Reading Archives

With this blog, I am planning to offer, as regularly as possible, critical observations on the scholarly and popular literature analyzing the nature of archives or contributing to our understanding of archives in society. I hope this blog will be of assistance to anyone, especially faculty and graduate students, interested in understanding archives and their importance to society.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Who Will Write Our History?

Studies about the Holocaust and memory have generated a considerable scholarship as well on the nature of recordkeeping and archives. Samuel D. Kassow’s Who Will Write Our History? Emanuel Ringelblum, the Warsaw Ghetto, and the Oyneg Shabes Archive (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2007) may be one of the most important of such studies. Describing the origins, history, and subsequent recovery in 1946 and 1950 of this archive, started in late November 1940, the volume provides important insights into the nature of why people, especially in times of great duress, create and maintain historical documents. As Kasson notes, “During the Holocaust hundreds of individuals wrote. They wrote diaries, laments for murdered children, essays, poetry, and fiction” (p. 7). The Oyneg Shabes Archive in the Warsaw Ghetto is one of the most critical clues about just how and why this occurred. As Kassow notes, “Countless individuals worked on their own to record what they saw. In hundreds of ghettos, hiding places, jails, and death camps, lonely and terrified Jews left diaries, letters, and testimony of what they endured. For every scrap of documentation that surfaced after the war, probably many more manuscripts vanished forever” (p. 211). The Oyneg Shabes Archive is a rarity because so much of it survived.

Kassow’s work centers on the efforts of historian, and Warsaw Ghetto resident, Emanuel Ringelblum, who tried to create a record of the atrocities inflicted on Polish Jews by the Germans in order to provide testimony to the world that would follow. His efforts were a kind of resistance, and Ringelblum, as Kassow documents, wrestled continuously with the kind of objectivity he could bring to his task while promoting the study of the past as a means to resist what was happening in Europe during the Second World War. And his effort was sweeping in its scope, as his archive “collected both texts and artifacts: the underground press, documents, drawings, candy wrappers, tram tickets, ration cards, theater posters, invitations to concerts and lectures” (p. 213). Ringelblum dies in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, but much of his work provides testimony to his heroic efforts as a scholar.

What you read about is more than merely the hiding of an archive, but rather it is the story of a community – a “tightly knit collective” – that generates and sustains the creating and maintaining of archival sources (p .145). The archive was also an effort to sustain a community and to save people from the Nazis, but with this it had a mixed records. “The Oyneg Shaves had more luck in saving documents than in saving people. Although thousands of pages survived in the tin boxes and in the milk cans (a significant part of the archive was most certainly lost), little more than random traces remain of the men and women who wrote the documents, gathered them, copied them, and hid them” (p. 146). In a few hours of writing this, I will be starting my viewing of the Ken Burns’ documentary on the Second World War, and I am sure we will gain a graphic and compelling sense of the value of archival documentation related to this war.

What we learn, among many things, is that the experience of working on the archive functioned as a mean of building and sustaining community, something archivists have always sensed and promoted in their advocacy about their work and mission. Kassow, examining this real historical example of archive building, argues that the participants “drew their strength from the collective energy of dedicated workers who would pool their talents and establish a hierarchy of priorities and objectives” (p. 211). And with this we see something of the power of records in society and public memory.