Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Historian in Hell

This time of year, around the Jewish holidays, I always try to read a few books on Jewish topics. Let me briefly mention one. Samuel D. Kassow’s Who Will Write Our History?: Emanuel Ringelblum, the Warsaw Ghetto, and the Oyneg Shabes Archive is a riveting history of the man who kept an invaluable diary of the Warsaw Ghetto, and with his collaborators in the Oyneg Shabes archive, tried to document, in interviews, surveys, and essays, the life and death of the Warsaw Ghetto. Much of what Ringelblum and his colleagues recorded, stuffed into several large milk cans, were recovered, miraculously, by some of the very few survivors of Ringelblum’s circle in 1946.

Ringelblum was a professional historian, born in Galicia in 1900. He came to Poland after World War I, where he studied history, and wrote several important books on Polish-Jewish relations. (Although, evidently, getting a history gig was as difficult in interwar Poland as in the US in the early 21st century.)

He was a Marxist, a Zionist of sorts, and one who dedicated his historical talent to telling the stories of average people, and not the elites that had usually occupied most of the pages in older Jewish histories.. These talents proved to be invaluable when he decided, after the establishment of the Warsaw Ghetto, to document what he soon realized would be the attempted extermination, person by person, of the entirety of Jewish Poland.

Of course, Kassow’s book is heartbreaking and harrowing. (Read a book about the Holocaust, and while you are in its grip the history of everything else seems unimportant and trivial.) But it is an inspiring story as well, as Ringeblum and his colleagues strained to capture every nuance of the unimaginable events that were destroying them.

At one point, towards the end of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, Ringelblum had a brief quarrel with Mordecai Anielewicz, the leader of the uprising. How should the meager resources left to the rebels be apportioned; more guns and hardware to fight the Nazis, or more pens and paper to document the struggle? The two men soon reached an accommodation, but their positions represented, arguably, the two most basic human needs. Starting with as babes in arms, no instinct is more basic than the need for security and self-preservation. If the situation is dire enough, as in the Warsaw Ghetto, this becomes the task of the soldier.

Our other basic need is the fight against the personal and collective oblivion that will eventually be our fate. This is a fight that befalls the historian, one that every historian must wage with all their heart, with all their soul, with all their might, perhaps, like Emanuel Ringelblum, to our last breath.

Shana Tova.

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