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Who Will Write Our History?

Emanuel Ringelblum, the Warsaw Ghetto, and the Oyneg Shabes Archive

Samuel D. Kassow

Publication Year: 2007

In 1940, the historian Emanuel Ringelblum established a clandestine organization, code named Oyneg Shabes, in Nazi-occupied Warsaw to study and document all facets of Jewish life in wartime Poland and to compile an archive that would preserve this history for posterity. As the Final Solution unfolded, although decimated by murders and deportations, the group persevered in its work until the spring of 1943. Of its more than 60 members, only three survived. Ringelblum and his family perished in March 1944. But before he died, he managed to hide thousands of documents in milk cans and tin boxes. Searchers found two of these buried caches in 1946 and 1950.

Who Will Write Our History tells the gripping story of Ringelblum and his determination to use historical scholarship and the collection of documents to resist Nazi oppression.

Published by: Indiana University Press

Series: The Helen and Martin Schwartz Lectures in Jewish Studies


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pp. ix

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pp. xi-xii

Many people helped me in this daunting and difficult project. David Roskies encouraged me to begin this book and I learned a lot from many conversations we had and from comments on earlier versions of the manuscript. Havi Ben Sasson graciously took the time to share her enormous knowledge of the subject and read an earlier version of the manuscript. I am deeply grateful to ...

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Note on Language Use

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pp. xiii-\

How to spell the names of cities like Warsaw, Lodz, Lwów, Vilna, or Krakow is not an easy matter to decide. In the multinational spaces of Eastern Europe, which saw frequent changes in political sovereignty until the end of World War II, cities were often known under different names. The Polish Lwów was the Austrian-German Lemberg and the Ukrainian L’viv. Jews, who made up a ...

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pp. 1-16

September 18, 1946. After weeks of preparation and planning, searchers had finally begun to dig under the rubble of Nowolipki 68 in the ruins of the former Warsaw Ghetto. They were looking for the buried Oyneg Shabes Archive. It was not an easy job. In the Warsaw Ghetto, the Oyneg Shabes—led by the historian Emanuel Ringelblum—had included dozens of men and ...

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1. From “Bichuch” to Warsaw

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pp. 17-26

Was it just a coincidence that more Jewish historians came from Galicia, part of the Hapsburg Empire, than anywhere else in Eastern Europe? Lwów produced Meyer Balaban, Philip Friedman, and Natan Gelber. Tarnów was the home of Isaac Schiper and Salo Baron. Rafael Mahler, Ringelblum’s lifelong friend, and Artur Eisenbach, his future brother-in-law, grew up in the small ...

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2. Borochov’s Disciple

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pp. 27-48

Just six weeks before he died Ringelblum wrote a coded letter to Adolf Berman. Berman, one of the last surviving leaders of the Left Poalei Zion in Poland, and his wife, Basia, had been the Ringelblums’ longtime friends. That friendship, nurtured in joint party activity before the war, became a critical source of support in the Warsaw Ghetto. As will be seen, it was the Bermans ...

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3. History for the People

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pp. 49-89

By the outbreak of the Second World War, Emanuel Ringelblum had become one of the most promising of the younger generation of Jewish historians in Poland. This generation—which included Rafael Mahler, Philip Friedman, Isaiah (Shie) Trunk, Bela Mandelsberg, and others—followed in the footsteps of Meyer Balaban and Isaac Schiper, two older scholars who served as ...

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4. Organizing the Community Self- Help and Relief

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pp. 90-144

Had Ringelblum remained just a historian and high school teacher, it is doubtful he could have organized the Oyneg Shabes Archive. To make the archive work, Ringelblum needed a position that gave him wide contacts and good information, as well as a certain degree of power and prestige. When the war began, his high post in the Aleynhilf, Warsaw’s major Jewish relief organization, is what gave him this access to people and information. The Hebrew ...

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5. A Band of Comrades

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pp. 145-208

The Oyneg Shabes was not just a clandestine archive; it was also a tightly knit collective, a secret but vital component of the larger alternate community that had developed out of the house committees and the Aleynhilf. Using the Aleynhilf as a base, Ringelblum slowly and methodically assembled a group of collaborators that ranged from the most prominent leaders of prewar Polish Jewry to impoverished refugees. Of all the Jewish historians in prewar ...

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6. The Different Voices of Polish Jewry

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pp. 209-224

In a diary entry of May 1942 Rachel Auerbach reported that German film crews were busy in the ghetto. This time they forced young girls and elderly men to undress together in a Jewish ritual bath. Just a few weeks before, the German movie makers had lined Jews up before a table loaded with food and ordered them to eat—but not before they stepped over hungry children who ...

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7. Traces of Life and Death Tex ts from the Archive

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pp. 225-284

Determined to document the Jewish experience in the war, the Oyneg Shabes collected artifacts, texts, and testimonies that reflect an ongoing tension between prewar ideals and escalating chaos; between a yearning for collective solidarity and rampant social fragmentation; between idealism and debasement; between continuity and rupture—material as disparate and varied as ...

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8. The Tidings of Job

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pp. 285-332

The “Two and a Half Years” project was just getting into high gear when disquieting news arrived in the Warsaw Ghetto about German massacres in the Soviet-occupied eastern territories. As early as the summer of 1941 the underground press in the ghetto began to report eyewitness accounts of shootings in Slonim and the burning of a synagogue, crammed full of Jews, in ...

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9. A Historian’s Final Mission

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pp. 333-388

By late 1942 Ringelblum’s worst fears were coming true. As he watched the destruction all around him, he probably realized that his chances of saving the archive, small as they were, were still better than the odds of saving Polish Jewry. Jewish survivors, especially returnees from the Soviet Union, might rebuild a postwar community but the rich, vibrant Polish Jewry of prewar days ...

Appendix A. Guidelines for a Study of Polish-Jewish Relations

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pp. 389-392

Appendix B. Guidelines for a Study of the Warsaw Ghetto

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pp. 393-395

Appendix C. Guidelines for a Study of the Jewish Shtetl

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pp. 396-400


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pp. 401-480

Selected Bibliography

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pp. 481-494


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pp. 495-523

E-ISBN-13: 9780253000033
E-ISBN-10: 0253000033
Print-ISBN-13: 9780253349088

Page Count: 568
Illustrations: 38 b&w photos, 1 maps
Publication Year: 2007

Series Title: The Helen and Martin Schwartz Lectures in Jewish Studies