Days of Remembrance, April 27 - May 4
Sara J. Bloomfield, Director, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
May 1, 2008, U.S. Capitol Rotunda, Washington, D.C.
This year is notable for the 65th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and those defiant fighters, whose meager Molotov cocktails took on the military might of the Nazi war machine. Those fighters won a metaphorical victory for sheer audacity and courage. In so doing, they made famous an address in the heart of the ghetto. Mila 18.
Today I want to talk about other addresses in the ghetto. And other acts of resistance. Namely, the buildings at Nowolipki 68 and Swietojerski 34. Buried under these buildings was another form of Molotov cocktail, another type of weapon. The weapon of words. Their power is ultimately indestructible, for such is the power of truth.
In August 1942 and then again in February 1943, thousands of pages of material were buried in milk cans and tin boxes under buildings at 68 Nowolipki Street and 34 Swietojerski Street. More than 35,000 pages survived the war. What was on them?
Certainly not what the Nazis would have you know of their victims. Their endless lists of names and numbers. Or the cold bureaucratic forms and statistics. No, this was a community. Or rather both a community and individuals. A record of the daily lives of the people of the Warsaw Ghetto from 1940 to 1943.
Led by historian Emanuel Ringelblum, the project to document life in the ghetto was called Oneg Shabbat, Sabbath Joy. The buried archive included copies of the underground press, ration cards, letters, poetry, theater posters, photographs, and much more. The effort was very well organized with meetings every week. They conducted special studies on aspects of ghetto life and at one point even surveyed attitudes about the future. Yes, the future! Another project to document the lives of children went unfinished. Never to be resumed.
One of the milk cans contained an essay by the writer Gustawa Jarecka. She wrote: “The desire to write is as strong as the repugnance of words. We hate words because they too often have served as a cover for emptiness or meanness. We despise them for they pale in comparison with the emotion tormenting us. And yet in the past the word meant human dignity and was man’s best possession.”
For her, writing in the face of death was an act not so much of revenge as of justice, but also a means of restoring dignity to the world. She continued:
“The record must be hurled like a stone under history’s wheel in order to stop it.”
But history’s wheel would not be stopped.
Ringelblum took great care to ensure the archive’s secrecy. When word of the mass deportations began in July 1942, he asked Israel Lichtenstein to bury it. Licthenstein recruited help, including 19 year old David Graber who penned this message:
“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 the great treasure will be dug up and scream the truth at the world. So the world may know all. … We would be the fathers, the teachers, and 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 20th century… We may now die in peace. We fulfilled our mission. May history attest for us.”
Lichtenstein also left his own testament. Reflecting on his role in hiding the archive, he wrote “I do not ask for any thanks, for any memorial, for any praise. I only wish to be remembered.”
And today, here in this Rotunda, we shout back across the decades, we do. We remember.