Forward by Michael Berenbaum
Poetry in Hell is a special work, dare one say a sacred work. The poems were written over a long period of time, but they were collected at a specific time, in a specific place, by a specific man and his colleagues, for a specific purpose.
A word about that time, that place, that man and that purpose.
Every student of the Holocaust knows the basic outlines of the story. On September 1, 1939 the Germans invaded Poland. Within four weeks Warsaw had surrendered and the Polish capital was firmly in German hands. Even before Poland’s surrender Reinhard Heydrich had issued specific orders for how the Jews were going to be controlled. On September 21, 1939 he wrote to the chief of the Security Police to the chiefs of all task forces operating in the conquered Polish territory, establishing the basic outlines of German policy in the territories. Heydrich distinguished between the ultimate goal (Endziel), which will require some time to implement, and the intermediate goals which must be carried out in the short-term. He said: some goals cannot yet be implemented for technical reasons and some for economic reasons. Room was left for innovation.
His language is specific: the Endziel, the final goal, must be distinguished from the language that is later to be used, the endlossen, or Final Solution, a polite euphemism for the murder of Jewish men, women and children. The ultimate goal is unarticulated; it may be assumed and yet remains undefined. There is considerable reason to believe that even he did not yet think in terms of annihilation.
The first intermediate goal is concentration. Jews are to be moved from the countryside into the larger cities. Certain areas are to become Judenrein, free of Jews, and smaller communities are to be merged into the larger ones.
Heydrich orders local leaders to establish a Council of Jewish Elders, twenty-four men to be appointed from the local leaders and rabbis that is to be made fully responsible, “in the literal sense of the word” to implement future decree. A census must be taken and leaders are to be personally responsible for the evacuation of Jews from the countryside. It was unnecessary to indicate what personal responsibility implied.
Within 14 months, the Jews of Warsaw were ghettoized. The announcement was posted on Yom Kippur 5701, a macabre New Year’s gift by the German masters who used the sacred holiday as an opportunity to further demoralize the Jews. By November 1940, the ghetto was sealed.
The ghettos of Poland must be viewed from two perspectives.
To the German master, the ghetto was a holding pen, a reservation to contain the Jews until a decision was reached as to their fate.
But to the Jews, the ghetto was a place to live until… Until what, they did not know.
Perhaps, until the war came to an end, until the Allies had won the war, a hope that seemed ever more dubious when the Soviet Union was allied with Germany and when country after country in Western Europe had fallen to German attack. France and Belgium, Holland and Denmark, Luxembourg and Norway had been attacked and surrendered. Czechoslovakia had been dismembered and occupied. Slovakia became an ally of Germany as had Romania, Hungary and Italy. Only England had not capitulated and the United States had not entered the war. So living in the ghetto, one could not know what to wait for and hope was elusive even for a people that had ended their two most important holy days with the prayer “Next Year in Jerusalem” and whose anthem was Hatikvah, the Hope.
Still the Warsaw Ghetto became the largest ghetto of Europe, the most important ghetto in the largest and most important Jewish community in Europe. It was the home of more than 400,000 Jews, perhaps at its peak even as many as 445,000, more than 30% of the population of Warsaw, who lived in 2.4 percent of the city, with a population density of 200,000 per square mile and 9.4 persons to a room.
When one writes that conditions were difficult, one must remind the reader that the word “difficult” when used in the ghetto is not an ordinary word; in the ghetto conditions were impossible, circumstances intolerable and it was the task of each person, each family, as well as the community to make the impossible and the intolerable endurable for but one more month, one more week, on more day, one more hour, one more minute.
The distance between ordinary pre-war life and life in the ghetto was immeasurable; and for many the distance between survival and despair was razor thin.
We now know what the Jews did not know and could not know because even their tormentors, the Germans did not know. That the ghetto was a holding pen until “the Final Solution” became operative policy of the Third Reich and the infrastructure was built that could kill the Jews of Poland. The “Final Solution” became operational in June 1941 with the German invasion of the Soviet Union and Soviet-help territories and German experience with the mobile killing units that were sent to the town, villages and hamlets of these newly occupied territories to murder the Jews, Soviet Commissars and Gypsies proved decisive in shaping the next stage of killing – the development of the killing centers, the death camps. Six Centers were created Chelmno was the first, it opened for gassing on December 8, 1941, more than six weeks before the Wannsee Conference. Auschwitz and Majdanek were the most developed as slave labor camps, killing centers and concentration camps. Three killing centers – Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka — had one purpose and one purpose alone, the murder of Jews.
For Warsaw Jewry the destination was Treblinka, which opened on July 22, 1942, the very day that the first great deportation left Warsaw and continued to receive – and then gas arriving — Jews in the great Aktion until September 21st.
The Warsaw Ghetto after the great deportation was a different place than before. The children were gone; so too, were the elderly. The illusion of life indefinite was gone so too the thought that the Germans – cultured and civilized as they were presumed to be – were not murderous thugs committed to total destruction. A further deportation, the small deportation began on January 18, 1943 and then the final deportation on April 19th, a birthday present to the Fuhrer, Warsaw was to be made Judenrein. This occasioned the fabled Warsaw Ghetto Uprising that has entered Jewish lore and Jewish memory. This is not the moment to dwell on the Ghetto Uprising, but no mention of Warsaw can be complete without considering it.
Suffice it to say that for the killers, the ghetto was temporary; their victims did not know that and could not know that.
My distinguished colleague Samuel Kassow has written a brilliant biography of Emanuel Ringelblum entitled Who Shall Write Our History? So I will leave it to him to tell the story of Ringelblum and his colleagues in the Oyneg Shabbes Archive. Permit me to give you enough so that you will understand the historical importance, the moral importance of what you are about to read.
Born in Buczacz, eastern Galicia, Emanuel Ringelblum graduated from Warsaw University with a Ph.D. in history. With universities closed to all but the most fortunate and gifted of Jews, Ringelblum taught high school. He was a member of YIVO (Jewish Scientific Institute), and in 1928 a founder of the Circle of Young Historians in Warsaw, which published a periodical, Der Yunger Historiker. He was both an academic and a political activist, a left-wing Zionist with Poale Zion and a Yiddishist. In 1938 he was dispatched to Zbaszyn to direct the relief work for Jews stranded in no-man’s land between Germany and Poland; expelled by the former, they were not admitted back into Poland, which had revoked their citizenship.
From the moment of the German invasion, Ringelblum was part of the coordinating committee of the Jewish-aid association, which later evolved into ZETOS (Jewish Society for Social Help). The group organized soup kitchens, health clinics and the numerous house committees, which supported families living in shared courtyards—one of the many ways in which Jews came to the aid of Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto.
His involvement made Ringelblum highly informed about the fate of Warsaw’s Jews—and their changing conditions in response to deteriorating circumstance. It was this task of gathering and preserving the information that was to form the essence of his clandestine work within the ghetto—and establish his legacy. Ringelblum understood that the situation in Poland was unprecedented, and used his formidable talents—both academic and organizational—to document the situation, not only in the Warsaw Ghetto but in all of Poland.
The work of Oyneg Shabbes—Yiddish for “the Joy of Sabbath,” the code name for his underground archives—was a sterling example of spiritual defiance. It was a manifestation of a historian’s faith in the possibilities of history and the enduring quality of Jewish memory. Ringelblum believed that the Germans could not be allowed to write the history of the ghettos; it was the responsibility of its inhabitants to leave a lasting record from which this history could be told from the perspective of the victims, not their tormentors.
Guided by a love of his people and a fascination with the raw material of historical writing, he led a diverse and large team effort at documentation. He personally reviewed every item included in the archive and maintained balance among all all segments of the population. Even scientific work was included, alongside poetry and literary works. Most noteworthy is the collection of clandestine underground newspapers in various languages.
He also made efforts to have this material transmitted to London, and through London to the West. His efforts led to the first reports of the mass killings at the Chelmno and Treblinka death camps and the deportations of Warsaw Jewry. He was critical of Judenrat chairman Adam Czerniakow’s decision to take his own life rather than preside over the deportation of children, writing: “a weak man, he should have called for resistance.” After the massive deportation of the summer of 1942, Ringleblum became a firm believer in armed resistance.
The great deportation changed his perspective: Afterwards, he no longer dealt with small details but with the larger picture of the situation. He created biographical notes on some of the great figures in the ghetto. Before the ghetto was destroyed, collections of material were put in containers and buried in three–or perhaps more–caches. (Two were discovered after the war.)
Together with his wife and young son, Ringelblum left the ghetto and was hidden. He returned to the ghetto during the uprising, alone. He was taken to Trawniki prison and, with the help of others, managed to escape and once again was hidden on the “Aryan” side. He worked to the end, writing a portrait of Polish-Jewish relations during the occupation. The Gestapo discovered his hiding place on March 7, 1944, and he and his family were arrested and murdered.
Let me repeat one sentence so that we can appreciate the material that we are about to read: “The great deportation changed his perspective: Afterwards, he no longer dealt with small details but with the larger picture of the situation.”
Ringelblum felt a double obligation: to preserve enough of a skeleton of Yiddish Poetry and of the Yiddish Poets in the ghetto so that future generations would be able to catch a glimpse of the variety, diversity, integrity and talent of the Yiddish poets of Poland. And to present the poetry that was written in the ghetto so that future generation could know that even in hell to the very end Jews wrote poetry. Jews believed that even if they did survive, their words would endure, would iberleben, would outlast the enemy and provide the raw material for future history. Of that they were certain and on this point they were right.
Four score in years, Sarah Moskovitz has been obsessed by this history; more importantly, she has been engaged by this poetry and feels it as her solemn obligation to transmit this work to an English reading public. For this we must express our appreciation and our gratitude. This is a sacred task of bearing witness. So read Poetry in Hell as you might any collection of poetry, but read it also as a record of history and of spiritual defiance by both the poets and their archivists. Read it also as testimony to spiritual defiance. Some could preserve their souls, could cherish the word until the very end. They believed and perhaps we too must believe, that the word can become eternal.
Los Angeles, California