Guest post by Isabel Nieves.
Themester intern Isabel Nieves had a conversation with Samuel D. Kassow, a professor in the Department of History at Trinity College. They discussed the upcoming Themester film, Who Will Write Our History. The film recounts the story of Emanuel Ringelblum and his mission to create an archive that documented the history of Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto. This archive is known as the Oyneg Shabes Archive. Mr. Kassow also tells the story of Ringelblum in his book, Who Will Write Our History, which actually inspired the film. (This interview was edited and condensed.)
What drew you to Ringelblum’s story?
What drew me to the story was that I was a child of Holocaust survivors, so the Holocaust certainly played a very big role in the history of my family. I was also a historian and for the first part of my career as a historian, I made a conscious decision not to have anything to do with the Holocaust because I felt it was a subject that was too close, so I really just did non-Jewish Russian history. In fact, I learned most of my Russian at Indiana University. I did Russian history, but then as the years went on I kept thinking about this story of Emanuel Ringelblum, a historian who understood that history really mattered, that it was really important, that it wasn’t just an academic subject, that it was far more than that, that it was a weapon you could fight with a pen and paper, not just with guns.
Ringelblum understood in the ghetto that unless you leave documents, unless you leave traces, unless you leave a record, the people who were trying to kill you will decide how you’ll be remembered. They’ll decide what the record will be. So Ringelblum said, even if we don’t live to see it, at least some day, a posterity will remember on the basis of our records and not on the basis of theirs. So the story was very, very compelling. I kind of just started writing articles and thinking about it, but I don’t know if the book would have been written at all if Indiana hadn’t invited me for the Schwartz lectures in 1998—could have been 1997. The Schwartz lectures at Indiana came with the book contract. So once I gave the lectures, I kind of had a book contract and that gave me a lot of encouragement to continue.
How important was the discovery of the archives to the study of the Holocaust?
It was so critical. Not just the discovery of [the Oyneg Shabes] archive, but the discovery of all similar archives, because if you didn’t have that archive, you couldn’t write about the Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto except through mostly German documents. You could write about the perpetrators. You could write about the Jews as anonymous victims. You could write about the Jews as half a million people who were killed. Here and there, there would be a survivor memoir, but the survivor memoir would really focus on the individual story of the survivor and the survivor knew what happened. So [the survivor is] going to be looking back through the prism of the death camps and of the final solution.
Because of the archive, the victims become people. They have names, they are individuals, they have personalities. You see the link between the pre-war culture and the war-time ghetto. The Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto are not just a whole mass of people in a holding pen who are waiting to be killed. They’re a community with political parties, with organizations, with hopes, with aspirations, struggling as best as they can to keep their dignity to stay alive. So you could write about them. Now, there have been several good scholarly books about the Warsaw Ghetto, about the internal life of the ghetto. Not one of those could have been written had it not been for the archive.
Ringelblum is now a celebrated figure. Do you think Ringelblum and the others who worked on the archive would be surprised at how their contribution to history has been received?
Just the opposite. I think they would have been surprised that they were forgotten for so long. Of course, it came very close to not being found because only one person knew where it was buried. Ringelblum believed that the archive would be found and that everybody would really think about it and learn the lessons and discuss it. Of course, it took decades for that to happen. It took a very long time. I mean now I think he’d be very grateful and very gratified that it’s finally getting the attention that it deserves.
Do you think Who Will Write Our History has relevant ties to events happening today?
Yeah. First of all, it reminds us is that we have to understand history. One of the things that Ringelblum really focused on was that on the one hand, of course, the story of the murder of the Jews is a universal story. It’s not just the Jewish story. Ringelblum was a Marxist. He was a socialist. He was a leftist. He was a leftist Zionist. But he believed very strongly that the story was not just the Jewish story, that it had universal significance. On the other hand, and this is very important, as a historian, Ringelblum believed that there is no such thing as simply the universal. That human beings are defined by their families, by their cultures, by their nationalities. [He believed] that it is very important not to lose sight of the particular when you study the universal. So, Ringelblum believed very strongly that the best way to understand what was happening was not to lose sight of the identity of the victims. They were Jews. They had their own culture. They have their own historical experience. The great challenge, well, the great opportunity for history is to kind of bring together the particular and the universal, the national and the international. But not to do it in such a way that everything simply becomes reduced to theories and models and all kinds of cookie-cutter schemes which forget about people’s basic identity, whether you’re Jewish or Armenian or French or Chinese.
Ringelblum even believed that you have to go further and talk about regional identities and local identities. That’s why the archive was so ambitious. They had topics to study, they had questionnaires. They wanted people not just to write, but they wanted to collect candy wrappers and menus and the evidence of the material culture. Ringelblum believed that history was not just the history of leaders or elites or history of everyday life, [but] the history of ordinary people. So, he cast a very wide net, and in many ways he was ahead of his time.
Why is it important to document history?
It’s important to document history, not because history is an automatic medicine or a pill that if we take it or learn it we’ll avoid making mistakes. What history I think really teaches us is an awareness, a sensibility to how complicated things are. It asks us to try to understand and the more we try to understand the less arrogant we become, the less confident we are. That all we have to do is move a few pieces on the table, or all we have to do is A, B, and C, and we’ll get the results that we desire. I think history teaches us humility. At the same time, it’s also a story of how idealism matters. How even if you’re not guaranteed that you’re going to succeed, it’s always worth a try. It’s an approach to a life which kind of combines hope and prudence. Hope that things will get better, that you never give up, that you always want things to be better.
But on the other hand, a kind of a prudence, the kind of humility and kind of awareness that human beings are not like cogs in a machine, that you can’t just input certain factors and get results in the guaranteed way, that change is very, very complicated. I think history gives us key lessons about the importance of a real leadership. It also gives us cautionary lessons about how easy it is for a democratic society to lose its bearings and to stumble into dictatorship and authoritarianism. History gives us all kinds of lessons about how miscalculations can lead to disasters that people didn’t see or predict. History is always teaching us to be careful.
Do you have thoughts on how marginalized communities can document their history?
Well, this was an issue that concerned Ringelblum, because believe it or not, you know, even though we think of Jews as a privileged community, in fact, in Poland, they were very marginalized and Ringelblum thought about this a lot. He advocated doing a lot of outreach, a lot of interviewing to different kinds of people within the community: young people and old people, secular and religious people, people living in cities, people living in farms. So, he really stressed reaching out to people, interviewing them, encouraging them to talk about their lives. He also stressed the importance of material culture: the art, the architecture, the buildings. He stressed the importance of learning about folklore, the proverbs and lullabies and songs and jokes and sayings and to take all this seriously, and kind of reconstruct the imagination in the world, the hopes, the aspirations, the value systems of people that at first glance didn’t leave a lot of newspapers or a lot of books.
Yet in fact, there’s a rich layer that you could reach if you only make an effort to learn about this culture by really talking to different kinds of people and taking the language seriously, taking the art seriously. Pottery, dishes, food, customs, rites of passage, studying them. In other words, kind of an interdisciplinary approach. Ringelblum’s idea of history was to bring in anthropology and sociology and art history and architecture. Keep in mind that Ringelblum lived in Poland at a time when Jews could not get any academic jobs. So, Ringelblum was not in the university. He wasn’t in a department and didn’t have to worry about getting tenure, and that gave him flexibility. He wasn‘t hemmed in by academic structures. So he saw history as a very interdisciplinary thing.
Thank you to IU Press for encouraging Kassow’s research on the Oyneg Shabes Archive that led to the publishing of Who Will Write Our History? IU Press will have copies of Kassow’s book at the film showing on September 9th at 7 p.m. at the IU Cinema. This screening is part of the film series Themester 2019: Remembering and Forgetting, Running the Screen: Directed by Women, and the International Arthouse Series.
Isabel Nieves is a Outreach Intern for Themester. She is studying Journalism with a minor in Spanish and Arts Management. Isabel is looking forward to seeing how people receive the podcast Remembering and Forgetting which she co-hosted and produced this summer.