In the summer of 1943, in the Maidanek concentration camp Isaac Schiper told a fellow inmate that
Everything depends on who transmits our testament to future generations, on who writes the history of this period. History is usually written by the victor. What we know about murdered peoples is only what their murderers vaingloriously cared to say about them. Should our murderers be victorious, should they write the history of this war, our destruction will be presented as one of the most beautiful pages of world history, and future generations will pay tribute to them as dauntless crusaders. Their every word will be taken as gospel. Or they may wipe out our memory altogether, as if we had never existed, as if there had never been a Polish Jewry, a ghetto in Warsaw, a Maidanek. Not even a dog will howl for us.
But if we write the history of this period of blood and tears–and I firmly believe we will–who will believe us? Nobody will want to believe us, because our disaster is the disaster of the entire civilized world….We’ll have the thankless job of proving to a reluctant world that we are Abel, the murdered brother.
During that same summer the Jewish historian Emanuel Ringelblum would make his escape from the Trawniki camp, near Maidanek and return to Warsaw, where he joined 37 other Jews in an underground hideout in south Warsaw. There he resumed the mission to which he had devoted himself ever since the beginning of the war: to document the life and struggles of Polish Jewry during the German occupation.
In November 1940 Ringelblum had organized an underground archive in the Warsaw Ghetto. To help keep the project secret Ringelblum chose the code name Oyneg Shabes(the joy of the Sabbath), probably because the archive staff would meet on Saturday afternoons. The archive was quite well organized. There was an executive committee to raise money and chart general policy; executive secretaries Hersh Wasser and Eliyahu Gutkowski who assisted Ringelblum in the daily work of running the archive; writers and interviewers; copiers who tried to make multiple copies of all the material; and a “technical group” led by the teacher Israel Lichtenstein that had physical possession of the material that the archive collected.
Of the 60 or so members of the Oyneg Shabes Archive, there were only three survivors: Hersh Wasser, his wife Bluma and the journalist and writer Rachel Auerbach. All the rest perished. Ringelblum, his wife Judyta and his son Uri were murdered after the Germans discovered their hideout in March 1944.
After the end of the war Wasser and Auerbach implored and begged Jewish leaders in Poland and abroad to start looking for the buried archive. . He knew that the archive had been buried under the former Borochov school on Nowolipki 68. But nothing was left, neither of the Jews nor the ghetto, just acres of rubble. Taking bearings from the spires of a church, surveyors and engineers helped searchers towards the spot and on September 1946 a team from the Jewish Historical Institute found the first cache of the archive–thousands of documents packed in ten tin boxes. The Wassers and Auerbach were both elated and frustrated. The tin boxes had not been hermetically sealed and water had seeped in and destroyed many of the documents and photographs. They were also certain that the ten tin boxes were only a fraction of the archive. Digging continued, but the searchers found nothing else. . But in December 1950 Polish construction workers in the same area stumbled upon a second cache buried in two milk cans. These documents, which covered the period from August 1942 to late January 1943, were in much better condition. There was yet a third cache with important materials on the Jewish fighting organization hidden under Swietojerska 34, the present site of the Chinese embassy in Warsaw. But that was never found. All in all, about 25,000 documents have surfaced. Perhaps at least as many were lost. Still, as Rachel Auerbach noted, the Oyneg Shabes had better luck saving documents than in saving its own people.
What emerged from the milk cans and tin boxes in 1946 and 1950 was a record of extraordinary cultural resistance and dedication. For three years a small group–a dedicated brotherhood, Ringelblum called them–of men and women, rabbis and Marxists, prominent leaders and obscure volunteers systematically documented with questionnaires, surveys, interviews and essay contests the entire social history of the Warsaw ghetto. Ringelblum’s agenda was sweeping and ambitious: the collection of artifacts and documents, the study of Jewish society, the gathering of individual testimony, the documentation of German crimes, and alerting the outside world to the German mass murder. These goals were not mutually exclusive and the archive would pursue them simultaneously.
The Oyneg Shabes archive collected an enormous range of material: the underground press, documents, drawings, candy wrappers, tram tickets, ration cards and theater posters. It filed away invitations to concerts and lectures and took copies of the convoluted door-bell codes for apartments that often contained dozens of tenants. There were restaurant menus that advertised roast goose and fine wines and a terse account about a starving mother who had eaten her dead child. Carefully filed away were hundreds of postcards from Jews in the provinces, individuals about to be deported to an “unknown destination.” It preserved the entire script of a popular ghetto comedy, “Love Looks for an Apartment” and long essays on the ghetto theaters and cafes. The first cache of the archive also contained many photographs, seventy-six of which more or less survived.
The Oyneg Shabes filed away hectographed readers used in the ghetto schools and the reports that nurses wrote in the ghetto orphanages. After July 22, 1942, the archive collected the German posters that announced the Great Deportation and those that promised anyone voluntarily reporting for deportation 3 kilograms of bread and a kilogram of marmalade… Crammed into the milk cans of the second cache were penciled notes whose shaky handwriting betrayed the desperation of their authors. These pieces of paper, smuggled out of the Umschlagplatz, were frantic appeals for a last-minute rescue from the waiting death trains. One such appeal was written by the poet Joseph Kirman, whose poems are included in this collection. Among the last documents buried in the second cache were the posters calling for armed resistance.
The Oyneg Shabes commitment to comprehensive documentation went hand-in hand with another important commitment: to post-war justice. It was this quest to gather evidence that explained why the archive collected enormous amounts of material on events in as many localities as possible. At first glance much of this material was repetitious. But it did fix, town by town and village by village, what exactly the Germans did, when they did it, who gave the orders, and who helped them. If the Oyneg Shabes did not do this, then who would? As time went on the Oyneg Shabes, unlike most of the other archives, would also acquire a new role as a center of “civil resistance.”2 When German plans for the Jews became clearer the Oyneg Shabes began to issue its own bulletin and worked closely with the ZOB, the Jewish Fighting Organization in the Warsaw ghetto.
And, as Sarah Moskovitz shows us in this gripping collection, the Oyneg Shabes did not forget writers and poets: the fiery Yitzhak Katzenelson, the quiet self-effacing Hershele, Joseph Kirman, the bard of the pre-war Warsaw slums, Kalman Lis, whose lyric descriptions of Jewish rural life in Volynhia captured the imagination of pre-war audiences.
In her memoirs of the Warsaw Ghetto, Rachel Auerbach stressed the importance of the Oyneg Shabes in encouraging writers and poets to keep writing. Ringelblum and his associates did this in several ways. In some cases the archive directly approached a pre-war writer and asked him to contribute to the archive, either by assigning him particular topics or by asking him or her to submit their own work. Such was the case with Peretz Opoczynski who, in addition to fiction and poetry, became the archive’s most prolific writer of ghetto reportage. The archive asked the Polish language writer Gustawa Jarecka and the Yiddish writer Shie Perle to write their impressions of the Great Deportation, the mass murder of Warsaw Jewry which began on July 22 1942. Auerbach herself was asked by Ringelblum to write a long essay about literature in the ghetto.
But since secrecy was paramount, the Oyneg Shabes was extremely careful about whom to approach directly. Even figures with an impeccable reputation, such as the historian Yitzhak Schiper or the great Hebrew and Yiddish poet Yitzhak Katzenelson, were treated with caution if they even casually associated with figures that the Oyneg Shabes regarded with suspicion. Therefore it resorted to other methods to acquire fiction and poetry. One was to have Oyneg Shabes members procure material without revealing their connection to the archive. It is likely, for example that in the case of Yitzhak Katzenelson it seems likely that the archive acquired many of his important poems—such as the Song of the Radzyner—through the good offices of Eliyahu Gutkowski, who was Katzenelson’s friend. Another way for the archive to gather material was to sponsor writing contests—not under its own name, of course.
One reason the Oyneg Shabes was able to gather so much material—including the poems in this collection—was that its leading members were also active in a key institution of ghetto life — the Aleynhilf or the Self Help. Based on hundreds of house committees, the Aleynhilf grew into the largest Jewish self help organization in occupied Europe with a far flung network of soup kitchens, day care centers for children, refugee points. The same people who ran the Oyneg Shabes ran the Aleynhilf, and thus the archive was use it as an access point to the Jewish masses in the ghetto. Until America’s entry into the war in December 1941 the Joint Distribution Committee enjoyed some recognition from the Germans and the JDC’s leaders in the Warsaw ghetto were also key members of the Oyneg Shabes’ executive committee. This meant that the Oyneg Shabes executive board found itself in a position of relative “power’: they could find people jobs, distribute tickets for extra food products, grant extra tickets to soup kitchens. In his wartime writings Ringelblum frankly admitted that the Oyneg Shabes and Aleynhilf worked closely together to extend as much help as possible to the Jewish intelligentsia in the ghetto: writers, poets, and teachers. Of course it was never enough, bitterness ran high, and charges of favouritism were rife. But for all that, the Aleynhilf was usually the first “address” writers and poets turned to for help.
There was yet another channel that the Oyneg Shabes used to reach writers and poets….IKOR, the Yiddish cultural society in the ghetto. IKOR, most of whose leaders also were active in the Oyneg Shabes, organized readings of Yiddish literature, sponsored theatre performances in the courtyards of the ghetto(where Jews could move around after the curfew) and helped organize evenings for Jewish writers where they could hear each other’s work and get some extra food. Under IKOR guidance many House Committees voted to make Yiddish the main language of committee deliberations. In a joint effort with the CENTOS, the IKOR offered Yiddish activities for ghetto children– puppet shows, skits and morning readings devoted to Yiddish children’s literature. The IKOR also organized a Yiddish people’s university that featured lecturers such as Ringelblum, Isaac Schiper and Yitzhak Giterman. It printed Yiddish textbooks for ghetto schools and encouraged ghetto institutions to feature signs proclaiming “We Speak Yiddish”.
Ringelblum was sufficiently encouraged by the IKOR’s apparent successes to note in his diary entries of December 15, 17, 20 1940 that perhaps the ghetto was seeing the beginnings of a “back to Yiddish movement.”3 On March 23, 1941 he wrote that “the interest in Yiddish culture is growing. To an ever increasing extent Yiddish is becoming the language of the [theater performances] in the ghetto.”
The Jewish intellectuals in the ghetto used such occasions as the anniversaries of the deaths of well-known Yiddish writers to read poetry, speak on literary themes and preserve some link to pre-war values and norms. To remember Peretz, Mendele, Sholem Aleichem was to remember a better time, a time of hope and optimism, a time when Jews looked forward to a self-respecting life in Eastern Europe, to a time when hopes ran high that Yiddish, long the despised folk language, was finally gaining recognition and respect… In September 1941, in a talk that commemorated the anniversary of the death of the Yiddish writer I.M. Weissenberg, the teacher, writer and Oyneg Shabes worker Abraham Lewin stressed that although life in the ghetto was dominated by death and despair, “we wish to live on, to continue as free and creative men. This shall be our test. If, under the thick layer of ashes our life is not extinguished, this will prove the triumph of the human over the inhuman and that our will to live is mightier than the will to destruction; that we are capable of overcoming all evil forces which attempt to engulf us.”
Sarah Moskovitz has gathered an extraordinary collection of Yiddish poetry from the recovered part of the Oyneg Shabes archive. Given the amount of material that was damaged or that was never found, we have no way of knowing how much more Yiddish poetry was hidden away. What we have before us is consists of two basic types of poems: those written before the war and those written in the ghetto.
One might ask why did the archive devote precious space and effort to hiding poetry that had been written before the war. One can only guess. We know that Rachel Auerbach, who had been Itzik Manger’s wife before the war, guarded his manuscripts after the Polish government forced him to leave the country. (Manger was a Rumanian citizen), and she gave them to the archive. Had she not done this, much of Manger’s work would have been lost. We also know that Jewish teachers collected poetry to use in make-shift text books for ghetto schools. One such teacher was Israel Lichtenstein, who also buried the first cache of the archive. The Lodz poets Miriam Ulinover and Simcha Bunem Shayevich are also represented in this collection, perhaps because one of the many Lodz refugees active in the archive brought their poems with them when they entered the Warsaw ghetto.
Of special interest are the poems written in the Warsaw Ghetto. Such poems as Katzenelson’s “Song of the Radzyner” or Joseph Kirman’s “After the Blockade” offer a glimpse into the pain and suffering of the ghetto as well as the determination to maintain one’s human dignity intact.
“The Song of the Radzyner” written between early July 1942 and January 1943– read aloud by the poet to the membership of Dror as they prepared for armed uprising–was a clarion call for leadership to restore national pride and honor. Katzenelson told his friends in Dror that the spark of heroism was in each and every one of them and that their people had unique values and a different definition of heroism:
I will sing you a song of a hero
No, don’t laugh, brothers
how does a Jew come to sing songs of heroes?
Songs of heroes..sure!
why are you afraid?
such songs are for a gentile
they belong to him
Gentiles..to them belongs victory
only they have heroes
they kill in war
and destroy entire worlds
So it will be hard for me
There is a Jew, with no weapons and no spur
he does not shoot
His hands are pure, his heart is pure
and pure, pure is his conscience
And if this Jew spills any blood
it is only his own
so I am singing you a song of a hero
but one in a very different tune.
In “After the Blockade” the poet Joseph Kirman wrote
Deserted streets, divided into block houses, surrounded with barbed wire.
And they, the workshop people, Jewish ones and Order Police, they stand guard and are prepared, they are prepared, they are prepared to sacrifice their closest kin
as is demanded of them now,
their parents, children, even wives as long as not themselves,
they are ready, they are ready, they are ready—
In one city, four hundred thousands Jewish souls were killed.
Kirman himself was accosted by two burly Jewish policemen who dragged him, kicking and screaming to the Umschlagplatz. There, as he waited for his turn to board the train, he managed to send out a note to Yitzhak Giterman asking for help. That note saved Kirman’s life—for a time. he met his death on November 3, 1943, during the mass shooting of Jews in the Lublin camps.
But these few poems survived. how many more did not we will never know.