Who Will Write Our History?

Emanuel Ringelblum, the Warsaw Ghetto, and the Oyneg Shabes Archive (2nd ed.)

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Samuel D. Kassow
The Helen and Martin Schwartz Lectures in Jewish Studies
  • Bloomington, IN: 
    Indiana University Press
    , July
     2018.
     580 pages.
     $40.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780253036308.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

A tremendous amount has been written about the Warsaw Ghetto, the largest ghetto in Nazi-occupied Poland. Studies have focused on some of the most dramatic events and aspects in the life of the ghetto, such as the role of the Jewish Councils (Judenräte) and the Jewish police, the Great Deportation, Janusz Korczak’s final act of accompanying the children in his orphanage to their death, and the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. However, much that happened between these main events is often overlooked. Samuel Kassow’s book Who Will Write Our History? highlights how much we still have to learn about everyday life in the Warsaw ghetto.  It sheds light on a number of overlooked events, individuals, and organizations that characterized the tragic, yet vibrant world of Polish Jewry destroyed by the Nazis.

Kassow tells the story of the Warsaw Ghetto through the lens of Emanuel Ringelblum’s life and work with a particular focus on the Oyneg Shabes archive. Ringelblum founded and directed the archive in order to document Jewish life under Nazi occupation. He recruited a band of comrades to work with him to collect information about everyday life and ordinary people in the ghetto and to study Jewish society in a systematic way. Buried in tin boxes and milk crates, the first two caches of documents were recovered after the war in 1946 and 1950, while a third cache was never found. Only three Oyneg Shabes members, Rachel Auerbach and Hersch and Bluma Wasser, survived the war. Kassow uses material from the archive to show the Warsaw Ghetto from the perspective of those who were living through it without knowing the outcome. By putting the Oyneg Shabes archive into the context of Jewish historical study, he also tells the story of Jewish history in Eastern Europe and its evolution into an important component of Jewish life and identity.

In the preface to this second edition, Kassow explains that the decision to publish a new edition demonstrates that the archive’s importance is finally being recognized. He reflects on the significance of Ringelblum’s work and on recent developments in Holocaust scholarship. Kassow notes that his book crosses the so-called “wall of separation” between Jewish history and Holocaust history by showing that the ghettos were Jewish communities shaped by prewar norms and culture. He points out that there was no immediate audience for Oyneg Shabes after the war because it didn’t fit in with the two main narratives of the Holocaust: resistance and martyrdom. The Oyneg Shabes members strove for historical objectivity by presenting stories of heroism and sacrifice alongside stories of depravity and corruption.

Kassow’s book includes an introduction and nine chapters ranging in length from ten to sixty-five pages. The first three chapters are devoted to Ringelblum’s prewar life and activities describing his upbringing in Galicia and his arrival in Warsaw in 1919 to study history at Warsaw University. During this period, Ringelblum developed a love for Yiddish, joined the Left Poalei Zion (LPZ) party, met his future wife Yehudis, and organized the Yunger Historiker Krayz, a club of young history students. As a historian, he prioritized archival documentation and wrote about ordinary people, Jewish-Polish relations, and local history.

Focusing on the time from just before the outbreak of the war until the Warsaw ghetto’s demise, the remaining chapters demonstrate Ringelblum’s activism in relief work, his dedication to preserving a historical record of Jewish life in the ghetto, and the changing priorities of the archive over time. Chapter 4 looks at Ringelblum’s role in Aleynhilf, Warsaw’s major Jewish relief organization. Aleynhilf supervised a network of relief agencies, soup kitchens, and house committees that played a central role in ghetto life. Chapter 5 describes the origins of the Oyneg Shabes archive and Ringelblum’s “band of comrades.” Ringelblum saw history as a collective enterprise. He brought together a diverse group of men and women, approximately fifty to sixty people, to work for the archive in various capacities. Members wrote on topics of their choosing. Very little is known about them, and almost all of them perished. Kassow honors their memory by telling their stories. Chapter 6 conveys Ringelblum’s goals in collecting documentation for future generations, the importance of secrecy, the lifeline the work provided for archive members, and the increasing dangers they faced.

Chapter 7 looks at the actual texts of the archive and how they tell the story of the ghetto’s decline. This chapter focuses on “The Two and a Half Years” project started in 1941, a massive study of the Polish Jews’ wartime experience that encompassed a wide array of topics ranging from the experiences of Polish Jews under Soviet occupation to the Jewish woman and the children of the ghetto. All sides of ghetto life were collected, even those that were morally challenging and ambiguous. The Great Deportation and the period leading up to it are the subjects of chapter 8. Oyneg Shabes members continued their work despite the great danger they faced shifting their focus to documenting the process of mass murder. The final chapter discusses the period after the Great Deportation, describing Ringelblum’s thoughts on armed resistance, his incarceration at and escape from the Trawniki concentration camp, his final refuge in the Krysia bunker, and his last historical writings on the intelligentsia and Polish-Jewish relations. Ringelblum’s final mission was to provide a record of the victims’ voices so that they could tell their history in their own words.

Kassow’s book makes several contributions. It combines a study of Jewish historiography with new perspectives on the Warsaw ghetto, places the cultural and social life of the ghetto into the context of Polish Jewish history, and highlights the tragedy of the Warsaw ghetto by providing a detailed account of everyday life. Kassow also sheds light on moral dilemmas and demonstrates the difficulty of maintaining morality in extreme circumstances. He effectively conveys how desperate things became after the Great Deportation. The organization of the chapters does lead to some repetition, and it is unclear if anything has been changed or revised in the new edition. Events, organizations, and groups are not always identified and explained on their first mention. Some typos and formatting errors distract the reader from the rich and compelling text. These minor issues aside, Kassow’s book is essential reading for scholars of the Holocaust, Jewish history, and Polish-Jewish relations. It is a powerful story that has many implications about the important role that history can play.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Alison Rose is instructor at the University of Rhode Island and Ohio Wesleyan University.

Date of Review: 
June 25, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Samuel D. Kassow is the Charles Northam Professor of History at Trinity College. He is author of Students, Professors, and the State in Tsarist Russia, 1884–1917 and editor (with Edith W. Clowes) of Between Tsar and People: The Search for a Public Identity in Tsarist Russia. He lives in Hartford, Connecticut.

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