Monday, September 21, 2009

Samuel Kassow: The Warsaw Ghetto Archive

What you see on the left is an aluminum milk can used to hide one of the most incredible archives, the Oyneg Shabes ("Joy of the Sabbath"), code word for a secret communal ethnography of the Warsaw ghetto during the Nazi occupation. Emanuel Ringelblum organized the project in 1940. On August 3, 1942, when 90% of Polish Jews had been annihilated, the last cache was buried. Of the 60-some people that contributed to the archive, only three survived the Treblinka death camps. In 1946, a group of researchers excavated through the rubble of Warsaw and found one of the three caches. Construction workers found the second cache in 1950. The third cache, buried under what is now the Chinese embassy, was never found.

The Warsaw ghetto archive has been thoroughly documented by Samuel Kassow, professor of history at Trinity College in Hartford. Tonight, I saw professor Kassow present this material at Franklin and Marshall. The talk was based on Kassow's most recent book, Who Will Write Our History?: Emanuel Ringelblum, the Warsaw Ghetto, and the Oyneg Shabes Archive (Indiana, 2007).

The circumstances of the archive's creation and burial are incredible. Rather than summarizing the lecture, I send you to two articles, "From Beyond the Grave" (Economist, Mar. 12, 2009), and Louise Steinman's review, LA Times (Feb. 22, 2009). As I learned, The Oyneg Sabes Archive belongs to a tradition of ethnographic collecting that began in the 1890s, as an intellectual exercise of Jewish nation-building within Europe, thus much different than the famous Cairo Geniza archive. In some ways, the archive is more like StoryCorps. Ringelblum's objective was to collect real-time accounts of the ghetto from as many voices as possible (children, rabbis, intellectuals, even the ghetto's hated Jewish policemen). The story is tragic, but the archive is heroic. It is also a powerful archaeological project. Like the excavations of Franco's mass graves in Spain (the Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory-ARMH), Oyneg Shabes must go down as one of the greatest case-studies of modern archaeology. I am so grateful to have seen this lecture. Dr. Kassow was able to touch on a wide array of intellectual topics. His story brought me to the edge of tears, a great way to mark Rosh Hashanah.

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Kostis Kourelis

Philadelphia, PA, United States