end – took care of the weak, of the children and the elderly, who stayed with them until the end – are they any less heroes that those who shot at the Germans in the ghetto? Róża Polakiewicz who held her four months-old daughter Szejna in the gas chamber of Treblinka, is she any less courageous than Mira Fuchrer shot by Mordechaj Anielewicz in the bunker at Miła 18 street?