A Dark Passover

by RITA KRAMER April 6, 2012

When families gather around the Seder table, many recall the dark Passover of 1943 and the climax of the months-long battle in which the small number of men and women remaining in the Warsaw Ghetto rose up against the Nazi murderers.  They knew they were doomed but they were determined to go down fighting.  We honor them as heroes.

There are many ways to be heroic.  Because of tradition and circumstances Jews were not bred to be fighters.  They were thinkers, readers, writers.  And among the most heroic of those trapped in the Warsaw Ghetto was a historian named Emanuel Ringelblum, who determined to record life in the Ghetto in its reality, not as it might be misrepresented later in elegiac memorials or accusations of passivity by those who would not know what it had been like.

In the interwar years Ringelblum had been one of the leading historians of Jewish life in Poland from the earliest times of settlement to the present, when a renaissance of learning and cultural creativity was taking place among the Jews of cities like Vilna, Lodz, and Warsaw.  At the time, the greatest number of Jews anywhere in the world lived in Poland.  And Warsaw, the largest Jewish community in Europe, was their intellectual center.

The movement from the isolated world of the market-town shtetlech to the cities, to acquaintance with past and present secular learning, resulted in the flowering of a vibrant culture in both Yiddish and Hebrew.  The Jewish intelligentsia produced poetry, novels, plays on the one hand, scholarship on the other.  All this would be destroyed by the middle of the twentieth century along with the men and women who had created it - except for the records created and left behind under the shattered buildings of the Ghetto, to be recovered only decades later.

Ringelblum, born in a small Galician town in 1900, grew up amid the often antagonistic worlds of the socialist Yiddish-speaking labor Bund; the Marxist/Zionist Poalei Tsiyon, the party to which he became attached; and the Hasidic rebbes who retained their traditions and their way of life.  By the time he arrived in Warsaw in 1919 he had defined his future as a historian and political activist.  He joined YIVO, the new research institution devoted to scholarship in Yiddish.  Ringelblum saw Yiddish as the living language of a nation, not as the jargon of an impoverished religious group.  And he set out, with YIVO, to encourage the Jewish masses to gather (zaml) documents of the everyday life of the Polish-Jewish poor, workers as well as entrepreneurs, to "democratize" their history.  He saw his mission as developing a sense of Jewish national identity through historical consciousness.

He supported the establishment of modern Yiddish secular schools, wrote articles for the Yiddish press on Yiddish culture and its threatened loss through assimilation, joined street demonstrations against the British White Paper of 1939 limiting Jewish immigration to Palestine, and attended the Zionist World Congress in Geneva, returning to Poland just days before the outbreak of World War II.

Although Jews in Poland considered themselves Polish and had willingly fought alongside Poles in World War I in the service of their common country, relations between them had not been without prejudice and rancor.  But nothing prepared the Jews for what awaited them at the hands of the Nazis once they had subdued and entered Poland.  Nazi strategy in the war against the Jews was based on secrecy, lies, and surprise, and was carried out in stages, little by little.

In November 1940 a wall topped with barbed wire was constructed around an area of the city, and all Jews were required to live within its boundaries.  Those who lived in other parts of the city were forced to move until all 450,000 thousand of Warsaw's Jews had been packed into the densely overcrowded space in which about 1,500 Poles had lived.  Jews had met persecution before, and there was no obvious reason in 1940/41 to suspect that this time would be different.  It would mean hard times, but then the war would end and life would begin again, as before...

At first, efforts were made to construct as normal a life as possible in the Ghetto.  Committees were formed in apartment buildings, schools were opened, lectures were given, plays and concerts were performed.  Soup kitchens were set up to offset the starvation rations permitted by the Germans, smuggling food from the Aryan side flourished, and underground bunkers were built as hiding places.  But food was increasingly scarce, hunger and disease soon prevailed, and random killings by the Nazis accompanied the herding of Jews at the Umschlagplatz, the space beside the railroad station from which men, women, and children, young and old, were shipped east for "resettlement."

From the beginning, Ringelblum was involved in the self-help organizations (Aleynhilf) that sprang up.  He determined to go on working on his history of the Jews in Poland and in addition decided to record daily life in the Ghetto for posterity.  He called his group of memoirists Oyneg Shabes, the Joy of Sabbath, because they met on Saturday afternoons.  He recruited not only former journalists, writers, and teachers, but also ordinary people, zammlers, to write about their observations and experiences.  Thousands of pages were produced, collected, and hidden, recording first-hand the efforts to stay alive in the face of starvation, overcrowding, and rampant contagion, the threat of random German brutality, and the increasing number being rounded up for transport in boxcars to the unknown.  Everything was described.  The corruption of the Judenrat, the official Jewish leadership body; the cruelty of the Jewish Police - nothing was left out.  There were acts of heroism as well as betrayals, suicides as well as helpless children left behind when their parents were seized.

By early 1942 the truth of the "resettlement" trains' destination was revealed.  Escapees from Treblinka had surfaced to tell the story of what awaited at the end of the line.  Members of the various youth groups turned from discussions of the future to plans for resistance in the present. Then in July 1942 the Nazis announced the Great Deportation, making it clear that they intended to destroy the Ghetto and everyone in it.

The resisters were led by a twenty-four-year-old member of the socialist-Zionist group Hashomer Hatzair named Mordecai Anielewicz.  They had few arms, no help could be expected from the Polish Home Army and hardly any from the Polish Underground.  It was clearly a hopeless cause.   But handguns and a few other small arms were procured somehow from the other side of the wall and attempts by German officers to enter the Ghetto were finally met with fire and their surprised retreat.  Sporadic raids continued until September when there was a halt-temporary, as it turned out - to the deportations.

Vastly outgunned and outnumbered, the Ghetto fighters hid in bunkers, emerging at crucial moments to fire on the Germans while the women fighting alongside them threw homemade bombs.  It was clear that the end was near.  The Nazis were bent on the destruction of the Ghetto and the extermination of all those who were left.  During these last days Ringelblum and the remaining members of the Oyneg Shabes group worked frantically to sort and pack the archive in metal boxes and milk cans, the best they could do against the future ravages of moisture and seepage, and bury them beneath what would soon become the rubble of the buildings in which they had lived for three years in fear and suffering, hope and despair.  Now they sent their last message to the outside world - This is what mass murder was like.  Remember us.

To those who after the war accused the Jews of going "like sheep to the slaughter," the answer lies in the secrecy, the slow insidious weakening through starvation and disease, the demoralizing presence of emaciated corpses dead of starvation or typhus that lay in the Ghetto streets, the daily humiliations of de-lousings and beatings, the tiny orphaned children begging for food when there was none. There was the hope of outliving the war, and reluctance to take action that would result in brutal mass retaliation on fellow Jews. It was a miracle that there was any resistance at all by the spring of 1943.

On Sunday, April 18, the eve of Passover 1943, the last battle took place.  Ringelblum, the recorder of the vibrant Polish-Jewish culture, witnessed its destruction as he sat, still writing, in the corner of an underground bunker.  The Germans had destroyed the intellectuals, the writers and teachers, and the only traces that were left of the Jewish experience in Poland were stuffed into around twenty tin containers in the ground.  An escape plan was offered to Ringelblum but he would not leave his wife and young son.  Their hiding place was betrayed and they disappeared into the common void with the rest of his people, including young Anielewicz, dead in the fighters' command bunker in May 1943.

David Graber helped to bury the boxes and included his own message in one of them.  It read in part:

"What we were unable to cry and shriek out to the world we buried in the ground....So the world may know all....We would [have been] the fathers, the teachers and educators of the future....But no, we shall certainly not live to see [the recovery of the archive], and so I write my last will.  May the treasure fall into good hands, may it last into better times, may it alarm and alert the world to what happened...in the twentieth century....We may now die in peace.  We fulfilled our mission.  May history attest for us."

David was nineteen years old.  He was one of those who fought their battle with words, their only weapons, hoping to win in the far-off future.

Who Will Write Our History? is the title of Samuel D. Kassow's detailed account of Ringelblum's Oyneg Shabes record of life and death in the Warsaw Ghetto (Indiana University Press, 2007).  Years before, the journalist and novelist John Hersey had written a best-selling novel, The Wall, about the Ghetto uprising, based largely on the facts known at the time.  But Hersey's well researched and well written fiction (like the popular Mila 18 by Leon Uris) pales almost into invisibility next to Kassow's account, rich in historical context and told largely in the voices of the men and women actually living through the moments, days and years they are writing about.  They seem to live again, individuals with faces and feelings, as we read their words.  And in bringing them to life again in their reports, poems, letters, notes, diaries, memoirs, photographs, and artifacts, Kassow, like Ringelblum before him, joins the line of historians who have kept our past before us in order that we may better know ourselves.

Rita Kramer is an author and freelance writer. She has written for the New York Times Magazine, the Wall Street Journal, Partisan Review, Commentary, City Journal, and numerous other publications in the U.S. and abroad. Her books include Maria Montessori: A Biography, In Defense of the Family: Raising Children in America Today, ata Tender Age: Violent Youth and Juvenile Justice, and Ed School Follies: The Miseducation of America's Teachers.

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