April 23rd, 2017
This year’s San Diego Yom HaShoah presented one of the finest programs I have experienced in many years since arriving in San Diego almost eight years ago. The musical selections were excellent; the theme of the program was “Memory and Morality” and featured Roberta Grossman, who is the director and producer of new Holocaust film, “Who Will Write Our History?” Her movie is based on upon Samuel D. Kassow’s book, Who Will Write Our History? (Vintage Press, 2009). The book is a compelling read and I hope to have more to say about this remarkable testament to history in the weeks to come. Although Grossman was not a survivor or even the child of a survivor, I admire her iron determination in directing a new film that every person needs to watch, witness, and learn.
Kassow narrates the tragic story of Ringelblum and his heroic resolve to utilize historical scholarship in preserving the memory of the endangered Jews of Warsaw. Her soon to be released film is scheduled for January 2018 and it offers a remarkable glimpse into the world of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, which took place in the summer of 1942.
While many cinematic presentations of the Holocaust often portray Jews acting passively during the Holocaust, the Warsaw Ghetto uprising tells a different story that is seldom ever told—Jews taking their destinies into their own hands by organizing armed resistance against the Nazis. They did this by smuggling weapons and improvising homemade weapons. Actually many Jews in the ghettos across Eastern Europe between 1941 and 1943 formed over one hundred Jewish battalions against the Nazis. The Warsaw Ghetto was by far the most famous of these efforts. That year in 1942, over 300,000 Jews were deported from Warsaw to Treblinka, Poland, where between 700,000 and 900,000 Jews were exterminated. When the Warsaw Jewish residents in Warsaw heard about this, a young 23 years-old heroic figure named Mordecai Anielewicz, called upon Jews to resist going to the railroad cars. With the weapons they smuggled, they fired upon the Nazis—and they retreated.
Grossman pointed out how the resistance against the Nazis took an unusual form—a group of Jews prior and during the uprising in 1940 knew that they would not survive, but they nevertheless got together to create an underground archive that would preserve their memories as a people. The man who created this archive was named Emanuel Ringelblum. He began formed a secret “sacred society” he called, “Oyneg Shabes” (literally, “Joy of the Sabbath,” as members often met on Saturday). Its purpose was to create a comprehensive archive of life in the ghetto, “to meld thousands of individual testimonies into a collective portrait.” Ringleblum’s archives present a realistic picture of what the people were like and he minced no words in telling a future audience about the heroes, villains, bystanders and the perpetuators’ stories. He instructed them to collect everything they could. Some were artists, thinkers, intellectuals, teachers, factory workers, and so on.
In one story, Ringleblum’s life was also saved by Poles, who also resisted the Nazis. Indeed, many Poles took considerable risks saving Jewish lives. Yet, in his chronology, he also wrote about how other Poles chose to do nothing for their Jewish neighbors. He expressed the hope that someday Jews and Poles would come together and honestly share their stories. His description reminded me of a story I had heard from my father, whose life was saved by a young Pole. In one of the ghettos, the Nazis went on a wild shooting spree, and my father was with his Polish friend. His friend was shot, and knew he was going to die. To save my father, he hit in the head and knocked him out. The Nazis thought he was already dead. Were it not for the gratuitous kindness of this Polish young man, I would not be writing about his heroism.
On another personal note, in my rabbinic career, I was privileged to know a woman named Esther Avruch, whose petite presence survived the horrors of the Warsaw Ghetto. She too recalls how some of the Poles could act just as cruel as the Nazis; some would beat the Jews and seize their meager rations of food and water. Yet, other Poles exhibited profound humanity toward her and her family. Starving for food and drink, simple Polish peasants, like a miracle from God, shared their food with the family. They were friends of Esther’s father’s business partners. They acted morally and with compassion.
Ultimately, on September 18th, 1946, Jews and Poles dug through the rubble of the remains of a former school located on Nowolipki St. What they discovered were three buried caches of the Oyneg Shabes archive. Some of the records suffered from decay and decomposition from moisture that seeped in the documents.
Eli Wiesel once told his Nobel Peace Prize audience when he delivered his acceptance lecture in December 1986. The call of memory, the call to memory, reaches us from the very dawn of history, “Remembering is a noble and necessary act. The call of memory, the call to memory, reaches us from the very dawn of history. No commandment figures so frequently, so insistently, in the Bible. It is incumbent upon us to remember the good we have received, and the evil we have suffered. New Year’s Day, Rosh Hashanah, is also called Yom Hazikaron, the day of memory. On that day, the day of universal judgment, man appeals to God to remember: our salvation depends on it. If God wishes to remember our suffering, all will be well; if He refuses, all will be lost. Thus, the rejection of memory becomes a divine curse, one that would doom us to repeat past disasters, past wars.”