Who Will Write Our History?: Rediscovering a Hidden Archive from the Warsaw Ghetto Paperback – 26 Feb 2009
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"Deeply moving...a feat of historical heroism...an extraordinary book" -- The Times
"This may well be the most important book about history that anyone will ever read...a record of human beings, with human voices, in an inhuman existence...truly unforgettable"
-- New Republic
About the Author
Samuel D. Kassow is the Charles Northam Professor of History at Trinity College. He is the author of Students, Professors, and the State in Tsarist Russia, 1884–1917 and editor (with Edith W. Clowes and James L. West) of Between Tsar and People: The Search for a Public Identity in Tsarist Russia. He has lectured on Russian and Jewish history in many countries, including Israel, Russia and Poland.
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The first portion of the book is, as other reviewers have noted, slow going for non-specialists: it is difficult to keep track of the ideologically charged battles between religious and secular Jews; between Zionists and non-Zionists; between proponents of Yiddish, Polish, and Hebrew; and between different flavors of Jewish left-wing politics in interwar Poland. Nonetheless, Ringelblum's commitments become fairly clear. Politically, he belonged to the Left Paolei Zion, a party which endorsed Marxist-style historical materialism, but combined it (with some tension) with a deep commitment to Yiddish and to radical change in the Diaspora. Ringelblum's approach to history was in keeping with his political commitments: following his senior colleague Isaac Schiper, he wished to write the history of ordinary Jews. Ringelblum's early work focused on the relationship between Jews and Poles, in particular on the economic position of the Jews and the lives of poor Jews in Poland. The Jewish historian's mission was to defend the historical role of Jews in Polish society by objective presentation of the evidence. (p.89)
Even before WWII, Ringelblum combined his historical research and teaching with work in social organizations that served the Warsaw Jewish community. After the foundation of the Warsaw Ghetto, he was a key member of the Aleynhilf (Jewish Self-Help Society), which worked independently of (and often in opposition to) the Judenrat. Deeply involved in the aid work of the Aleynhilf, Ringelblum worked closely with the "house committees," which, working within individual courtyard apartment buildings, attempted to organize the life of the ghetto. He also used his position there to support his work organizing the Oyneg Shabes archive, which chronicled first the life and then the death of the ghetto. According to Kassow, Ringelblum's diary, begun early in the war, served as preparation for the larger collective enterprise. (p.148) Ringelblum drew participants in the archive from as much of the political spectrum as would cooperate with him, with substantial representation from pre-war communal leaders and those involved in the Yiddish Scientific Institute (YIVO) and the LPZ before the war. Of the participants, only three survived the war, and helped unearth the carefully buried archives from the ruins of the ghetto.
Oyneg Shabes had multiple goals, which evolved over time. Drawing on Ringelblum's work before the war, it was an effort to collectively document the history of the community: to document Jewish resilience and Nazi persecution. Despite circumstances, the archive attempted to capture shades of gray: for example, the complicity of the Jewish police in persecution and cases in which Germans and Poles provided aid and sympathy to Jews. Over time, as information accumulated in the ghetto about the true extent of the Nazi extermination program, Oyneg Shabes' focus changed, to documenting and publicizing the death camps and publishing that information (with the aid of sympathetic westerners and Poles) outside Poland. Finally, the archive became a record of the destruction of a civilization.
Kassow's book is at its strongest reporting on the archive itself: how it was collected and what the surviving portions contain. Ringelblum and his colleagues were amazingly systematic, identifying the questions they wanted to answer and the sources that would be most appropriate to answer them. Some questions were best answered by interviewing ordinary or specially placed individuals; interviewers were assigned to these cases. Some questions demanded documentation: well-placed sources in the Judenrat bureaucracy helped provide it. In the early years of the ghetto, the work focused on everyday life, from soup kitchens to smuggling to house committees. By late 1941, increasing attention went to documenting extermination: reporting on deportations from the ghetto and interviewing escapees from trains and camps. After the Great Deportation of the summer of 1942, Ringelblum and his collaborators knew that the end of Warsaw Jewry was near, but continued to report even as they looked for ways to escape to the Aryan side of Warsaw.
Kassow describes in detail much of the material from the archive. In doing so, he provides a vivid portrait of the life and death of the ghetto. We see a particularly articulate, self-conscious group of reporters struggling to comprehend the unanticipated and largely unprecedented catastrophe in the midst of which they found themselves. Even after the rebellion, Ringelblum spent his final months, underground in the bunker where he was eventually arrested, writing a history of Polish-Jewish relations during WWII - filled with a sense that many Poles had proven indifferent to the fate of the Jews, but ever conscious that Poles had saved his life during the war and were hiding him now.(p.379)
The arc of Ringelblum's work echos the fate of Warsaw's Jews.(p.386) As the community grew in importance in the interwar years, he documented its history with pride; as it attempted to retain its cohesion in the early years of the ghetto, he and his colleagues reported its resilience; as the Germans destroyed the community, he tried, against tremendous odds, both to report resistance and ask why it had taken so long for violent resistance to begin. His steadfastness in the face of this tragic arc provides us with a vivid, painful picture of events. Kassow has done justice to his story.
What I believe is most important to say that this remarkable work is far more than an account of Ringelblum and his archive. That history is contextualized within the interwar politics and circumstances of Polish Jewry and Ringelblum's particular perspective as a devoted member of the LPZ. Kassow traces the enormously complex ways that Ringelblum's political commitments did and did not complement his wider mission as historian/documentarian, his responses to the escalating destruction, and his understanding of the need for solidarity (or some semblance of it) at critical moments. Anyone who has devoted their lives to such overlapping, and often conflicting, commitments, will relate to Ringelblum's dilemmas. Kassow has the gift of presenting these clearly and without dumbing down the complexity involved. This is rare indeed.
Along with Ringelblum himself, we become acquainted with other members of the core group devoted to the archive, both known and relatively unknown. We also become acquainted with their own inevitable blind spots,insights,and everything in between.
While its subject is very specific, this book also teaches us important things about what it means to be a human being within a world in horrific dissolution. In different terms, it teaches us about integrity--not in a sentimental sense--but as actually realized (and not realized) in the most extreme circumstances. It teaches us about taking life seriously. If we come away inspired, and haunted, it is because we have become acquainted with the complexity that results. As in the greatest works of art, and notwithstanding radical differences in fate, we recognize aspects of ourselves for the first time.
One of the most important books I've ever read.
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