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Oyneg Shabes Milk Can

Voices Missing from the
Oyneg Shabes Archive

Book Essay on:
Samuel Kassow, Who Will Write Our History?:
Rediscovering a Hidden Archive from the Warsaw Ghetto

(Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2007), 523 pages.
UCSB: DS135.P62 W2774 2007

by Christine Fong
March 13, 2009

for Prof. Marcuse's lecture course
Germany, 1900-1945
UC Santa Barbara, Spring 2009

About the Author
& Abstract
and Links
Plagiarism Warning & Links
Amazon.com Page

About Christine Fong

I am a graduating third year Black Studies major and History minor. I have always been interested in German history; I traveled to Germany in 1999 and visited multiple cities including Munich, Wurzburg, Bamburg, Rothenburg, and the Black Forest. Ten years after my trip, I still think of Germany as the most beautiful country I have visited. I was interested in reading about the Oyneg Shabes Archive because it is representative of the life and last projects of Emanuel Ringelblum. I find the story of Ringelblum's life fascinating. I wanted to read this book and find out how one man could be inspired to work so methodically and diligently on a project in the midst of war, violence, and immense human cruelty. I wondered what drove Ringelblum to care about the preservation and creation of history above all else in the last years of his life. How did one man produce some of the most important historical data on the Warsaw Ghetto when he knew that he himself would most likely not survive the war?

Abstract (back to top)

Who Will Write Our History is about the Oyneg Shabes, an archive of personal documents, pictures, and essays on the social conditions of the Warsaw Ghetto. The archive was found in two caches years after the war beneath Warsaw buildings. They were hidden in tin boxes and milk jugs, and were relatively well preserved. The archive project was conducted in top secret, with only a few members aware of where the collection was hidden, and why it was being conducted. Kassow describes the process, the people, and the leadership involved in the project. He gives detailed accounts of participants' stories and the motivation behind the desire to document their experiences.

Essay (back to top)


Emanuel Ringelblum, an established Jewish historian, developed the Oyneg Shabes project in 1940 with the support of his close confidants and fellow intellectuals in the Warsaw Ghetto. The Oyneg Shabes, meaning “Joy of the Sabbath”, was a secret project designed to collect and preserve testimonies and documents depicting Jewish culture in the Warsaw Ghetto during World War II. Ringelblum and his team believed that while they themselves had little chance of surviving the war, their carefully conducted studies and testimonies would survive to provide future historians insight on German cruelty and the inside workings of the Warsaw Ghetto. In his book Who Will Write Our History?, Samuel D. Kassow uses Ringelblum’s journal entries and the many documents of the Oyneg Shabes archive to support his argument that Ringelblum’s efforts alone have successfully preserved one of the most important pieces of Polish Jewish history. Kassow shows the specific aims of Ringelblum’s project, the process of obtaining testimonies and documents, and why the members of the project were drawn to Ringelblum’s cause. Ringelblum’s vision as a historian aimed to create the Oyneg Shabes as a project that would reflect all voices of the Warsaw Ghetto.However, because of the top-secret nature of the project and the direction that was provided by those with influence, it is not likely that an adequate perspective of Jews who were poor, politically inactive, and of lower class backgrounds were included.

Emanuel Ringelblum moved to Warsaw in 1920 to study history at Warsaw University. There, he became politically active and joined the Left Poalei Zion Party (LPZ). Kassow accredits the LPZ as one of the most important influences in Ringelblum’s life. “It instilled a fervent commitment to the study of Jewish history, a love of Yiddish, a devotion to the Jewish masses, and a deep sense of moral pathos that shaped Ringelblum’s development as a historian and communal leader” (Kassow 27). Ringelblum was a true historian, always searching for the social significance of events that occurred around him. Historical truth was the foundation of Ringelblum’s vision for the Oyneg Shabes. He was determined to collect as much Jewish testimony as possible to preserve the voice and perspective of Polish Jewry, even in times of war. “Ringelblum was absolutely convinced that the story of Jewish suffering, no matter how terrible, was a universal story. And evil, no matter how great, could not be placed outside of history” (Kassow 7-8). He knew that each day had to be documented in its entirety, because the next day could bring greater tragedy, and the experiences of the day before would seem incomparable to the present, and would hence be forgotten and lost.

Ringelblum adhered to the philosophy of a Yiddish writer Y.L. Peretz when creating the foundations of Oyneg Shabes. During World War I, the writer “urged his fellow Jews to document their wartime experiences. A nation that had pride and self-respect did not leave the writing of its history to enemies. [Jews] had to ensure that future historians would… not depend on hostile testimony” (Kassow 209). During World War II, as the situation for Jews under Nazi occupation became increasingly worse, the project began to shift focus. Instead of collecting data that they themselves could use after the war, members began to gather firsthand accounts of wartime experience. They felt that, if discovered, these accounts would become a valuable historical resource to help future historians better understand Jewish history during WWII. The members commissioned people to write papers on specific topics, collected Judenrat posters, underground pamphlets, candy wrappers, and anything that represented aspects of daily life within the ghetto. When it appeared that the end was near, selected members carefully packed thousands of documents away and buried them beneath the city of Warsaw for future historians to find.

In order to establish a successful and well-executed archive project, Ringelblum entrusted his closest friends and fellow scholars to help him. He utilized the contacts he made before the war, recruiting many writers, teachers, lawyers, and scholars who also believed in the power of Jewish history and culture. “Ringelblum had managed to assemble an executive committee of stature and achievement. It included prominent prewar communal leaders and well-to-do businessmen” (Kassow 147). Each member of the executive committee of Oyneg Shabes had the responsibility to help decide what kinds of studies would be most relevant and useful. To support those different studies, executive members needed to help find possible contributors (donors, writers, transcribers, organizers, etc.). Some of the executive committee members included: Shmuel Winter, a wealthy businessman, Alexander Landau, an engineer, Shie Rabinowitz, an activist in prewar YIVO, and Lipe Bloch, an important leader of the General Zionist Party (Kassow 155-161). All of the members that Ringelblum recruited to the executive committee were wealthy and very respected members of Jewish society. Even those who were not on the executive committee were highly educated and politically active. “Virtually all members… had been active in prewar Jewish cultural life… Most Oyneg Shabes collaborators were teachers, economists, and journalists, all recruited from the Jewish intelligentsia” (Kassow 147). Naturally, those that the executive committee deemed worthy to participate in the lower ranks of the project maintained similar values as the executives themselves. The individual experience of the Jewish mass including the illiterate, poor, women, and politically inactive, remains for the most part undocumented, despite Ringelblum’s desire for his project to include all perspectives equally.

Those who shared Ringelblum’s passion for history and preservation of Jewish culture were intellectuals themselves. They were able to write eloquent papers on their feelings and reactions to the events occurring around them and contribute them to the archive directly. The experience of countless writers, artists, lawyers, and teachers were portrayed with great detail through papers, postcards, paintings, sketches, and diaries. Abraham Lewin, an old friend and fellow scholar, wrote, “The fear of ‘that’ which must come is, perhaps, stronger than the torment a person feels when he gives up his soul” (Kassow 173). Writings such as these show the horror and dreaded feeling of the future. While this sense of fear and dread was undoubtedly felt amongst all Jews, the specific detailed manuscripts of lower class Jews were not a large part of the archive. Ringelblum believed that he achieved a level of diversity within the project. But in reality, it is very likely that the perspective of the lower class was not portrayed. Those who were able to document their experiences in the archives had meaningful and trustworthy connections to the members. One of the hardest things for Ringelblum to bear about the collapse of Polish Jewry was the loss of so many members of Jewish intelligentsia. He valued their lives above others because he believed that they could reconstruct Polish Jewry after most of the population had been murdered. It was the testimonies and diaries of these men and women that Ringelblum valued the most and worked the hardest to obtain (Kassow 224, 367).

The studies that the executive committee commissioned reflected their own interests and individual notions of what they deemed historically important. Studies were commissioned to document the economic, social, and intellectual structure of the ghetto. Information collected about the lower classes focused on their experience as refugees, their hometowns, and other statistical information. “He [Bernard Kampelmacher] stuck closely to the guidelines and questionnaires prepared by the Oyneg Shabes when he interviewed refugees about their hometowns” (Kassow 174). Generic surveys and questionnaires became the prominent voice for Jewish refugees because it was the easiest way to obtain information. Most refugees lived in puntkn, the refugee center in the ghetto. It was overcrowded, unsanitary, and the typhus epidemic had hit refugees hard, killing thousands. “It was especially perilous to go into the disease-ridden, squalid, and over-crowded refugee centers, and many members of the Oyneg Shabes indeed came down with typhus” (219). The members of the Oyneg Shabes had access to more food and proper medicine that allowed them to visit the puntkn, but there was still tremendous risk in spending a lot of time with refugees.

There was a very specific class structure that existed within the ghetto. Ringelblum and his team were examples of those who were relatively well off because of their connections and ability to fund their project’s participants. Kassow explains the social hierarchy within the ghetto:

Deep social differences … split the ghetto. Those whose prewar homes and businesses on the territory of the ghetto were comparatively lucky. Less fortunate were Warsaw Jews who had to move into the ghetto. Least fortunate were the tens of thousands of refugees who arrived in the ghetto… They arrived in a strange city without money and contacts. (Kassow 94)

Just as there was a class system within the ghetto, there was a definite structure within the project as well. The executive committee was comprised of wealthy, powerful men who chose the next tier of people who would have the opportunity to become involved. Ringelblum himself was a powerful man, and only surrounded himself with people he knew he could trust, many of them his friends and colleagues from before the war. Most of the Jewish masses of the ghetto didn’t have the resources necessary to document their lives. Many were illiterate, and didn’t have access to paper, pens, and typewriters that the members of Oyneg Shabes had access to. Many only had the opportunity to document their stories if a member was physically there in their presence.

The project lacked substantial testimonies depicting everyday life for Jewish women. All the members of the executive committee were men. Slapakowa conducted the most in-depth study about Jewish women that the archive contains; the goal of Slapakowa’s study was to show how certain aspects of Jewish culture were limiting to women. It is believed that Slapakowa was never able to finish her study. “Did the Oyneg Shabes receive all her notebooks before she perished? It is impossible to say” (Kassow 250). A hastily written note in Ringelblum’s diary suggests “that he realized Slapakowa’s study remained incomplete and that he would have liked to have collected even more materials on Jewish women in the war” (Kassow 250). It was very difficult to keep track of the journals and notebooks of people like Slapakowa, and many studies conducted by working class people like Slapakowa were lost and never recovered. It is possible that there was a larger amount of testimonies and information about the lower class Jews in the third cache of documents. However, when historians tried to recover the documents where it had been buried, they found only pieces of destroyed documents. It is likely that the third cache will never be found. The third cache may have contained much more material; it is impossible to know.

Kassow shows that the testimonies they were able to obtain from lower class Jews and refugees satisfied Ringelblum. Ringelblum believed that the essays, some short, long, and not well written “successfully conveyed what Polish Jewry was going through” (Kassow 270). Those refugees felt good about their contribution. It made them feel “useful and… despite their refugee status, impoverishment, and degraded living conditions, someone believed that what they had to say was important” (Kassow 270). This was Ringelblum’s perception of how the refugees felt, and it may very well be true. But the members of the Oyneg Shabes were very specific in the kind of information they looked for, focusing their research on demographics and history of the towns that the refugees came from. Ringelblum believed that the study of small town dynamics was crucial to the archive. He wanted to collect data on economic life, German-Polish relations, Jewish councils, aid, etc. (Kassow 269). Kassow shows a limited number of lower class first hand testimonies, but the majority of the information contained in the archive is in the form of surveys. Of the pictures Kassow describes and shows in his book, none of them are of people who are unknown. Each photograph shown in the book is of someone of Jewish intelligence, often university educated (diplomas were often donated along with personal photographs). The faces of the refugees are absent from Kassow’s book, and are likely missing from the collection. The participation of refugees was often inconsistent, one couldn’t track down a refugee as easily as they could find a well-known figure. The only testimonies they could count on from refugees were ones that they themselves were given in the moment, which is why most testimonies are fragmented and incomplete.

Ringelblum truly believed that the Oyneg Shabes project achieved a sense of diversity.

Adults, young people and, in exceptional cases, even children worked with Oyneg Shabes. The Oyneg Shabes tried to give a comprehensive picture of Jewish life during the time of the war. What we cared about was to be able to convey a photographic picture of what the Jewish folk masses lived through, thought, and suffered. (Kassow 269)

It was inevitable that the project reflect the tone of those who ran it. While information they collected about the economic, social, and political structure of the ghetto proves very useful in helping historians understand more about ghetto life, it provides an inadequate documentation of the lower class experience. Everything they obtained was filtered through an elite member of the project. “In the archive Ringelblum came closest to realizing his prewar dream of a history ‘of the people and by the people’” (Kassow 149). While Ringelblum certainly wished that he could achieve an archive that reflected the history of the people, by the people, the circumstances surrounding the project simply could not allow for the amount of depth and care necessary to produce an adequate history of lower class Jews. Because of these disparities, the Oyneg Shabes remains incomplete in its portrayal of the collective Jewish experience of the Warsaw Ghetto.

Bibliography and Links (back to top)(links last checked 3/x/09)

Book Reviews

Bonny V. Fetterman, The Reform Judaism Online, (Fall, 2008) (http://reformjudaismmag.org/Articles/index.cfm?id=1392)
Before taking a trip with her niece to Poland, Bonny Fetterman decided to read a couple of books about Poland and the Warsaw ghetto to prepare for the trip. She believes Who Will Write Our History? is one of the most important books that she has ever read. Along with summarizing the main points of the book, she states that because she read this book, she realizes that Jews today still have a very important role—to remember.

Peter N. Miller, The New Republic Online, (April, 2008) (http://www.powells.com/review/2008_04_03.html)
Miller effectively summarizes Kassow’s book in his review, while adding his own opinions about why he thinks that Kassow’s book is one of the most important books regarding the Holocaust. He goes into much of Ringelblum’s history, noting that there is little known about Emanuel Ringelblum himself, as he never wrote about himself in all of his analytical and historical writings. Ringelblum was a true historian, in that he knew the fate of everyone living in the Warsaw Ghetto and knew that he had to preserve the current experience of all the Jews living in the Ghetto. He knew that it was unlikely that many Jews would survive the war, and wanted to put together a collection of written testimonies so that historians would know the true experience of real people in the Warsaw ghetto. Miller thinks very highly of Kassow’s book and thinks that Ringelblum is a great example of someone who, in the face of tremendous tragedy, knew what he needed to do to preserve the stories and experiences of many of the last living Polish Jews.

Matthew Z. Heintzelman, Library and the Cultural Record, Vol. 43, No. 3, (2008), pp. 357-358. (http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/libraries_and_culture/v043/43.3.heintzelman.pdf)
Heintzelman also summarizes Kassow’s book, but emphasizes the importance of Ringelblum. He believes that Ringelblum is the most important element of Kassow’s book. He states that many of the people contributing to the project were doing so in the forms of surveys and questionnaires.


Wikipedia, “Oyneg Shabbos (Group)”, <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oyneg_Shabbos_(group)>
The Wikipedia entry provides a brief description of the people involved in the Oyneg Shabes Archive, giving facts about Emanuel Ringelblum and the details of his last works and studies in hiding.

“Scream the Truth at the World”, <http://culture.ajula.edu/Content/ContentUnit.asp?CID=1002&u=5964&t=0>
University of Judaism press release explaining the significance of this 2006 exhibit displaying artifacts from the Oyneg Shabes Archive found in 1946 and 1950. Dawid Graber, a young male who buried the first cache, wrote in one of the last papers to be included in the set of tin boxes. He expressed his wishes that he would live to see when the cache would be unearthed and finally so many people’s stories and testimonies could “scream the truth at the world”. This is where the University of Judaism got their name for the exhibit.


Ruta Sakowska, “Two Forms of Jewish Resistance, Two Functions of Ringelblum’s Oyneg Shabes Archive”, Holocaust Chronicles: Individualizing The Holocaust Through Diaries And Other Contemporaneous Personal Accounts, ed. by Robert Moses. (Ktav Publishing House, 1999) Pp. 83-92. <http://books.google.com/books?id=dnMMxHaUzT8C>
This article is one of the articles in the book Holocaust Chronicles, it describes the importance of Ringelblum’s archive, and how Ringelblum executed one of the most important sources on Warsaw ghetto history.

The Smithsonian Associates, "Time Capsule in a Milk Can: Emanuel Ringelblum and the Milk Can Archive of the Warsaw Ghetto," www.ushmm.org/museum/publicprograms/programs/milkcan/LearningGuide.pdf
This is a learning guide presented by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum for children. It describes the history of the Oyneg Shabes, explains significant dates in relation to the Warsaw Ghetto and the archive. This article is geared towards children, hence revealing the archive’s focus on children.

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Any student tempted to use this paper for an assignment in another course or school should be aware of the serious consequences for plagiarism. Here is what I write in my syllabi:

Plagiarism—presenting someone else's work as your own, or deliberately failing to credit or attribute the work of others on whom you draw (including materials found on the web)—is a serious academic offense, punishable by dismissal from the university. It hurts the one who commits it most of all, by cheating them out of an education. I report offenses to the Office of the Dean of Students for disciplinary action.

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