In famed ghetto archive, life in death’s shadow

In famed ghetto archive, life in death’s shadow

Professor remembers a celebrated historian of the Warsaw Ghetto

Historian Samuel Kassow will share Emanuel Ringelblum’s extraordinary record of life in the Warsaw Ghetto.
Historian Samuel Kassow will share Emanuel Ringelblum’s extraordinary record of life in the Warsaw Ghetto.

As the Nazis’ noose tightened on the doomed ghettoes of Warsaw, Cracow, and Lodz, a Polish-Jewish historian sought to create a kind of immortality for those otherwise condemned to be forgotten.

Working with a team of about 60 fellow interviewers, Emanuel Ringelblum — a history teacher before the war and an ardent left-wing political activist — systematically asked ghetto residents about every aspect of life in the Warsaw Ghetto, the positive and the negative.

Seventy years later, historian Samuel Kassow seeks to share Ringelblum’s extraordinary record of life in the Warsaw Ghetto with a wider audience.

At Kean University on Nov. 30, Kassow will give a talk, “History and Catastrophe: The Secret Archives of the Warsaw Ghetto.”

He’ll describe Ringelblum’s painstakingly accurate descriptions of everyday life in that tragic place and the intimate insights they provide into the ways and mores of the community.

“When you study the Holocaust, you can’t start with the war,” Kassow told NJ Jewish News in an interview from his home in Connecticut. “For these people, the experience of the Holocaust was a continuation of the culture they came from. Even in the ghetto, they weren’t just victims; they ran schools and theaters, and they were involved in intense political controversies. And until 1942, they had hopes for a better postwar world.”

Kassow, the Charles H. Northam Professor of History at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., was born to Polish parents who survived the Holocaust. But for a long time he tried to avoid the subject; he focused his research, rather, on tsarist Russia.

“As the child of survivors, in a community of survivors in the 1950s, I began to realize how many of the people around us had had other families whom they’d lost,” Kassow said. As a historian, he said, he didn’t want to deal with what Poland was like before the war, but then, studying at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, he came across Ringelblum’s documents. Fluent in Yiddish — in addition to knowing Russian and Polish — Kassow was one of the few researchers able to appreciate what they contained.

Ringelblum “was an amazing historian,” Kassow said of his wartime counterpart. “He understood that resistance is something done not just with guns; it can also be with pen and paper.”

‘Human dignity’

In 2007, Kassow published an acclaimed book about Ringelblum, Who Will Write Our History: Emanuel Ringelblum and the Oyneg Shabes Archive.

Kassow was struck by the archives’ honesty.

Ringelblum recorded the answers “without sugar coating,” Kassow said. “He wanted to tell everything and to show that these people did their best to help their families and their neighbors, and that the balance tilted to human dignity.”

Thousands of pages of information were sealed in metal boxes and buried. Others were stashed away in milk cans. As the ghetto roundups intensified, and the great uprising failed, all but three of those involved died or were taken away and later killed. Despite attempts to save him, Ringelblum was also killed, along with his family. But the coded message he had sent to YIVO got through, telling them about the archives.

Eventually, in August 1946, one stash was found, damp and moldy; another was found in December 1950. A third was rumored to be below what is now the Chinese embassy in Warsaw, but attempts to find it failed.

Kassow’s involvement with Poland continues. He is deeply involved in the shaping of the new Museum of History of the Polish Jews, which will occupy a site in what was the Warsaw Ghetto.

“Poland is a different country than it was,” he said. “It’s very encouraging to see that it doesn’t have any marked anti-Israel sentiment. In fact, in Europe, alongside Germany, it’s one of Israel’s best friends.”

CORRECTION: The original article as posted referred to Emanuel Ringelblum as an “amateur” historian. In fact, he was trained in the famed history department at Warsaw University and chaired YIVO’s Young Historians Circle. The article has been changed to reflect the correction. 

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