Voices from the Warsaw Ghetto

Writing Our History

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Editor(s): 
David G. Roskies
  • New Haven, CT: 
    Yale University Press
    , April
     2019.
     280 pages.
     $28.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780300236729.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

The Holocaust constitutes one of modernity’s defining events, but its disparate elements make it difficult to grasp and learn from. Ultimately, it resembles the elephant the blind men examine in the famed Indian parable. As Alan Mintz argued, divergent national groups, as well as various linguistic and local communities, understand and remember the Holocaust differently (Alan Mintz, Popular Culture and the Shaping of Holocaust Memory in Israel, University of Washington Press, 2001).

When most Americans think of the Holocaust, they think of the Auschwitz concentration camp. Whether clad in striped uniforms and wooden clogs and gradually starved to death as they perform excruciating slave labor or sent directly to their deaths in gas chambers, the envisioned victims’ incinerated remains exit crematorium chimneys to darken the sky. Yet as “sheep to the slaughter,” the Holocaust’s Jewish victims do not prove particularly interesting and people find it uncomfortable to identify with them. Consequently, attention shifts to the perpetrators and how members of one of world’s most advanced nations joined together to harness technological advance for highly efficient human slaughter. Such a focus, however, turns the Holocaust into the story of its perpetrators and writes the Jewish victims out of the story. By writing about different points during the Holocaust when Jews had agency and employed it to resist murderous Nazi designs and voice humanistic and Jewish values, Jewish scholars look to rectify this situation.

Initially, efforts to highlight Jewish agency during the Holocaust involved presentation of armed Jewish resistance to the Nazis, but such resistance proved relatively rare. Nonetheless, the translated Yiddish, Hebrew, and Polish sources editor David Roskies selected for inclusion in this volume, Voices from the Warsaw Ghetto, reflect a more expansive understanding of Jewish agency that writes oppressed Jews back into the story of the Holocaust. Just as historian Eugene Genovese redefined resistance to slavery to include all efforts by American slaves to reject the inferior status assigned them, including their religion, music and culture, the selected Yiddish, Hebrew and Polish texts and sketches point to how Jews employed culture and religion to heroically resist the Nazis (Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made, Pantheon, 1974).

When the Warsaw Ghetto was established in 1940, almost 400,000 Jews were confined to it. One of the most important individuals who stepped up to lead this community was historian Emanuel Ringelblum. His work with the Aleynhilf, a network of Jewish social welfare agencies that briefly operated with American Jewish aid, helped physically nourish and support the ghetto’s Jews, and his establishment of the secret Oyneg Shabes archive and his solicitation and collection of diverse documents provided Jews with a way to culturally and religiously resist the Nazis and spiritually nourish themselves.

Ringelblum’s description of the archive’s establishment and aims opens the present volume; the book features a mixture of extent Oyneg Shabes materials supplemented by additional sources, many written in Polish or by women, that depict life in the Warsaw Ghetto from its establishment in 1940 to its liquidation in 1943. Featured documents include reports, diaries, jokes, poems, stories, reportage, sermons, sketches and meditations. When read in accordance with the chronological order employed to organize them, they provide a polyphonic description of Warsaw Jewish life up until its destruction, with men and women of divergent political stripes and participating in various linguistic communities all making unique contributions.

The translated primary sources in this volume have previously been published, and Roskies published many of the Yiddish ones in his earlier anthology The Literature of Destruction (Jewish Publication Society, 1989). Nonetheless, instructors looking to integrate study of the ghetto experience into broader courses on the Holocaust or individuals looking to better understand Jewish efforts to maintain their dignity in the face of Nazi oppression will surely find it valuable. First, the volume’s forward, written by Samuel Kassow, author of the definitive study of the Oyneg Shabes archive, provides historical contextualization; Roskies’ erudite introduction gives an overview of the volume’s contents and their place within the vast literature written in the Warsaw ghetto. Second, the volume contains numerous distinctive texts that convey Jewish resistance to Nazi efforts to spiritually destroy them.

For example, Leyb Goldin’s “Chronicle of a Single Day” brings the unstated heroism of average ghetto residents into focus. Struggling internally with the challenge posed by debilitating hunger that continually threatens to reduce him to an animal-like state and the temptation of release offered by suicide, the story’s protagonist Arke maintains his faith in humanity and preserves his sense that even Jews are created in God’s image. While the story only covers a twenty-four-hour period, it gives readers a sense of the ongoing struggle faced by hundreds of thousands of Jews day after day for years that they needed to be immensely strong to endure. The volume also shows Jews employing alternative means to continue living meaningful lives as part of a larger Jewish community. While Rabbi Kalonymous Shapira’s sermons employ an innovative theology to endow Jewish suffering with meaning and enable Jewish believers to maintain their faith and face life’s ongoing challenges, jokes and puns collected by Rabbi Shimon Hubberhand point to how humor enabled other ghetto residents to better bear their burdens.

This volume’s ability to push readers to reconsider their preconceptions about the Holocaust make it useful reading for American scholars and lay audiences.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Philip Hollander is an instructor of Modern Hebrew in the Department of Near Eastern Studies at Cornell University.

Date of Review: 
June 28, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

David G. Roskies is the Sol and Evelyn Henkind Chair in Yiddish Literature and Culture and professor of Jewish literature at the Jewish Theological Seminary, and is the author of Against the Apocalypse: Responses to Catastrophe in Modern Jewish Culture, which was awarded the Ralph Waldo Prize from Phi Beta Kappa.

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