In Poland, Facing History and Myself

Posted by Jeremy Nesoff on October 19, 2015

Warsaw, May 2014:

Staring at two rusted milk cans at the Emanuel Ringelblum Jewish Historical Institute, I feel overwhelmed by the weight and significance of the history they carry. These one-time ordinary artifacts stand in front of an archive of unbelievable power, documenting daily life in the Warsaw Ghetto from 1940 to 1943.

The archive was created in the Warsaw Ghetto during Nazi occupation by a group of men and women who named themselves Oyneg Shabbes, or “Joy of the Sabbath,” and who were led by historian Emmanuel Ringelblum. In the book Who Will Write Our History, author Samuel Kassow notes that Ringleblum “was absolutely convinced that the story of Jewish suffering, no matter how terrible, was a universal story and not just a Jewish one.” Together they aimed to resist by writing and documenting events from as many points of view as possible. As Ringleblum described, "To ensure objectivity, to achieve as accurate and comprehensive a picture as possible of the War events in Jewish life, we tried to have the same incident described by as many people as possible. By comparing various accounts, the historian is able to arrive at the historical truth, the actual course of the event."

Oyneg Shabbes operated with great sophistication, in its secretive operations and in its view of the meaning of history. The range of material collected here is astounding: essays, letters, postcards, posters, paintings, poems, photographs, journal entries, and much more. Of the 50 or 60 people who contributed, only three survived the war, including one who knew the location of the archive’s hiding place in tin boxes and milk cans buried under the ghetto's buildings in 1942 and 1943. What survived was excavated from beneath rubble in 1946 and in 1950; these 35,000 pages of documents are now housed at the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw.

My background, my education, and my career have all led me to this moment. My personal history as the grandson of two survivors of the Holocaust from Poland has shaped my identity from my earliest memories. While growing up in New York City in the 1970s and ‘80s, this lens led me to want to understand the role of race and racism in American history. I wanted to understand how and why I went to racially and ethnically diverse public schools where children entered the front door together, but then followed different tracks into rigidly segregated classes.

I followed this interest back to the classroom as a New York City public school teacher and was introduced to Facing History and Ourselves after my first year of teaching, a pivotal experience that shaped my career and practice. The way my 8th-grade students responded when we faced current events and history together deeply impacted me. I vividly recall our struggle to make sense of the killing of Amadou Diallo by New York City police in 1999, and the notes I received from parents who thanked me for being willing to leave the proscribed curriculum to address this issue. They shared that they were engaging in conversations at home with their children about the case, their world, and history.

I always knew I would visit my grandparents’ birthplaces in Poland one day and had the fortune to go for the first time with Facing History colleagues on a study tour in May 2014. Our trip allowed me to access people and experiences I would never have been able to on my own. We visited the new Museum of the History of Polish Jews. We met with Polish youth who have been exploring the history of Jews in their small towns with the Forum for Dialogue Among Nations. We toured Auschwitz and Auschwitz II-Birkenau where I walked on the same earth where my grandparents were separated from remaining family members for the last time.

As I contemplated returning to my family and work and what I would bring back with me from this trip, I thought of the words of the Oyneg Shabbes archivists about the importance of getting history right. I bring their words to my work with Facing History’s new unit The Reconstruction Era and The Fragility of Democracy as we struggle with an archival record that does not sufficiently document African Americans’ struggle for agency and self-determination. What is my responsibility as an educator to bring these stories to my students? How can we help students see the universal humanity Ringleblum believed in while recognizing the particular differences of each historical event we study? In Who Will Write Our History, Kassow shared the words of one young member of the movement:

“As they worked against time to bury the archive—who knew when the killers would appear?—they wrote down their last message for future generations. Here is what [David] Graber, nineteen years old, wanted the world to remember:

‘What we were unable to cry and shriek out to the world, we buried in the ground…I would love to see the moment in which the great treasure will be dug up and scream the truth at the world…We may now die in peace. We fulfilled our mission. May history attest for us.’ (Who Will Write Our History, page 3.)

Check out our resource, The Jews of Poland, to dive deeper into the ways Jews and non-Jews in Poland and other parts of Eastern Europe responded to questions of identity, membership, and difference.

Topics: Memory, Holocaust, Facing History and Ourselves, Teachers, History, Holocaust and Human Behavior, Holocaust Education

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