Who Will Write Our His­to­ry?: Emanuel Ringel­blum, the War­saw Ghet­to and the Oyneg Shabes Archive

Samuel D. Kassow
  • Review
By – January 30, 2012

If there is one book that should be read this year (or any year) about the Holo­caust it is Who Will Write Our His­to­ry, where­in his­to­ri­an Samuel Kas­sow pro­vides us with the his­to­ry of the Oyneg Shabes Archive, a project orga­nized in the War­saw Ghet­to by Emanuel Ringel­blum, a his­to­ri­an, to describe Nazi mea­sures against Jews trapped in a ghet­to, where star­va­tion, typhus, forced labor, and depor­ta­tion were the real­ties of every­day life. 

Between the out­break of war in Sep­tem­ber 1939 to the sum­mer of 1942, Ringel­blum man­aged to assem­ble a num­ber 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. Tak­ing great risks, the com­pil­ers of the archive wrote of Nazi cru­el­ty toward the Jews, Pol­ish-Jew­ish rela­tions, as well as 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 exe­cute any­one asso­ci­at­ed with the archive — and exis­ten­tial. As Isaac Shiper, one of the writ­ers 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 cru­el­ty, there­fore, was to resist. Dur­ing the Holo­caust pow­er­less Jew­ish men, women, and chil­dren faced death, yet there were indi­vid­u­als who were deter­mined to con­front the Nazis with pen and paper, and through works of art, pow­er­ful weapons that they hoped would record the crimes of the per­pe­tra­tors. More than any­one else it was Emanuel Ringel­blum who encour­aged the par­tic­i­pants in the Oyneg Shabes Archive to record what they observed, and who orga­nized and con­cep­tu­al­ized the arti­cles and ques­tion­naires into a pow­er­ful cen­ter of civ­il resistance. 

Fear­ing that the archive would be found by the Nazis, Ringel­blum and his staff gath­ered the infor­ma­tion about the Nazi killings and buried them in three sep­a­rate caches. The first was uncov­ered in 1946, the sec­ond in 1950, and the third cache, 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 War­saw Ghet­to and the tra­vails suf­fered by its incar­cer­at­ed Jew­ish vic­tims. Fac­ing an uncer­tain future but sens­ing that death hov­ered over the ghet­to, Israel Licht­en­stein, bury­ing 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, the lega­cy of the Oyneg Shabes Archive.

Jack Fis­chel is pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of his­to­ry at Millersville Uni­ver­si­ty, Millersville, PA and author of The Holo­caust (Green­wood Press) and His­tor­i­cal Dic­tio­nary of the Holo­caust (Row­man and Littlefield).

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