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'Who Will Write Our History?' by Samuel D. Kassow

Who Will Write Our

History?

Rediscovering a Hidden Archive From the Warsaw Ghetto

Samuel D. Kassow

Vintage: 524 pp., $16.95 paper

Emanuel Ringelblum was an inveterate optimist who, in 1930s Warsaw, believed that Polish Jewry had a future. Neither warnings from colleagues nor pleadings from in-laws persuaded the historian and political activist to leave the country. When war broke out in 1939, and most of the Jewish political and cultural elite tried to escape to the east, he decided to remain. Ringelblum knew his strengths as a community organizer; one need look no further to contemplate the role a public intellectual can play in a national calamity.

"The task at hand was to organize relief, and who would do it if everyone ran away?" writes Samuel D. Kassow in his brilliant study "Who Will Write Our History? Rediscovering a Hidden Archive From the Warsaw Ghetto."

In October 1940, when the Germans gave the order for Warsaw Jews to move into an overcrowded, cramped and sealed-off ghetto -- more than 400,000 would live there; 30% of Warsaw's population crowded into 2.4% of its area -- Ringelblum "stepped into his destiny." He began forming a secret "sacred society" he named "Oyneg Shabes" (literally, "Joy of the Sabbath," as members often met on Saturday). Its purpose was to create a comprehensive archive of life in the ghetto, "to meld thousands of individual testimonies into a collective portrait."

Ringelblum passionately believed in history as a collective enterprise. He was an intellectual heir to the great historian Simon Dubnow, who in 1891 issued an appeal to Eastern European Jews to collect documents and study their history. This core belief as well as the idea that "nothing is unimportant" informed the spirit of Oyneg Shabes. The archive would document the defeats as well as the victories, the villains as well as the heroes, the victims, the bystanders, the perpetrators. No one knew what information would be important to historians after the war. "Collect everything and sort it out after the war," Ringelblum advised. And they did.

They recorded ugly stories of Jewish policemen and moral struggles among those who were starving. They collected information on labor camps, the behavior of the Judenrat (Jewish councils that acted as intermediaries with the Nazis), and social histories of the soup kitchens. They interviewed refugees from the provinces who brought eyewitness accounts of massacres. They documented the role of women in the ghetto and the plight of orphaned children. They collected candy wrappers and ration cards, street songs and beggars' chants, invitations to recitals and lectures. "There were restaurant menus advertising roast goose and fine wines, and a terse account of a starving mother who had eaten her dead child," writes Kassow.

They collected German posters promising (falsely) 3 kilos of bread and a kilo of marmalade to anyone who voluntarily reported for deportation. Among the last documents buried were posters calling for armed resistance and evidence of the first uprising between the ZOB (a Jewish fighting organization) and the Germans in January 1943. Ringelblum, in addition to keeping a diary and writing essays, helped develop questionnaires for interviewers to use and masterminded a study of 80 topics he hoped the archive would cover. One of his last works before he (together with his wife, Yehudis, and young son Uri) was captured was a treatise on Polish-Jewish relations during the war.

Ringelblum was himself saved twice by Poles -- once spirited out of a labor camp and, in his final days, sequestered by Poles in a bunker. He recognized the courage shown by Poles in resisting the Nazis as well as the terrible risks some Poles took in hiding their Jewish neighbors. He also owned to Polish indifference and moral abandonment. He wrote his last work in Polish in hopes that future generations of Poles and Jews would, together, look honestly at their entwined history.

"Who Will Write Our History?" is a heroic act of synthesis and contextualization. Ringelblum's diary was published in English in 1958 and served as the inspiration for John Hersey's novel "The Wall," but until now his work has never been viewed within the rich cultural and social life of Polish Jewry. Kassow renders a complex portrait of the historian, drawing on thousands of documents -- in Yiddish, Polish and Hebrew -- archived at the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw, Yad Vashem in Jerusalem and the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York.

In addition, he has sought out and interviewed descendants of the Oyneg Shabes writers. He honors the efforts and restores the names of men and women who wrote though they knew their lives and those of their families and even their culture were doomed.

His narrative opens in the ruins of the ghetto. On Sept. 18, 1946, teams of searchers -- Poles and Jews together -- dug through the rubble of what was a school on Nowolipki Street. The ground was unstable. The teams constructed tunnels and ventilation shafts under piles of smashed bricks. "And then a probe hit something solid: a tin box covered in clay and tightly bound in string -- and then nine more," writes Kassow.

What they had found was one of three buried caches of the Oyneg Shabes archive. This first cache wasn't welded shut; water seepage and mold ruined many documents and photographs. The second, packed in rubberized milk cans and discovered by construction workers in 1950, fared better. A search for the third cache yielded only a few charred diary pages. The rest had vanished.

One of Ringelblum's biggest fears was that no one would survive to dig up the archive. His fear wasn't unfounded. Of the 50 to 60 members of the society, there were only three survivors: Hersh Wasser (who miraculously escaped a train to Treblinka); his wife, Bluma; and journalist Rachel Auerbach. Without Wasser to direct the search after the war, it's unlikely the archive would have been found.

Who were the participants in this unprecedented effort to document the destruction of a community as it happened? The members of Oyneg Shabes included economists and teachers, rabbis and artisans, businessmen and communists. Kassow's biographies of the "band of comrades" are illuminating and heartbreaking as he shows how their participation gave them a sense of purpose in the midst of chaos and despair.

Yiddish poet Melekh Ravitch called prewar Warsaw Jewry "a sprawling mosaic of different Jewish tribes and subcultures." There were Zionists, socialists and communists. There were those who believed in Yiddish as the language of a secular future and assimilationists who spoke only Polish. That spectrum of beliefs was present within Oyneg Shabes, but there was no room for ideological quarrels. Ringelblum made sure his "brotherhood" focused on the task at hand: writing, gathering, copying and burying documents. Apart from the three survivors, hardly any of the society members had graves, and many left little more than a name. Part of Kassow's magnificent achievement is to help us "hear" their silenced voices by laying out the cultural context that shaped their values.

Over the course of the disaster, the purpose of the project -- and Ringelblum's understanding of his mission as a historian -- changed. In the early stage of occupation, before anyone suspected the Nazis would carry out mass murder, the aim was to write for future generations of Polish Jewry. Later, as the dimensions of the Final Solution became known, their testimony would be both evidence of the crime and a chronicle of how ghetto inhabitants tried to hang on to some morality in the middle of hell.

But Ringelblum never succumbed to what he defined as the ultimate despair: the failure to record what one saw. He wrote while he was starving, he wrote in a crowded underground bunker. He wrote until the end, literally. In March 1944, after the whereabouts of his bunker outside the ghetto walls were betrayed, the Germans took all 38 Jews hiding there as well as the two Poles who tended to them to Warsaw's Pawiak Prison to be shot. Writer Yekhiel Hirschaut let him know that other Jewish prisoners were intent on trying to save him. What about his wife and son, Ringelblum asked? No, that was not possible. Ringelblum declined the offer.

Some of the Oyneg Shabes writers included their own last testaments in the archive. Nineteen-year-old David Graber wrote, "What we were unable to cry and shriek out to the world we buried in the ground." Journalist Gustawa Jarecka, last seen with her two small children on Jan. 18, 1943, being marched toward the death trains, left this behind: "We have nooses fastened around our necks. When the pressure abates for a moment we utter a cry. Its importance should not be underestimated. Many a time in history did such cries resound, for a long time they resounded in vain, and only much later did they produce an echo."

Steinman, author of "The Souvenir," is at work on "The Crooked Mirror: A Conversation With Poland."

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
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