Amud Aish Memorial Museum is a unique repository of items connected to the Holocaust. However, please note, this is not a museum portraying the horrors of those years. Rather, the focus is on the spiritual heroism of our fellow Jews. The survivors sadly are fewer in number year by year. So how can we connect? Through these artifacts, both on exhibit and those items housed in the archives, examined by those doing research into their family histories, to be exhibited at a future date. This is not history to be relegated to the past and forgotten. These exhibits have been created to help forge a distinct connection between the Jews of that era and our contemporary world.
Entering the exhibit halls, we note the unusual artwork lining the walls. These items have been crafted by school age children. Each year Amud Aish organizes a contest for the youngsters in our metropolitan schools, both Jewish and non-Jewish. With much deliberation, a specific theme is selected and presented to the schools. The entries are always original, creative and very moving. Working on these projects encourages these young people to contemplate that era, to identify with that generation.
Take a look at this project, a collage of items associated with the Holocaust era: a headline from the NY Times at the start of the Warsaw Revolt, the yellow star all were forced to wear, barbed wire representing the imprisonment within the ghetto walls and later the concentration camps, and the German passport, with the large, conspicuous J in red, and the name Sara – given to all women of the Jewish faith. A young child obviously gave serious thought and contemplation as he compiled this collage and is now connected to the past in a visceral, intimate fashion.
This past spring Amud Aish partnered with the yeshivos in Kiryas Yoel, Monroe, NY, and transported their exhibits there to be visited by thousands of adults and children. Rabbi Dovid Reidel and Mrs. Chavie Felsenberg devoted much effort and time to ensure that the exhibits were properly set up in their temporary home and guided the students through the tour in a memorable and most meaningful fashion.
Amud Aish has partnered with the Museum in Auschwitz, Poland. On June 1, 2019, Amud Aish hosted a ceremony in Auschwitz itself, officially opening the exhibit entitled, “Through the Lens of Faith.” The exhibit consists of twenty-one portraits of survivors, each with an etched statement of the role faith played in their survival. As Elly Kleinman and Rabbi Sholom Friedman noted, “In this exhibit we celebrate life, we celebrate faith, we celebrate resilience.”
This brief but succinct line may very well be the theme that runs through all the Amud Aish exhibits. The formal opening was followed by a dinner, enhanced with a live performance by Yaakov Shwekey, whose spirited singing had all the participants up and dancing, truly an affirmation of life and the future of Am Yisrael.
Amud Aish has provided the Museum of Jewish Heritage with several artifacts that are now part of their current Auschwitz exhibit. The various Holocaust memorials across the globe are working together to further this educational process. Time is of the essence. We dare not let 6 million of our brethren fade into oblivion.
The current exhibit at Amud Aish is quite diversified. There is a room that has been reconstructed to resemble a pre-war Jewish home in Poland on the holy Shabbos day. We note the embroidered tablecloth, the ornate challah cover, the delicate blue and white porcelain dishes and the silver candlesticks. The scene evokes images of our own contemporary Shabbos table. It’s something we can relate to.
Now here is an item that definitely evokes an earlier era. Here we have a schedule for Shabbos. Besides noting when Shabbos would begin and end, and the times of the various prayer services, this schedule also indicates that 7:12 was the official time to bring the traditional Shabbos delicacy, cholent, to the bakery where it would remain in the communal oven till it was time to be enjoyed. We have all heard of the communal ovens, here we see hard evidence of the fact.
Perched on a table in the center of the exhibition hall is the report card of Shmuel Hirsch Jacobowicz (age 9), of Sosnowiec, Poland, 1935, a student of Cheder Yesodei HaTorah, an affiliate of Agudath Israel. Young students can surely relate to this artifact. He was graded in conduct, diligence, Torah, Nach, Halachah and Ivrit. Tragically, young Shmuel was murdered in 1942.
There is a section devoted to the post war experience, life in the DP camps. These were tumultuous times, as the survivors valiantly and courageously attempted to rebuild their health and their lives. It took time for the DP camps to be properly outfitted to meet the needs of survivors. Kosher food was crucial. Siddurim, Tefillin, Taleisim… the needs were enormous.
Two photos in particular caught my eye. In the first, 3 lovely young women are standing together, in 1946, each sporting the same hairstyle. The Klausenberger Rebbe zt”l had encouraged the women to cover their hair. It seems that there were wigs available, all in the same curly style, reminiscent of the 1940s. In another photo taken perhaps a year later, we see two young mothers with their babies, miracle babies. They would refer to these babies as Moshiach’s kinder. The babies are dressed in stripes; perhaps material was not available and so they reused their camp uniforms, transforming them into baby outfits. Take a look. What do you think? A bit horrific, but if there were no options, what was one to do?
It is shocking to note that even once the war was officially over, the trials and tribulations of our people certainly were not. 13,000 former camp inmates died in Bergen-Belsen from disease and malnutrition after liberation. Led by Chanina Walzer, the survivors there established an official chevra kadisha, assuring proper Jewish burial for the deceased, and kept track of those who passed away.
They kept a pinkus, an official journal with lists including the names of the deceased, their place of origin, their date of burial, and surprisingly, whether they were definitely Jewish or if there was a doubt as to their religious identity. This pinkus undoubtedly proved helpful in future years, when women sought to remarry and needed proof that their husbands were no longer among the living. Keeping these formal records proved to be a far reaching chesed.
There is a small room exclusively dedicated to Rav Yaakov Rosenheim. It contains his original desk, file cabinet, and tallis bag, artifacts that can bring him back to life. Rav Rosenheim (1870-1965) was a most accomplished personality, devoted totally to his people. Born in Frankfurt, Germany, he was initially apprenticed to a bank. He later founded the Hermon Publishing House, producing a wide range of religious literature. Rosenheim was one of the founders and world president of Agudath Israel. He fled to London in the 1930s, moved to the US in 1940 and onward to Israel, in 1950.
Rav Yaakov Rosenheim was viewed as a man of great intellect and a man of action. During the second Knessia Gedolah in Vienna in 1929, he received the title Moreinu Harav, Our Master and Teacher, from the Torah giants of the generation. Rabbi Dr. Isaac Lewin, in his 1983 tribute book to this giant, writes so eloquently, “The Agudas Yisroel became the pulsating center of Orthodoxy under his steady hand and forthright leadership. The Daf Yomi was initiated in 1923 during the First Knessia Gedolah. Chinuch movements such as the Bais Yaakov and religious representation in government were soon afoot. As the clouds of war gathered on the horizon, the Agudas Yisroel mobilized efforts on behalf of European Jewry.”
During the exceedingly difficult years of the Holocaust, Rav Yaakov Rosenheim was at the helm, doing his utmost to save his brethren. During the post-war years, under his leadership, Agudath Israel contributed greatly to the rebirth of Yiddishkeit in the displaced persons camps.
He died at the age of 95. Interesting to note, he is buried on Har HaMenuchot, between the kever of the Brisker Rav and the Belzer Rebbe to demonstrate the strong ties that he built between the Litvish and Chassidish worlds. Yehi zichro lanetzach.
Amud Aish is an amazing repository of Jewish history – his story, her story, our story!!! Walking through the exhibits, with Rabbi Dovid Reidel and Mrs. Chavi Felsenberg offering a running commentary, I feel incredibly privileged. There is much inspiration to be gleaned from these artifacts and I’m certainly pleased to share these artifacts with you in these pages.