The Warsaw ghetto
From beyond the grave
From The Economist print edition
A remarkable secret archive tells the story of life in the Warsaw ghetto
THE Nazis succeeded in exterminating millions of Jews. But they did not succeed in extinguishing their history. That is the story told by Samuel Kassow, an American historian, in a poignant and detailed account of the secret archive of the Warsaw ghetto.
In the autumn of 1940, Warsaw’s Jewish population, swollen by forced immigration, amounted to nearly 450,000 people, all of them walled into an area covering less than four square kilometres. By early 1942 about 83,000 had died from hunger. That summer 300,000 were sent away to death camps, mostly to Treblinka. In April and May 1943 the remaining 60,000 were killed, or captured and deported, in the Warsaw ghetto uprising, during which the Germans levelled that part of the city.
Mr Kassow starts his story amid the passionate arguments among Jews in the declining days of the three great empires: the German, the Austro-Hungarian and the Russian. Was the great dream to be integration? Was it in identification with the surging national consciousness of countries such as Poland, at that stage still partitioned? Was it emigration to a Jewish state in Palestine? Or in the hope of a socialist paradise based on a brotherhood of man rather than ethnic, religious or national affiliation? Or some mixture of the above? Was Hebrew the real language of Jews, or a snooty, artificial distraction? Was Yiddish a degenerate linguistic compromise, or the essential literary and political medium?
After the first world war, those arguments became more pressing. A Jewish state was taking embryonic form in Palestine. The Soviet authorities launched a rival Yiddish-speaking Jewish homeland, Birobidzhan, in a desolate corner of the Russian far east. The newly reborn Polish republic offered the chance of partnership with gentile Poles in a common homeland, albeit one marred by prejudice and discrimination.
The task for Jewish historians in those years was finding an account of their past that would help make sense of the arguments about the present. What role, for example, had Jews played in the Polish monarchy before its dismemberment in 1795? Was the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth really a paradise of tolerance, or was that just another myth among so many others? Gentile historians’ accounts were inevitably partial. The Jewish collective memory, with its colourful, folkloristic stereotypes of poor beggars, rich merchants and pious rabbis, was a help, but not an answer. Documents were scanty or missing altogether.
That effort gathered pace after Poland regained its independence in 1918. A pioneer was the young Emanuel Ringelblum, a passionate activist in the left-wing Poale Zion movement. Starting as a student in 1920, he was to become one of his country’s best historians, up to his death in the ruins of the Warsaw ghetto in 1944. Ringelblum is the central character in this book; although it is not a formal biography, the author does an excellent job of accumulating the scraps of information and recollection that have survived the human and archival destruction of the war.
With fine Yiddishist instinct, Mr Kassow does an excellent job too of evoking the atmosphere of those years, particularly the YIVO institute in Wilno (now Vilnius), which was founded in 1925 to give class and clout to Jewish scholarly efforts. The early chapters of the book, full of hope and productive energy, make the final ones all the more effective. The hugely subtle, interesting and complicated world of Jewish thought and culture boiled down to a bitter fight over bread or over scrappy permits; either might hold off death for another few days.
The Jews of the Warsaw ghetto could not prevent their own murder. But thanks to the Oyneg Shabes, the secret archive organised by Ringelblum and other historians, at colossal personal risk, they were at least able to record what they thought, felt and saw. The archive ranged from raw eyewitness accounts to scholarly histories, such as Ringelblum’s own lengthy analysis of Polish-Jewish relations. About 35,000 pages (only a fraction of the whole) survived the war, buried in milk churns and tin boxes. Some were carefully soldered shut; others had leaked, leaving an illegible soggy lump requiring painstaking conservation work. That the documents came to light at all is thanks to the persistence of Rachel Auerbach, one of only three survivors of hundreds of people involved in the project. It was she who went to Warsaw in 1946 and demanded that the cold and hungry survivors of the city’s destruction make the effort to dig out the caches from the ruins.
Locked up for years in the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw, the documents have only recently been substantially restored. A full catalogue has yet to be made, but the papers about Ringelblum that Mr Kassow has studied give a vivid, sometimes unbearable, picture of the ghetto’s destruction at the hands of the Nazis, and of the efforts made to preserve a semblance of civilised life that had succumbed to the elemental desire for survival.
The archive also illustrates the tension that exists between the Jewish and gentile experience of the war in Poland. The summer of 1939 had aroused a remarkable sense of solidarity between both peoples; that soon gave way to harsher feelings. Some Polish gentiles outside the ghetto taunted its inmates for their passivity (while at the same time grudging them supplies of arms and ammunition). Nazi anti-semitic propaganda about “Judeo-Communism” had some effect. So did self-interest; dead Jews were unlikely to want their pre-war property back. A poignant short piece by a Jewish poet, Wladyslaw Szlengel, an ardent Polish patriot, sums it up. With no gentile Polish friends left to talk to, he takes comfort in telephoning the speaking clock.
How great it is to talk to you
No quarrels, no words
You are nicer, my little time clock
Than all my former friends.
It is a pity that the author does not give a little space to the view of the ghetto from the outside. And the use of “Pole” as the antonym for “Jew” may jar with some. Many of the people he writes about would have said they were both. But the book remains an informative and moving reminder of what was lost in the Holocaust and the ingenuity and heroism of those who tried to frustrate its perpetrators.