Sunday, May 4, 2008

Rohr Prize [2]: Warsaw and Cairo - Distant Echoes of Two Decimated Communities

edited May 5th 6:26 a.m.

At the Rohr Prize ceremony I was asked to speak on behalf of the judges. The following are excerpts from my remarks.

Tonight we gather to celebrate, honor, and commemorate. We celebrate the fact that tonight is Pesach, zeman simchatanu, the time of our rejoicing.

We celebrate that this important event takes place in Jerusalem.

We honor one family’s remarkable generosity and commitment to enhance the writing of Jewish books.

We celebrate Lucette Lagnado’s book, The Man in the Sharkskin Suit, a book that is in and of itself an act of commemoration of a community that is no more.

We also gather to honor the work of two other authors, Eric Goldstein, author of The Price of Whiteness, a meticulous and important book on Jewish integration into the American mainstream, and Elana Blumberg, author of In the House of Study, a fascinating memoir on the author’s sometimes troubled path in discovering her way in the world of traditional Jewish texts and her own identity as a Jewish woman.

But there are other things that it behooves us to commemorate: On these very nights of Pesach 65 years ago two groups of Jews were fighting to preserve Jewish dignity and memory.

One, of course, was the group of young, wildly inexperienced Warsaw ghetto fighters, who managed, despite having no military training whatsoever, to hold off the Germans for over three weeks. Their bravery, meseerat nefesh, and commitment are the stuff of legends… legends that are true.

But they did not fight alone. In the ghetto there was another group which fought to preserve Jewish history and dignity. And their contribution and commitment – while less dramatic than that of Anilevitch and his colleagues ---- is no less important and, in fact, may be as important.

I speak, of course, of the work of Oyneg Shabbes, the group gathered by the historian Emanuel Ringelblum. They took it upon themselves to preserve in an unbelievably comprehensive fashion the history and day to day life of the ghetto and its inhabitants.

In a magisterial new book, Who Will Write Our History? historian Samuel Kassow [a review of which I have posted on this blog] tells the story of how Oyneg Shabbes recorded every aspect of the ghetto’s existence.... No detail was too small or considered too “unimportant” to be included in their efforts.

[I previously posted about their commitment to getting the record of what was being done to them precisely right. I shall, therefore, skip over that part of my talk.]

They worked with military precision. Though over 300 people were involved in the effort no person knew some one else’s identity unless it was necessary for the project.

And none of those involved knew which three people had been entrusted with burying the archives. That way, if one was caught, he or she could not be forced to reveal the other’s identity.

This was an operation worthy of elite army. What is remarkable is that it was done, not to save lives, but to save documents, to preserve the history of a community which faced an enemy that was committed – to paraphrase the Haggadah – l’akore et hakol, to destroy them all.

They so desperately wanted – in a way that is guaranteed to break the heart of even the most rigorously exacting historian – to be remembered. Let us hear it in their own voices:

Israel Lichtenstein, one of those assigned to bury the Oyneg Shabbes archival collection wrote the following as he was burying them:

I do not ask for any thanks, for any memorial, for any praise. I only wish to be remembered.

I wish my wife to be remembered, Gele Sekstein. She has worked during the war years with children as an educator and teacher, has prepared stage sets, costumes of children’s theatre… both of us get ready to meet and receive death.

I wish my little daughter to be remembered. Margalit is 20 months old today. She has fully mastered the Yiddish language and speaks it perfectly… I don’t lament my own life or that of my wife. I pity only this little nice and talented girl. She too deserves to be remembered.

With Lichtenstein was Nahum Grzywacz, 18 years old. When they were burying the archives he heard his parents’ building was being blockaded. He wrote.

I am going to run to my parents and if they are all right. I don’t know what’s going to happen to me. Remember my name is Nahum Grzywacz. [emphasis in original]

Also helping was David Graber, age 19. As they buried the archives Graber wrote:

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 this great treasure will be dug up and scream the truth to the world. So the world may know all. So the ones who did not live through it may be glad and we may feel like veterans with medals on our chest. We would be the fathers, the teachers, the educators. Of the future…. But no, we shall certainly not live to see it, and therefore 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 now die in peace. We fulfilled our mission. May history attest for us. [emphasis added]

Tonight we come to honor Lucette Lagnado. Her book captures the sounds, emotions, smells, tastes of a community that was also prematurely uprooted, a life that is no more.

That community’s end did not occur in as brutal and murderous a fashion as that of the Warsaw ghetto. However, it was destruction none the less, a destruction that too many people have accepted in a matter of fact fashion.

Lucette has described how, since her book’s publication, the Syrian and Egyptian Jewish communities worldwide have embraced her and profusely thanked her for ensuring that their history shall not go quietly into the night.

Wanting to be remembered is a normal human emotion. But it takes on tremendous poignancy when we remember those – whether in Warsaw or in Cairo – whose communities came to a premature end.

So tonight we come to celebrate and to commemorate and to pay tribute to those non-fiction authors who ensure that the history of those who came before us will not be forgotten.

Let us hope that in generations to come others will gather, as we do tonight, in Jerusalem to celebrate non-fiction authors.

And let us pray that there will be no additional uprooted communities whose history needs preserving so those authors of the future can turn their attention to documenting Jewish communities which are living vigorously creative Jewish lives, communities which are thriving.

And, we will gather to celebrate, in the spirit of the Rohr Prize and the work of the Jewish Book Council, communities in whose midst authors are writing and people are reading Jewish books, books of the superbly high caliber that we honor tonight.

Rohr Prize Ceremony, Jerusalem, 24 April 2008


Anonymous said...

„One, of course, was the group of young, wildly inexperienced Warsaw ghetto fighters, who managed, despite having no military training whatsoever, to hold off the Germans for close to three weeks… longer than the entire Polish army held off the German assault in 1939”

This sort of comparison was first used in the movie “Uprising” I believe. Apart from comparing apples with oranges the actual facts are wrong.

The Polish army which included in it’s ranks around 100,000 Jews at all levels of the military, fought both the Nazis from 1 September and the Red Army from 17 September. The last battle of that war was the battle of Kock which ended on 6 October – 36 days after the Nazis invaded. This performance is best compared to how the French and British fared against the Nazis in 1940 – this battle lasted 43 days.

Full respect to the Ghetto fighters but they weren’t fighting the entire German army at the time – merely the Germans who were in Warsaw – so the comparison for a start doesn’t make sense. And it lasted I believe from April 19 to May 16 – 28 days.

Not sure why this bizarre comparison comes up time and time again.

Deborah Lipstadt said...

My statement was not designed to put down the Poles but rather to show the amazing performance of the young ghetto fighters.

But you are right the specifics and i shall adjust what i wrote.

Unknown said...

Eric, when you mention "the French and British" fighting against the invasion of France and the Low Countries in 1940, the uninformed reader might understand that the allied force was more or less 50% French and 50% British.

Actually the composition of allied ground forces at that time was closer to :
France : 72 divisions (67%)
Belgium : 18 (17%)
Britain : 10 (9%)
Netherlands : 8 (7%)
(Plus smaller forces from Poland and Czechoslovakia)

Roman Werpachowski said...

"My statement was not designed to put down the Poles but rather to show the amazing performance of the young ghetto fighters."

I fail to be amazed by the Ghetto uprising, I'm just saddened. The uprising was not amazing, it was utterly tragic. As Marek Edelman said, they were not fighting to win, but to die honourably.

Deborah Lipstadt said...

"I fail to be amazed by the Ghetto uprising." Of course they knew they were fighting to die honorably. Of course it was utterly tragic.

But you cannot ignore the fact that this ragtag group of Jewish youth -- most of whom had no military training whatsoever -- managed to hold off the Germans for about 3 weeks.

Did they put a dent in the German forces? Of course not. But did they show that the Germans were not invincible. Yes.

And even more so, did they show Jews could fight back? Yes they did.

My amazment does not falter.

Roman Werpachowski said...

"My amazment does not falter."

Our disagreement probably arises from the difference between our notions of when it is worthy to put up a fight. I don't believe in fighting for honour. I believe in fighting to win. If you have no chance of winning, run. The fact that Marek Edelman survived the ghetto uprising and lived to become a doctor and a dissident in after-war Poland shows that there was a chance for them to avoid dying either in the death camp or in combat.

Edelman himself said that at the end of the uprising, he had to choose between comitting a suicide like the other leaders of the uprising or trying to survive. In my opinion, he chose rightly, even if someone might say that the honourable way was to kill himself.

"But did they show that the Germans were not invincible. Yes."

This was 1943, not 1939. Everybody who hear about Stalingrad knew that Germans could be beaten.

"And even more so, did they show Jews could fight back? Yes they did."

Great. So what good did it do to them?

They should have spent their effort on trying to get out as many Jews out of the ghetto as possible, instead.

Deborah Lipstadt said...

"They should have..."

I am reluctant to offer judgments about what people in such a situation "should have" done. It's too easy to do that from the comfort of our seats in front of our computers...

Roman Werpachowski said...

"I am reluctant to offer judgments about what people in such a situation "should have" done. It's too easy to do that from the comfort of our seats in front of our computers..."

Well, but you do. "I am amazed" is a judgement, too. I don't see much difference between us in this regard.

Deborah Lipstadt said...

This is my last exchange in this regard. "I am amazed" is a reaction. "They should have" is a judgment.

I am glad you know what people in that terrible situation should have done.

I am also glad you know precisely what you would have done.

I don't know what I would have done. I hope it would have been the right thing....