An expert on the Warsaw Ghetto’s clandestine “Oneg Shabbat” archive is on a mission to break “firewalls” in Holocaust education.
Despite being recognized as “one of the most important examples of cultural resistance in the history of mankind,” the words “Oneg Shabbat archive” unfortunately ring few bells outside academia, historian Samuel Kassow told The Times of Israel.
The document trove was compiled after the Nazis incarcerated Warsaw’s Jews in a small portion of the city and walled it off. Dozens of scientific studies, diaries, and content from 55 underground newspapers are among the highlights. Within months of the secret archive’s burial, most of the ghetto’s 400,000 residents were murdered at the death camp Treblinka. Thousands more perished during the revolt of 1943 and its months-long aftermath.
There is plenty of documentary evidence of what befell Warsaw’s Jews during the Holocaust: Prior to the start of deportations to Treblinka, the Nazis frequently photographed and filmed everyday life inside the ghetto. With sinister intentions, SS film crews staged — for example — crowd shots of Jews running in panic, and they humiliated Jewish women by filming inside of ritual baths. In their curated version, a slew of scenes were set up to convey the backwardness of Jews, as well as their supposed greed and lack of hygiene.
“The Germans thought they would decide how Jews could be remembered,” said Kassow. “But the [Oneg Shabbat] archive is about Jewish life under Nazi occupation as it really was. Without the archive, Jews would have been relegated to the role of baseless victims,” Kassow told The Times of Israel.
On October 25, Kassow spoke about the Oneg Shabbat — or “Joy of Shabbat” — archive at the National World War II Museum in New Orleans. Earlier this year, he joined a scholars committee to guide implementation of a $2 million grant for Holocaust-related programs at the museum. Pledged by San Francisco-based Taube Philanthropies, the funds will address what the foundation’s head views as a “glaring omission” in most World War II museums.
“As the years go by, the memories and the experiences of the Holocaust start to fade away,” said Polish-born philanthropist Tad Taube in an interview with The Times of Israel. “The Holocaust was a central focus for the Nazis and a major historical component of World War II, and it’s a glaring omission to present one without the other,” said Taube.
According to Kassow, the incorporation of content about the genocide into war museums is “part of a very important and significant trend,” he said.
“Thirty or 40 years ago, the focus was military and diplomatic history,” said Kassow. “Now there is more recognition of how central genocide, ethnic cleansing, and planned crimes against civilians all were,” he said.
Perhaps surprisingly, the Holocaust education grant will not be used to create exhibits at the museum, known for soaring galleries packed with wartime posters, tanks, and uniforms. Rather, the funds will expand Holocaust-related conferences, screenings, and lectures hosted by the museum, with all the content to be made available online.
Another priority will be to grow “distance learning programs that will allow students nationwide to explore individual and collective responsibility in the Holocaust,” according to the museum.
‘We are going to be the future teachers’
During the museum’s October conference on Holocaust memory, Kassow addressed attendees before a screening of the new docudrama, “Who Will Write Our History?” Directed and produced by Roberta Grossman, the film is based on Kassow’s 2007 book of the same name, about the Jewish volunteers who risked their lives to compile the Oneg Shabbat archive while under the Nazi occupiers’ gaze.
Despite its compelling back-story and literary merits, Oneg Shabbat never became one of the Holocaust’s widely-known primary sources. Part of the reason for this, said Kassow, were the “uncomfortable developments” that took place when people “dug too deep” into its content, he told The Times of Israel.
Specifically, the Marxist political orientation of Emanuel Ringelblum, the archive’s visionary, was troubling to many people, said Kassow. There was also the “very pro-Soviet” outlook of ghetto revolt leader Mordechai Anielewicz, he added.
In general, the Jewish writers and organizers chosen by Ringelblum to compile materials for the archive reflected their chief’s affinity for socialism.
“[Some of this] did not comport well with the nice, neat story that people wanted to hear,” said Kassow, adding that Jews in the US and Israel “mined the Holocaust for what they wanted to get out of it.” For Jewish Americans, this often meant “feeling good” to some degree, he said, whereas Israelis were most interested in accounts of “resistance.”
Beyond political considerations, the Oneg Shabbat archive was a hastily buried collection of 35,000 documents, many of which were moisture-damaged during years in the ground. In contrast to Anne Frank’s diary or Elie Wiesel’s “Night” — for example — it took scholars decades to decipher the trove, much less translate and publish portions of it.
“The two [Oneg Shabbat volunteers] who buried the first cache thought it would stun the world. ‘We are going to be the future teachers,’ they thought,” said Kassow. “And nothing of the sort happened.”
Oneg Shabbat includes the works of several great rabbis that would have been lost to history, said Kassow. The tomes were packed into milk canisters and metal boxes alongside studies of obscure Jewish villages, comics created in the ghetto, and gum wrappers. The archive depicts a key phase of the Nazis’ “Final Solution” in real-time, blending Judaism, folk history, photography, data, art, and personal accounts. Few of its creators survived the Holocaust.
Among the attributes of Oneg Shabbat, said Kassow, is the collection’s ability to “break the firewall between Holocaust studies and Jewish studies. It comes out of the Jewish cultural and social history of pre-war Poland. It’s about the Holocaust but it’s also about Jewish values,” said Kassow, a professor at Trinity College in Connecticut.
With the release of “Who Will Write Our History?” next month, the vision of those volunteers to be “the future teachers” of the Holocaust will take another step forward.
Already being called “the greatest Holocaust story never told,” the Nancy Spielberg-produced film premieres 75 years after the burial of “the treasure” — as Ringelblum called the archive — by Oneg Shabbat volunteers in three locations beneath the condemned ghetto, alongside their lofty expectations.