- Who Will Write Our History? Emanuel Ringelblum, the Warsaw Ghetto, and the Oyneg Shabes Archive
Shortly before his arrest, Emanuel Ringelblum sent a message to the Yiddish Scientific Institute (YIVO) in New York. "If none of us survives, at least let that remain," he wrote. The subject of his urgent plea was a hidden collection of studies, essays, diaries, photographs, and other documents collected in a secret archive called Oyneg Shabes (Joy of the Sabbath) organized by Ringelblum in the Warsaw Ghetto after Germany invaded Poland in 1939. In this stirring and stimulating account Samuel D. Kassow describes Ringelblum's development from a young historian in the 1920s to a leader in the Warsaw Jewish community in the late 1930s and early 1940s and finally to his execution in 1944. Along the way the reader meets many dedicated and thoughtful contributors to the Oyneg Shabes collection. However, of the core archival staff, only three survived the war. Fortunately, one of these—Hersh Wasser—was able to direct postwar excavations that located two of the three sets of materials. An image emerges from Kassow's account of a man and a community that understood the power of the recorded word as a legacy to future generations. By documenting the day-to-day struggle of an entire community, they created meaning in horrific circumstances.
As a young Jewish historian in 1920s Warsaw, Ringelblum found himself in a circle of colleagues with common ideas facing common prejudices. In 1923 they formed the Yunger Historiker Krayz, and this became a focal point for Ringelblum's approach to seeking the history of people and workers, not the powerful. With the founding of the YIVO in 1925, interest arose in the collecting of information about the life of Eastern European Jews through the work of volunteer book collectors called zamlers. This gathering of information from a wide variety of sources foreshadowed the work of the Oyneg Shabes Archive in the 1940s. In the 1930s Ringelblum became involved in the life of the Warsaw Jewish community through the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), where he met Yitzhak Giterman. [End Page 357] This engagement laid the groundwork for a network of contacts that benefited later information collecting about ghetto and shtetl life. Ultimately, Ringelblum became deeply involved in the Aleynhilf (Jewish Self-Help Society), and it was in this capacity that he became an important leader in the Warsaw Ghetto. Kassow documents the steadily worsening conditions in the ghetto as inhabitants struggled with starvation, murder, "disinfections," and other physical and psychological abuse. One archive member wrote of her realization that the soup kitchen she ran could only postpone starvation, not prevent it. In the midst of this destruction Ringelblum started the Oyneg Shabes project to collect and preserve a variety of testimonies of Jewish life in Eastern Europe, including multiple perspectives from both Warsaw and the provinces. With the exceptions of the Judenrat and the Judenpolizei, the archive was able to establish contacts with many other groups within the ghetto.
Kassow describes Ringelblum's colleagues at Oyneg Shabes, starting with his coleaders, R. Eliyahu Gutkowski and Hersh Wasser. They ran the regular operations of the archive, were important contributors to its work, and were members of the archive's executive committee. Others, such as Alexander Landau and Shmuel Winter, helped provide the contacts for an information network and offered financial support. Rabbi Shimon Huberband helped maintain contact with the religious leadership in the ghetto, including Rabbi Kalonymous Shapiro. Several of the latter's wartime sermons entered into the archive's collections. Other contributors included teachers, economists, journalists, and many committed to recording the events occurring around them. Nearly everyone connected to the archive died in a death camp, was executed, was murdered, or died in the course of the 1943 uprising.
As Kassow makes clear, much data gathering took the form of surveys, questionnaires, and interviews. Understanding the wartime ghetto experience lost its immediate relevance when evidence of the...