The Jewish Historical Institute – Warsaw

July 22, 2019

This morning’s visit to the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw was one of my favorite stops of the trip so far. There we were, standing only meters away from a collection of documents compiled in the Warsaw Ghetto in the most desperate of times by the Oyneg Shabes (The Joy of the Sabbath). Just meters away was 1 of the 2 milk cans which protected these documents for nearly 8 years before being discovered by Polish construction workers. Not only that but we were standing there with the man who literally wrote the book examining the archives leader and organizer, Emanuel Ringelblum, and what the archive exposes and preserves. How fortunate are we on this trip? No one on this planet knows more than Professor Kassow and we have been able to learn from him this entire journey. Having him there to present his own research and to learn about such an extraordinary group of people is nothing short of incredible.

The Oyneg Shabes Archive was created by a group writers, historians, spiritual leaders and others to record and preserve, well, everything. Ringelblum had the incredible foresight to know that the Nazis were doing their best to erase all traces of Jewish life from Poland. He knew that there had to be some way of preserving their history, preserving evidence of what the Nazis were doing to the Jews and preserving their names and individuality should they not survive ghetto life or deportations “to the East.” Thus, they collected everything: German notices posted in the ghetto, diaries, letters, sketches, reports, photos, maps, children’s drawings, armbands, art, ration tickets, etc. These were collected in metal boxes and the aforementioned milk cans and buried under the ground. A cache of 10 boxes was unearthed among the rubble that was the city of Warsaw in 1946. Two milk cans were discovered in 1950.

The Jewish Historical Institute is now home to this invaluable archive. A beautiful building which had just barely survived the destruction of the city displays a few dozen artifacts from the archive itself as part of the permanent exhibition. The spaces themselves are minimalist but are among the most powerful I have experienced. The single milk can is the feature when you reach the exhibition. To the right, visitors are able to read page after page of history. Heartbreaking, all of it, but also empowering. When we think of resistance we often thing of arms. This kind of spiritual resistance, literary resistance, whatever kind of resistance you want to call it, is just as powerful. To think, what could have happened to these people should they have been caught?

These archives paint an entirely different picture. The narrative of the Holocaust has a new narrator. The most tragic are the goodbye notes, the musings of young people wondering what they would have become in this world, the families that would have been…My heart simply broke again and again for these courageous human beings who knew their time was short; who knew that their end would be bitter, painful and full of suffering. They continued their work to the very end during the mass deportations of 1943. The effort and risk it took to compile all of this — I cannot being to imagine. To think: of the 60 or members of this group, 3 survived. Only one person, that’s right one, knew where the caches were buried.

This place is truly remarkable. It preserves a past that many never think about. It preserves wartime materials and testimonials in real time, documenting the horror and strife of everyday life. And it preserves the voices of those lost for future generations, just as it was intended. Visitors are able to leave their own messages in the exhibit. I was touched because we have a similar activity for our visitors at the Museum of Jewish Civilization at the University of Hartford. It is a way of becoming part of the exhibit, of showing solidarity with those that suffered and of making a promise not tolerate injustices like this ever again. I cannot thank everyone involved in this enough for this experience. It has been truly life-changing.