Who Will Write Our History?
Who Will Write Our History? Emanuel Ringelblum, The Warsaw Ghetto and The Oyneg Shabes Archive
by Samuel S. Kassow. Indiana University Press, 552 pages, $34.95
November 13, 2008
When the full extent of the Holocaust became known in the years following World War II, one of the big questions was: Why did Jews allow themselves to be slaughtered like sheep?
For many of us, resistance calls forth images of fighting back, confronting the enemy with weapons, killing the killers. But there were ways other than armed confrontation by which defenseless Jews resisted the Nazis. In this book, Samuel S. Kassow informs us about one such type of resistance, whereby — and always under the threat of death — a group of Jews committed themselves to recording the brutality of the Nazis as they pursued their aim to exterminate the Jews of Europe.
If there is one book that should be read about the Holocaust, it is Who Will Write Our History?, wherein Kassow provides the story of the Oyneg Shabes Archive, a project organized in the Warsaw Ghetto by historian Emanuel Ringelblum to describe Nazi measures against the Jews trapped there, a place where starvation, typhus, forced labor, and deportation were the realties of everyday life.
Between the outbreak of war in September 1939 and the summer of 1942, Ringelblum managed to assemble a group of teachers, rabbis, scholars, writers, businessmen, and idealistic young people to collect data on the trials and tribulations of the Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto. They wrote of Nazi cruelty toward Jews, Polish-Jewish relations, and the seeming collaboration of the Warsaw Jewish Council and Jewish police with the occupiers, so that future generations would have an account of what transpired in the ghetto.
But there were risks associated with the project, both physical — the Nazis would have executed anyone associated with recording what transpired in the ghetto — and existential. As Isaac Shiper, one of the writers of the archives, subsequently told a fellow inmate in the Majdanek concentration camp:
“Everything depends on who transmits our testament to future generations, on who writes the history of this period. History is usually written by the victor. What we know about murdered people is only what their murderers cared to say about them. But if we write the history of this period of blood and tears who will believe us? Nobody will want to believe us, because our disaster is the disaster of the civilized world.”
To document the Nazi activities, therefore, was to resist. During the Holocaust, powerless Jewish men, women, and children daily faced the threat of death, yet there were individuals who confronted the Nazis with pen and paper and through works of art — powerful weapons they hoped would combat only the murderers’ record of what happened. More than anyone else, it was Ringelblum who encouraged the contributors to the Oyneg Shabes Archive to record their observations to further the preservation of a record of the Nazis’ atrocities, and who organized and conceptualized the articles and questionnaires into a powerful center of civil resistance.
Fearing the archive would be discovered by their oppressors, Ringelblum and his staff buried the documents in three separate caches. The first was uncovered in 1946, the second in 1950; the third — which would have documented the critical months of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising — was never found.
Together, however, the archives constitute the most significant eyewitness accounts of the ghetto and the travails suffered by its incarcerated Jewish victims. Sensing that death was approaching the entire population of the ghetto, Israel Lichtenstein, who buried the first cache of the archive in 1942, concluded his testament with the following words: “We are the redeeming sacrifice of the Jewish people. I believe that the nation will survive. We the Jews of Eastern Europe are the redeemers of the People of Israel.”
Lichtenstein, who would not survive the genocide, reminded posterity that Jews were not just victims; they were people and part of a resilient nation. This was also Ringelblum’s legacy, his history of the Warsaw Ghetto as recorded in the Oyneg Shabes Archive.
Jack Fischel, emeritus professor of history at Millersville University, Pennsylvania, is the author of The Holocaust (Greenwood Press, 1998) and The Holocaust and Its Religious Impact (Praeger) and editor of the forthcoming Encyclopedia of American Jewish Popular Culture (Greenwood Press).