Who will write our history?

By Daniel Chejfec


I am an avid reader, and currently I'm reading "Who will write our History" by Samuel Kassow, and it looks to me like there are lessons to be learned for us today...


The book presents the story of the "Oneyg Shabbos", a group of Jewish intellectuals in the Warsaw Ghetto who compiled, under the direction of Polish-Jewish historian Emannuel Ringenblum, a collection of diaries and documents of daily life of Jews under Nazi occupation as it hapenned, "in situ" rather than through the lens of survival. The archives of this material, recovered after the war from the Ghetto's ruins, became known as the "Ringenblum archives". If you go to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in DC you will see one of the milk cans used to conceal the archives in the middle of the battle with the Nazis after the onset of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. So why do I bring it up?

While the book is focused on how they put the archives together, it is also a description of Jewish society in Poland between the wars, in all its richness and complexity, a description we rarely see in these days of "black and white". In those days Warsaw was the center of Polish Jewry and Polish Jewry was the most dynamic and creative of all Jewish communities, not excluding the Yishuv in Palestine. Ringenblum was a member of the "Poalei Tzion Smol" of "Left Poalei Zion", a group that advocated socialism in a democratic context and saw Jewish destiny as tied both, to the Diaspora and to the reconstitution of a National center. Through the description of Ringenblum's life, many myths about pre World War II Jewish life in Europe are debunked. The Poalei Zion were indeed the dominant movement among Polish Jews for much of the interwar period, and they only moved away from support for the Soviets after the Stalinist purges of 1928.

So what hapenned with that History? How come we know so little about that world?. By definition, those who supported the Poalei Zion Left were less likely to make Aliyah than members of the Hashomer or the Hechalutz, and they were less likely to emigrate, so most of them perished in the Nazi sponsored hell. Only bits and pieces survived of that world, and most of the survivors embraced the Zionist aspects of the Poalei Zion ideology, burying other facets of it.

Jewish life is complex and it manifests itself in many different ways, we Jews are individualistic and there is much truth to that joke about "Two Jews, three synagogues". The book, however, also presents the facts that in the opinion of many Jewish intellectuals in those days, Jewish survival was never a function of Judaism (although religion did play a role), but more a function of a National Jewish identity.

We live today in different times - times in which we are lucky to have a Jewish sovereign state where the largest Jewish community in the world lives (YES, more Jews in Israel than in the US). Our history, if we follow the spirit of Ringenblum and his "Oneyg Shabbos" partners, will be written by what we do every day as Jews; not by the grandiose decisions of a few or the impositions of a party line, but by the full participation of Jews from all walks of life. It is from that rich cauldron of contradictions, arguments and disagreements that the future of Jewish Identity will be written.

We should all do our part and participate, share opinions, and listen to others...THAT is the real Jewish tradition.


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