Inside the Milberg Gallery: Resistance and the Exodus Story
The following is the third in a series of inside looks at the current exhibition in Princeton University Library’s Ellen and Leonard Milberg Gallery at Firestone Library, “Records of Resistance: Documenting Global Activism 1933 to 2021.” Curated by Fernando Acosta-Rodriguez, Ellen Ambrosone, Will Clements, David Hollander, and Gabrielle Winkler, this new exhibition captures continuity and change in practices of protest and activism in diverse geographic contexts and around issues that may be particular to an area or of universal concern.
The Biblical story of the Israelite exodus from slavery in Egypt is an ancient narrative of activism and resistance to oppression. The Israelites literally get up, walk out, and take their freedom.
This story of Divine deliverance has served as inspiration to very human resistance movements throughout history. The American revolutionaries thought of themselves as the Children of Israel removing the British oppressors. Benjamin Franklin’s design idea for the Great Seal of the United States depicted the Egyptian pursuers being overwhelmed by the Red Sea after the Jews safely crossed.
Enslaved persons in the American South looked to this narrative for hope during the long dark period of slavery. This hope is enshrined in lyrics to the African American spiritual, Go Down Moses:
“When Israel was in Egypt's land
Let my people go
Oppress'd so hard they could not stand
Let my people go
Go down, Moses
Way down in Egypt's land
Tell old Pharaoh
Let my people go!”
Given this history, it is not surprising that during the Nazi oppression and immediately afterward, Jews viewed this dark period through the prism of the exodus story. The Passover Haggadah, the text used by Jews during Passover to recount their liberation from Egyptian slavery, was an extremely effective vehicle to process the Holocaust through this Biblical lens.
However, these historical records document something more than a mere vehicle for Jews to process their oppression. They document a form of spiritual resistance.
Depictions of the Holocaust–historical, literary, and artistic–understandably and accurately frame the Jews as the victims. But in the story of the Exodus, the Jews are the victors. By framing the Nazi oppression in terms of the Biblical narrative, these documents place a victorious frame around a story of victimhood.
By reframing the Holocaust in this way, these Haggadot (the plural of Haggadah) serve a resistance role that provided the means by which these Jews could begin to rebuild their lives, both as individuals and as a nation.
Princeton University Library’s latest exhibition, “Records of Resistance,” includes several such Haggadot, two of which are:
This Haggadah was published by Holocaust survivors, under the auspices of the U.S. Army, to celebrate the first Passover after the liberation of the concentration camps. It captures a lesser-known part of the story of the Holocaust: the period of time after the war when European Jews were stuck in Displaced Persons’ Camps in Germany, unable to return to their homes throughout Germany and Eastern Europe, and unable to emigrate to British Mandate Palestine.
The text and illustrations interweave the story of the Holocaust with the traditional Haggadah text, connecting the plight of the ancient Israelites to the plight of the Jews using the Haggadah in 1946. A preface to the text states:
"They spoke of Pharaoh and the Egyptian bondage. They spoke of slave labor and the torture cities of Pitham and Ramsees and they spoke of the inevitable force of liberty which will lay waste to every tyrannical design.
But in their hearts, they felt very close to all that was narrated. Pharaoh and Egypt gave way to Hitler and Germany. Pitham and Ramsees faded beneath fresh memories of Buchenwald and Dachau."
The text also served an activist role in the context of the Jews trapped in Europe post-war. The text calls desperately for a “Survivors’ Exodus” from displaced persons camps in Europe to the Land of Israel, where their lives and the lives of the Jewish people will be rebuilt. By doing this, the text places both the Holocaust, and the post-war plight of the Jews into the context of the Biblical exodus.
Thousands of Jews from British Mandate Palestine volunteered to serve with the British Army in a “Jewish Brigade” during the Italian Campaign in the Second World War.
This Haggadah was produced in Italy by soldiers from that Jewish Brigade. It combines the traditional text with references to the battles these Jewish soldiers were then fighting. These references poetically compare Egyptian slavery to the Nazi destruction of European Jews:
“We are dining together, Jewish soldiers from all over the diaspora. Our hearts are celebrating [Passover], but our hearts are also agitated. Our hearts are agitated because Egypt is not yet finished with Israel. Because the whole world is our Egypt.”
Therefore, this Haggadah documents two forms of Jewish resistance from that era. This Haggadah was written for and used by Jews who engaged in armed resistance against the Nazis. But the Haggadah’s added texts provide a resistance mindset by setting the then-unfolding Holocaust in the context of Egyptian bondage, the outcome of which was Jewish victory.
The exhibition will run from September 7 through December 11, 2022. It is open daily, Mon-Fri from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays. Guided tours are available. Please note Princeton University's current visitors policy.
Published October 6, 2022
Media Contact: Barbara Valenza, Director of Library Communications