Dr. Samuel Kassow is a leading scholar in Holocaust Studies at Trinity College. He was born in a displaced persons camp in Germany near the end of World War II, and has written books such as “The Distinctive Life of East European Jewry” and “Who Will Write Our History?”.
The Holocaust Studies Learning Project and the Religious Studies and History department hosted Dr. Kassow on Feb. 28. Dr. Kassow presented on the lost stories of the Warsaw ghettos. His book on the ghettos is currently being adapted into a documentary.
Kassow explained to the Bobbit Auditorium audience how Jewish people living in the Warsaw ghettos during the Holocaust preserved their history by hiding it in milk bottles and under floorboards, with over 25,000 documents preserved.
The secret archive, called the Ringelblum Archive, was started by a Jewish historian named Emanuel Ringelblum, who was confined to the Warsaw ghettos during World War II.
“Ringelblum was torn between his fear, his obligation to his family and his feeling of responsibility to keep the archive going,” said Kassow. “When the war started, he was in Switzerland. He didn’t have to go back to Poland. But he went back after the war had already started, and he stayed.”
The members of the Archive sought at first to provide themselves with a post-war history.
The project’s end goal was a 1600 page book to be published in 1942. The group of archivists wanted to study the Jewish people in their everyday life so they would know themselves better and have more self-respect for themselves. They were concerned about how young people would see the Jewish people.They believed at the time that most Polish Jews would survive the war.
But the project soon turned into an attempt to control who wrote their history, according to Kassow. Not long after they began, they were informed that 7,000 Jews would be loaded onto trains and taken to the East, to be “put to work.”
Ringelblum ordered everyone to hand over all of their materials and the information they had gathered whether it was finished or not, to be buried in boxes. Members of the ghetto were loaded into trains daily.
“The Germans thought they would win the war, and they would write the history of the Jews. As one Jewish historian said, ‘What we know about murdered peoples is usually what their killers choose to write about.’ Jews in the ghettos said that even if we die, we will leave documents in time capsules and bury them, and someday people will find those documents and write our history based on our sources and not German sources.”
By the end of the war, Warsaw had been flattened, and the Archive, buried beneath a Jewish school, was thought to be lost. Only three members of the Archive had survived the Holocaust, and only one knew the location of the documents. One cache was found in 1946, another in 1950. The third has still not been found.
Kassow said how surprising it was that the caches were found at all. In 1942, 85 percent of all Jews in Poland were murdered. However, these documents remained.
“Because of these documents, the Jews regain their individuality in history. They have faces and they have names. They resisted, not with guns, but with paper and pen.”
The Ringelblum Archive is not the only Jewish archive from the war, but it did focus on the lives of Jews in the ghettos, and was a collective effort.
Interviewers risked their lives in disease-ridden ghettos to interview a diverse range of people and made copies of every document. They were able to get away with this legally at the time because they disguised themselves as part of a larger organization providing food to Jews in the ghettos.
Their agenda, said Kassow, was to collect: “They collected candy wrappers, the tickets of the ghetto trolley, the Jewish Council instructions on how to cook the rotten potatoes that were part of the ghetto rations. They collected the doorbell instructions for ghetto apartments. They kept on going, writing down what they saw, gathering material.”
Jews who had escaped the death camps were interviewed about their experiences there, and those interviews were made into four communiques — official statements — secretly sent to the exiled Polish government in London.
One of the archivists explained why the Archive kept going despite her understanding that she would probably not survive the Holocaust. As a mother who was later killed alongside her daughter, she questioned whether humanity was moving toward progress at all, and claimed she sought with her writing to be a “stone under history’s wheel.”
“In this essay, one of the things she wrote was how could you blame the Jews for having thought the history of mankind was a history of human progress? How could we have known it was the opposite? How could we have known that the most cultured and intellectual country in Europe would be murdering children in the street? If this is the direction that history is going, then I hope that my writings might serve to be a stone under history’s wheel.”
Ringelblum saw that “These Jews were not helpless victims. They were not anonymous. They were people who wanted to be remembered. Underneath the corruption and the moral depravity, the real story of the Warsaw ghetto was the quiet heroism of the ordinary Jew.”
Albion College’s Holocaust Studies Service Learning Project
Next spring, the school will be sponsoring the Holocaust Studies Service Learning Project.
The project allows students to go to Poland for 10 days, repairing the New Jewish Cemetery that has stood in Wroclaw, Poland, since World War II. Many of the graves do not have family members to maintain them.
Dr. Jocelyn McWhirter, Stanley S. Kresge professor and the professor for the Holocaust Studies course, explained that a half credit class is taken in the spring before students leave on the trip.
“It’s a discussion-oriented course, but also provides information about Jewish life during the war and the two cities we’re going to visit,” she said. We also learn about Jewish burials and Jewish funerals so that when you’re there and you see the cemetery, you have an idea of what went into that.”
The class visits the Auschwitz and Birkenau concentration camps and can choose to go to the Warsaw Holocaust Museum.
The Holocaust Studies project started in 2001 when a First-Year Experience class about the Holocaust wanted to go to Poland rather than just learn about the country in the classroom.
Amy Baldwin, a junior from Ann Arbor who went on the trip last year, described her experience..
“You keep a daily journal in Poland where you reflect on what you’re doing,” she said. “The first four days or so, you work in the Jewish cemetery, clearing out sticks and stuff like that. We cleaned out about a block and a half while we were there. On the last day in Wroclaw, we were invited to the Synagogue.”
The cemetery itself was difficult for her to take in. The cemetery is still in use, but the walls have bullet holes in them from the war.
Rachel Appel, a junior from Pleasant Ridge, Michigan, said, “The new Jewish cemetery is still in use — you walk in and there are graves that are freshly dug. But on the outside walls, you can see the anti-semitic rhetoric, and it’s just really sad because the inside is destroyed from wars, and the outside still has the signs of antisemitism. It’s really impactful to clear the inside of the cemetery and know that you’re helping to clean it up.”
Baldwin would recommend going on the trip. “It’s definitely a unique experience offered by the College. It definitely impacted me when we went to Auschwitz and Birkenau. Auschwitz you don’t really get the full scale, and then you go to Birkenau, and that was huge. People need to see this.” She also found the trip interesting because you are immersed for two weeks in a foreign country where very few people speak English, and she found it refreshing to see the daily life in Poland.
Appel is a practicing Jew.
“I was really sad because we saw shoes and suitcases, and I kind of expected that, but then I saw shaving brushes and my grandpa uses that, and I thought, ‘This could have been him. He was in the Soviet Union and he was train-hopping during the Holocaust. If the Germans actually succeeded in invading Russia, I wouldn’t be here today, my family wouldn’t be here today, and it makes me really grateful that I was alive. So suck it, Nazis!”
Interested students can apply next fall, and attend a half-credit course that meets six to seven times in the spring before leaving for Poland a week after graduation. The trip costs around $2,600, but scholarships are available.
Photo by Kellie Brown