Yom Hashoah in Melbourne and Sydney’s North Shore

April 11, 2013 by J-Wire Staff
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President of the The Jewish Community Council of Victoria Nina Bassat gave the keynote address at the Yom Hashoah function in Melbourne.

JCCV hosted its annual Yom HaShoah Commemoration Evening at Robert Blackwood hall, Monash University.

Maria Lewit

Maria Lewit

Over one thousand people attended a wonderful and powerful commemoration ceremony which included witness testimonies, such as from Maria Lewit, combined choirs from all the Jewish schools in Melbourne, the traditional lighting of the candles, the partisons song and Kaddish.  A powerful video presentation was the backdrop to a wide range of speakers including Survivors, to 3rd Generation such as HE Yuval Rotem, the Israeli Ambassador and a March of the Living past participant.

The Melbourne Jewish community remembered and fulfilled the obligation to never forget.  Members of many Melbourne youth groups, including AUJS, Betar, Netzer and others help ensure that the memories are passed down the generations.

Non Jews on the night came out in solidarity and included Members of Parliament, city councillors and Consul Generals from several countries including Germany and Poland, and a group of Cambodian students.

The text of the keynote address given by JCCV president Nina Bassat.

“What we were unable to cry and scream out to the world, we buried in the ground …”

These were the words written by Dawid Graber on August 3, 1942 in Warsaw in his last will and testament. He was 19 years old.

Voices can come to us in many ways; and resistance can manifest itself in many forms. Among the most poignant voices and the strongest example of resistance are those which speak to us from the Ringelblum Archives. These are documents which were contained in the 10 boxes buried by Dawid Graber and in 3 large metal milk containers, 2 of which have been found.

In circumstances which are so horrific that words can barely describe them, the preservation of one’s moral courage becomes of paramount importance. About 50 men and women in the ghetto found their moral salvation by forming themselves into a group which they called “Oyneg Shabes”, or “Sabbath Joy,” because it usually met on Saturday afternoons, beginning in November 1940.

The day before, on August 2, while German soldiers searched the streets outside, Graber and his friend Nahum Grzywacz buried 10 metal boxes in the basement of a school on Nowolipki Street in the Warsaw ghetto.

The 10 boxes were dug up more than four years later, long after Graber and Grzywacz had been murdered.

Henri Korn lights a candle

Henri Korn lights a candle

Led by the historian Emanuel Ringelblum, the group included intellectuals, journalists, teachers, writers, scientists and ordinary people and they set themselves the mammoth task of documenting every aspect of life in the ghetto.
They collected everything that they could get hold of – scraps of testimony scribbled on the way to Treblinka and thrown from train windows – decrees, ration cards, surveys on schooling, on smuggling, descriptions of the life of the streets, the bitter jokes, the price of bread, letters, diaries and drawings. Nothing was too trivial – posters, songs, newspapers, pamphlets and tram tickets.

Altogether, 35,000 pieces of paper were collected – described as “documents of horror in Yiddish, German and Polish”.

The prime aim was to thoroughly document the daily life in the ghetto, with all its tragedy – the hunger, the cold, the suffering, the terror, and also the acts of heroism and of resistance, the acts of grace and kindness, and furthermore, to document it in such a way that in years to come, the evidence would be irrefutable.

But this was more than a collection of documents; there was research and analysis, as well as the raw material.

Using historical methodology, the researchers investigated their environment and studied their surroundings. They issued questionnaires and conducted hundreds of interviews with refugees and people on the verge of starvation. From the refugees, they learnt of mass shootings and synagogues burned to the ground.

One refugee told of how the SS had used gas to kill people in railroad cars in Chelmno, west of Warsaw.

Ringleblum believed that the massive compilation of data would save lives, or at the very least, it would help to prevent similar atrocities happening again in the future.

He made sure that papers telling of the full horror were smuggled out, most likely by Vladka Meed. News of the exterminations reached the BBC, which broadcast about them in June 1942. As we know, the world ignored the warnings.

Of the 50 or so members of “Oyneg Shabes”, only three survived and it was they who were able to provide the information that led to the recovery of the bulk of the documents.

This preservation of social and cultural life was both an invaluable documentation of life in the ghetto and a powerful form of resistance. You may be able to kill us, said Ringleblum and his group, but you cannot still our voices.

Voices can come to us in many ways; and resistance can manifest itself in many forms. But few are as powerful as the voices which speak from the Ringelblum Archives, and no resistance is as enduring as that which leaves a legacy that bears witness for all generations.

Long after the death of the “Oyneg Shabes” group, long after Dawid Graber and others buried the records, the voices from the ghetto speak out with testimony not to be denied, with testimony never to be forgotten.

In Sydney, Dr Avril Alba spoke of this period as being “a stone under history’s wheel”.  Alba spoke at the second Yom Hashoah commemoration held at Masada College on Sydney’s North Shore
Rabbi Hanina Ben Teradion was studying the Torah and holding a Scroll of the Law to his chest.

Our enemies took hold of him, wrapped him in the Scroll, placed bundles of branches around him and set them on fire. His disciples called out, ‘Rabbi, what do you see?’

He answered them,

‘The parchment is burning but the letters are soaring high above me.’

These eight lines are a famous Talmudic description of Jewish persecution under Roman occupation in second century Palestine. Ben Teradion is being executed for his flaunting of Roman decree and his continued public teaching of Torah. Burnt in the scroll he refused to forsake, Ben Teradion’s response to his students’ question is at one level an acclamation of faith but it is also a radical (re)interpretation of history. Ben Teradion implores his students not to interpret his execution as the ‘end of history’, a symbol of Judea’s devastation under Roman occupation. Rather, he assures them that the meaning of his martyrdom is to demonstrate the eternal and indestructible nature of the Law, and that what they were witnessing was the continuation, rather than the end, of Jewish history.

Dr Avril Alba

Dr Avril Alba

In December 1941, as he was led to his death from the Riga ghetto, the famous Jewish historian Simon Dubnow, issued as similar decree ‘Yidn! Shraybt un farshraybt! Jews! Write and record!’ One year later, in the Warsaw ghetto, when the Great Deportations had left no one with illusions as to the Nazis final plans for the Jews of Europe, Gustava

Jarecka, an author prior to the war, now incarcerated in the ghetto with her two small children, echoed Dubnow’s sentiments. She wrote:

 

This Record must be hurled like a stone under history’s wheel in order to stop it…. one can lose all hopes except this one—that the suffering and destruction of this war will make sense when it is looked at from a distant, historical perspective.’

 

The ‘Record’ Jarecka speaks of we now know as the Oyneg Shabes archive. Jarecka was recruited to write for Oyneg Shabes, a clandestine organisation existent in the Warsaw ghetto, conceived of and led by the young Polish Jewish historian, Emanuel Ringelblum. The archive was found in the rubble of the ghetto in tin boxes and steel milk crates in the years immediately after the end of World War II, in September 1946 and December 1950. And while the entire collection has never been located, the documents that were salvaged comprise the single largest Jewish archive from the period of the Shoah itself.

The achievement of the members of Oyneg Shabes is, quite simply, astonishing. Between the outbreak of the war in 1939 and the ghetto uprising of 1943, Ringelblum assembled a group of writers, historians, journalists, Rabbis and lay people who were ready to risk their lives to document their persecution and that of their people. With the establishment of the Warsaw ghetto in late 1940 this group, whose membership comprised a diverse array of individuals often in deep ideological disagreement one with the other, worked together with a single purpose: to document Jewish life under Nazi occupation and to leave a record of their experiences for generations to come.

This record was to be a work of history, not hagiography. The Oyneg Shabes members sought to preserve a record of the day-to-day reality of ghetto life. They collected everything from tram tickets to ration cards, theatre posters, invitations to lectures, poetry, testimony from Jews brought to the ghetto from what had been the Soviet zone, hospital records, accounts of orphanages, and minutes of Zionist youth group meetings. They collected German posters offering Jews bread if they volunteered for deportation, and posters produced by Jewish health authorities instructing how to safely cook frozen potatoes. Convinced that nothing would remain of the physical space of the ghetto (and here they were indeed correct), they wrote their own detailed descriptions of public space; they wrote of roads that led nowhere, of walls erected to cut off one street from another, and they described in detail the often futile attempts of the ghetto leadership to maintain some order in an increasingly over crowded, diseased and chaotic environment.

 At first Ringelblum’s goal was simply to collect, to create an archive that would be of use to future historians—the generation that he believed would ultimately write the history of the Jews under Nazism. But as time went on and it became apparent that the Nazi Endziel (final aim) was to be the complete destruction of European Jewry, they also undertook interviews with ghetto inhabitants, recording the experiences of a diverse cross section of the remaining population. With the Great Deportations of 1942 signalling that the liquidation of the ghetto was looming, their goal became not only to collect but to describe and to analyse, to try and make sense from the perspective of the victims the decimation unfolding around them on a daily basis, while all the time not knowing if any of the people whose existence they were frantically labouring to document, would live to attest to their experience. Ringelblum described the goals of the archive thus:

 We 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 masses lived through, thought and suffered… we tried to have the narrative of an adult and of a young person, of a religious Jew, who cares about the rabbi, the synagogue, the cemetery … and of the secular Jew, who chooses to emphasize themes that are no less important.

These accounts contained in the Oyneg Shabes archive are deeply confronting. For they contain not only stories of heroism, but also stories of despair. They include accounts of mothers watching their children die of hunger, descriptions of public executions, of violent scenes of separation at deportations and harrowing accounts of collaboration and betrayal. Yet, beside these horrific stories sit descriptions which under regular circumstances might simply be described as daily tasks, but within the horrific conditions of the Warsaw ghetto, comprise extraordinary attempts to bring normalcy to an abnormal world. For example, Oyneg Shabes member Menakhem Linker set about documenting the economic life of the ghetto. Despite almost complete social and economic isolation, Jewish merchants and labourers continued under threat of death to make contact with those outside of the ghetto walls; to attempt in some, small way to provide an economy of sorts for the remaining, starving ghetto inhabitants. A member of Linker’s team, Jerzy Winkler’s essay ‘The Ghetto Fights Back against Economic Enslavement’ describes their efforts:

The Jew’s ingenuity overcame obstacles and walls. The Jew worked at a loss, but he managed to hang onto life. The mere fact of his existence proved that the Jewish role in the … economy of partitioned Poland has not been completely eliminated.

 Why did they write? Why did they risk their lives to chronicle every possible moment of life under Nazi occupation? What was Ringelblum trying to achieve and why does his work and that of the Oyneg Shabes writers stand today as not only one of the greatest acts of Jewish history writing but also one of the greatest acts of Jewish resistance in the period of the Shoah?

One reason was that Ringelblum was determined not to allow the history of European Jewry to be written by those committed to its destruction. The name that historian Samuel Kassow gave to his book about the  Oyneg Shabes archive, a book to which my talk tonight owes a huge debt of gratitude, is ‘Who Will Write Our History?’ Ringelblum and his fellow writers knew that if they did not fulfil this task, if they did not write their own and their people’s history that the only history left would be that of the perpetrators. Their work has given us the possibility of connecting back to a past that we were never meant to know of or about, for under Nazi ideology Jews were to become an extinct people, a ‘degenerate  race’, the memory of whom would only be evoked to support Nazi claims to racial superiority.

Members of the Oyneg Shabes wrote because they believed that while it was unlikely that they would survive the war, their words, their descriptions of European Jewish life, would survive. They wrote to individualize the countless victims, they wrote to mourn their losses, they wrote to condemn those who betrayed them and they wrote to extol their heroes. They wrote to leave as accurate a record of the destruction of

European Jewry and its continued resistance to that destruction, as possible. They wrote in order to make the Jews a subject people again, a people of destiny who would chronicle their own experience and lay claim to that experience. They wrote to demonstrate that while their bodies were subject to the brutality of others their souls remained their own. They would be the authors of their history.

 But they also wrote because they believed that their experience, what they surely knew would soon become what we refer to as ‘the past’, held enormous significance for the future. The future not only of the Jewish people but of all peoples. Indeed, they believed that Jewish destiny and the destiny of humanity were inextricably linked. This belief is best described in Ringelblum’s own words:

I do not see our work as a separate project, as something that includes only Jews, that is only about Jews, and that will interest only Jews. My whole being rebels against that….. Jewish suffering and Jewish liberation and redemption are part and parcel of the general calamity and the universal drive to throw off the hated  Nazi yoke. We have to regard ourselves as participants in a universal attempt to construct a solid structure of objective documentation that will work for the good of mankind. Let us hope that the bricks and cement of our experience and our understanding will be able to provide this foundation.

Ringelblum saw his work and that of his fellow chroniclers as providing a moral foundation and a call to action. While he never wavered in his desire to write the history of European Jewry, he was equally firm in his belief that this chronicle would also stand as a universal model for resistance to tyranny and an affirmation of the intrinsic worth of every human being. Incredibly, this work of Jewish history, written when the

Jews had every reason to believe that the rest of humanity had forsaken them, was written in the service of humankind.

 To my mind, it is these reasons that Ringelblum attributes to his project, the forces that animate his quest, that are truly extraordinary. When one considers the extent of the persecution and suffering that he and his fellow writers experienced and witnessed on a daily basis, his reasons for recording and recounting this history are radically counter intuitive. Logically, faced with the reality of life in the Warsaw ghetto, the work of the Oyneg Shabes archive should have been undertaken with the desire to provide a damning account of indifference to Jewish suffering, demonstrate a loss of faith in human values and express a deep and abiding pessimism not only for the future of the Jews but for the future of humankind. Yet this is not why Ringelblum wrote history and nor is it how he read history. For Ringelblum, like Ben Teradion before him, history held a moral force, and those that wrote it had a responsibility to garner that force for the future.

Similarly, as I reflect on the testimony given by survivors, I find myself amazed not only because of the enormous courage and resilience that they demonstrate in recounting their experiences, but in the reasons that they give as to why they choose to do so. Again, the counterintuitive nature of these reasons is often missed and only becomes explicit in an occasion such as tonight. We have become accustomed to survivor testimony being utilized as an educational resource, a way of illustrating the dangers of hatred and racism to generations increasingly removed from the events of the Shoah. However, given their experiences, surely it would have made more sense for the survivors to never speak, to build fortresses, places where the outside world could never again reach them, to create walls and erect fences, to never again trust the good intentions  of others and to feel they owed nothing to a world that gave them so little. Surely, these would have been more logical conclusions to draw from their experiences? What is extraordinary is that so few accorded their memories these meanings. Rather, like Ben Teradion, they understood that their bearing witness would allow for the continuity, rather than the end, of Jewish history. And like Ringelblum, they believed that their history would provide the basis for a renewed understanding of a universal humanity.

 And so now the question of the meaning of this history falls to us, the succeeding generations to discern: What are we to do with this history? How will we read this past and what is the meaning we will find in it? I began my talk with a rabbinic parable and it seems only fitting to conclude in the same vein. The following midrash references a similar conundrum faced by those generations who both witnessed and came immediately after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E.

Rabbi used to interpret the verse ‘the Lord laid waste without pity’ in twenty four ways. Rabbi Yohanan could interpret it in sixty. Could it be that Rabbi Yohanan was greater than Rabbi!? Rather, because Rabbi was closer in time to the destruction of the Temple he would remember as he interpreted and stop to weep and console himself. He would begin again only to weep, console himself, and halt. Rabbi Yohanan, because he was not close in time to the destruction of the Temple, was able to continue to interpret without pause.

(Lamentations Rabbah) Our midrashist is faced with a seemingly unsolvable contradiction: How could it be that the one closest to the destruction—the great figure of ‘Rabbi’, Judah HaNasi, the redactor of the Mishnah (Oral Law)—is only able to offer twenty four interpretations of the destruction, while Rabbi Yohanan, who lived in the generations after the Temple was destroyed, was able to offer sixty? Surely, such a situation is counterintuitive to the task at hand? A closer reading reveals a deeper dynamic at work. The experience of history (to stop to weep) is both the burden and struggle of the generation of witness, the generation of the survivors; the work of memory (to interpret without pause) is the task of the generations that come after, those who ‘do not stop to weep’. ‘To weep’ is to recall a traumatic history; ‘to interpret’ is to make sense of that history, to find meaning within it and to transmit that meaning to generations to come.

 We, the generations who come after, must heed the calls of those we might simply call our rabbis, that is, our teachers; Ringelblum and the historians of the Warsaw ghetto, the survivors whom we are still privileged to learn with and from. We must seek out their testimonies and we must read their words. We, too, must ‘cast a stone under history’s wheel’, to ‘interpret without pause’, to ‘shraybt un vershraybt’ and to continue the model of resistance that the Jews practiced for centuries, that was the received knowledge of all those who wrote in Nazi occupied Europe, those who knew instinctively that ‘the Jews’ home is the text’; and we must continue to build these homes in the present; to build, teach and educate in museums, in archives, through books yet to be written and stories yet to be told. In second century Palestine, Ben Teradion wrote  our history and the words ascended. In Nazi occupied Warsaw, Emanuel Ringelblum and his colleagues wrote our history and the words descended. Their resistance restored to us our heritage and our task must be to seek their words out and to give them renewed meaning. The  history produced by Oyneg Shabes and the testimonies given by survivors are profound acts of resistance. Will we, the generation that comes after, continue that resistance? ‘Who will write our History?’ We, the generations that come after, we must write our history, we must keep the letters soaring; we must continue to ‘interpret without pause’.

 

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