“Can you guess what this object is?”
We’d arrived at the last vitrine in the impressive Ghetto Fighters’ House Museum (Beit Lohamei Haghetaot) in western Galilee, and Neta, our genial guide, really wanted us to see it before we left. You could tell it was important to her.
The article in question is a real puzzle: a thin piece of wood from which dangle two little cords of equal length, each with a wooden spike at the end. What could it be? We’re a responsive and fairly talkative group of academics working in the area of Holocaust Studies, so several colleagues take a stab at the question, each unsuccessfully. We who thought we’d seen everything couldn’t identify it.
Having whetted our curiosity, Neta explains that there were five women in the underground in one of the camps determined to divide their meager daily provisions more or less equally. When it came to the daily portion of soup, they could think of nothing other than to take turns, one each day. After all, how does one measure a slurp? And how do you stop yourself once the liquid is lifted to your lips?
But when it came to their daily bread, they found a solution. The curious device now on display in this overlooked Holocaust museum that predates the august Yad Vashem in Jerusalem served camp inmates as a simple, handheld scale that allowed them to determine that the pieces they shared were more or less the same size and density. The women all wanted to survive, but in solidarity with one another—not at each other’s expense. You see, Neta concludes, even in the camps a deep sense of humanity was possible. Even under these horrific conditions.
While sobering enough, Neta’s lesson—and that of the museum itself—is not one of unmitigated despair and abject despondency. In fact, there is almost a sense of a Christmas gift to it, at least to those of us who so desperately want to believe that a modicum of humanity clings to each of us, even at the worst of times. Not quite Anne Frank’s resounding conviction that “people are really good at heart,” but hopeful nonetheless.
And this is clearly the point that Neta wanted to make.