Review: Who will write our history?
A new account of life in the Warsaw Ghetto as recorded by the tragic Emanuel Ringelblum is detailed and powerful
By Samuel D Kassow
Allen Lane, £10.99
The brave achievement of Emanuel Ringelblum could easily have been lost to history. A minor historian, mid-level activist in a small political movement, selflessly devoted relief worker, he was murdered with his family in the Warsaw Ghetto at the age of 43.
Ringelblum was the leader of the Oyneg Shabes archive, a group of volunteers in the ghetto who risked their lives to compile reports, collect documents and photographs, handwritten testimony, letters and diaries, chronicling ghetto life in all its aspects. While those around them were concerned solely with self-preservation, Ringelblum and his colleagues had their eyes on the future, a future they realised that most of them would never see.
Much information was smuggled out and published while the cruel regime was still in force, but most remained hidden. Part of the archive was lost forever in the ruins of the ghetto and the post-war rebuilding of Warsaw but two collections of documents, in metal boxes and milk cans, were discovered thanks to the efforts of the few surviving Oyneg Shabes members. They remain the most complete and compelling witness to the lives and deaths of half-a-million Jews incarcerated in the space of a couple of dozen streets.
For all Ringelblum’s efforts to record the lives of others, relatively little has been known until now about his own life. Samuel D Kassow has filled this vacuum with his compelling, meticulously researched account of Ringelblum’s life and the story behind Oyneg Shabes. It was not an easy task. In his extensive diaries, Ringelblum very rarely mentioned himself or his family, and never mentioned the archive, for security reasons.
Choosing to be a historian, a profession in which as a Jew he had little hope of finding a decent post in inter-war Poland, Ringelblum poured his energy into voluntary work for the leftist Poalei Zion party, which was steadily marginalised as it tried to combine Marxism, support for the Zionist pioneers in Palestine, a dedication to Jewish life in Poland and the diaspora as a whole, and a fascination with Yiddish culture.
While many left the party, Ringelblum remained loyal, eking out a living as a schoolteacher and later as an organiser for the Jewish Distribution Committee working with Jewish refugees.
He saw historical research as an ideological endeavour, the only way to create a Jewish heritage based not just on religious mythology, pogroms and persecution, but on the vibrant lives of the Jewish proletariat in Poland.
But once the ghetto was sealed, Ringelblum brought together secular and Orthodox activists for a very different project. With them, he collected writings of Zionists, communists and anti-Zionist Bundists, memoirs of old professors and schoolchildren’s essays, and documented both shameful collaboration and the armed struggle of the Jewish resistance. It would be the history of all the ghetto’s Jews.
Ever since first reading about the Oyneg Shabes archive, I have thought of Ringelblum as the patron saint of Jewish journalists. Amid all the death and destruction, he risked his own life to chronicle the miserable minutiae of life in the ghetto. So, naturally, I was dismayed to read this quote from one of his essays: “We purposely avoided inviting professional journalists because we didn’t want our work to become cheapened and distorted. We wanted the simplest most unadorned account possible of what happened in each shtetl and what happened to each Jew… Any superfluous word, any literal exaggeration grated and repelled… And then again, there was the problem of secrecy. As is well known, journalists have a hard time with that.”
Ringelblum had a historian’s hostility to those who, without too much research or analysis, daily write history’s first draft. However, there were professional journalists in Oyneg Shabes, and underground newspapers published in the Warsaw Ghetto were a key component of the archive.
Ringelblum combined both professions in order to tell the bleak story to the world.
Anshel Pfeffer is the JC’s Israel correspondent