This book almost defies description. It is as much a biography of the historian Emanuel Ringelblum as it is a history of the Oyneg Shabes, a resistance group in the Warsaw ghetto whose self-appointed mission it was to document life under Nazi occupation. The probability of their endeavor ever seeing the light of day was very small indeed. Only a few people involved in the group — originally composed of dozens of historians, economists, poets, and sociologists — survived the war. The only one who knew where to dig up the buried archives from the rubble of the destroyed ghetto saved himself by jumping from a train bound for Treblinka. Had he, too, perished it is likely that the entire archive would have been lost — as part of it still is — beneath the modern city of Warsaw.
The archive consists of documents of every type: diaries, interviews, historical and sociological studies, poems, photographs, children’s art, candy wrappers. The idea was to leave a record of what the contributors increasingly understood to be a lost civilization—that of Polish Jewry. As the ghetto went from bad to worse, and the first reports of Nazi gassings and mass murder filtered in through underground channels, the Oyneg Shabes (“Sabbath joy” in Yiddish) realized they were responsible for writing their own history, lest it be blotted out forever.
To get the flavor of the context in which these people lived, wrote and died, we might read the words of Stanislaw Rozycki, a Jew who had made his way back to his native Warsaw from Lwow (Lviv). Crossing from the “Aryan” side to the ghetto, he wrote:
“I entered. I crossed the boundary not just of a residential quarter but of a zone of reality, because what I saw and experienced cannot be understood by our reason, thoughts, or imagination… the very act of crossing reminded me of some rite of passage, a ceremonial initiation, a crossing into the realm of Hades.”
It was in this “realm of Hades” that the doomed Jews of Warsaw set down their own record of events. It was a daily struggle against poverty, hunger, displacement, disease, deportation, beatings and murder. The psychological terrorism of the Nazi program underscored all these factors, creating a hand-to-mouth existence with little or no hope for the future. If anyone ever lived “in the moment,” these people did.
Under these conditions the Jewish underground revolted in an armed struggle against the Germans. It was a heroic, last-ditch effort by a people unjustly remembered for passivity in the face of Nazi atrocities. As historian Melvin Konner put it, “It took less time and thought for the Germans to conquer the French nation than to put down the Warsaw ghetto rebellion.” Jewish resistance, Kassow’s book reminds us, had many faces.