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

Efforts to document life Warsaw's Jewish ghetto in WWII beget a brilliant study.

February 22, 2009|Louise Steinman | Steinman, author of "The Souvenir," is at work on "The Crooked Mirror: A Conversation With Poland."

Who Will Write Our


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.

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