The Jews of Warsaw Buried the Truth So It Would Survive Them
A boy’s voice calls out from an unimaginable darkness.
“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. […] But no, we shall certainly not live to see it, and therefore I write my last will.”
David Graber was a Polish Jew. His words were written months before the Warsaw Ghetto, together with those in it, was destroyed.
The so-called “Final Solution” became the official policy of the Third Reich in January 1942. The Jews of Warsaw knew what was coming. Faced with the relentless attempt to erase their very existence, some became obsessed with ensuring the story of their lives, thoughts, persecution and destruction by the Nazis was preserved.
Their efforts produced the largest cache of documentation by a Jewish community about to be exterminated by the Nazis.
“Documents and a cry of pain, objectivity and passion do not fit together […] And yet in the past the word meant human dignity,” wrote Polish author Gustawa Jarecka in an essay describing life in the Warsaw ghetto shortly after the first wave of mass deportations to the Treblinka killing center in the summer of 1942. In less than two months, the Germans deported more than 265,000 Jews from Warsaw and killed an additional 35,000 inside the ghetto itself.
Acknowledging the inadequacy of words to describe the indescribable, Jarecka nonetheless wrote of the possibility that her essay might one day hold perpetrators to account for their crimes, or help historians to make some sense of the past: “We are noting the evidence of the crime. […] From suffering, unparalleled in history, from bloody tears and bloody sweat, a chronicle of days of hell is being composed which will help explain the historical reasons for why people came to think as they did.”
“Objectivity was our guiding principle.”
The composer of this multi-voiced “chronicle of days of hell” was historian Emanuel Ringelblum. As early as the second month of World War II — after Warsaw’s fall — he began collecting material and writing daily reports on what was happening to Jews in the city and surrounding towns. An active participant in Jewish mutual assistance efforts, he had a large network of contributors to his rapidly expanding archive.
His goal was a comprehensive social history of the Warsaw ghetto, and he spared no details — even those that revealed conflict within the Jewish community. “Objectivity was our guiding principle. We aspired to reveal the whole truth, as bitter as it may be,” he wrote.
Many of the materials gathered for the archive reveal the relative normalcy of daily life and the Jewish community’s attempts to preserve its vibrancy and dignity: ID cards, work permits, ration cards, postcards, schoolbooks, lecture and concert announcements, poems, and drawings. Others indicate the diligence of a historian seeking a thorough, impartial record of all aspects of the ghetto. Under Ringelblum’s leadership, the archive conducted surveys and commissioned studies on subjects including prewar Jewish life, the role of Jewish women in the war, and the plight of children in the ghetto.
For the latter, researchers collected first-person accounts from children in daycare or refugee centers, many of whom were orphans. They were asked to write what war meant to them, or how their lives had changed during the war.
“Well, there are two kinds of war,” wrote fourteen-year-old Israel Lederman, “the war against hunger and the war with bullets. The hunger war is worse because then everybody suffers; a bullet will kill you quickly.”
“I wish my wife to be remembered.”
Despite the Nazis’ euphemistic announcements of “resettlement in the East” for Warsaw’s Jews, Ringelblum and his fellow archivists knew those deported were ultimately killed. Among the documents included in the archive were interviews with people who arrived in the ghetto after escaping the Chelmno and Treblinka death camps. The archive also included reports of mass killings of Jews in other parts of Poland and took on the task of actively informing ghetto residents of the danger, as well as trying to get news of the killings to Western Allies.
Knowing their fate, contributors to the archive struggled to shape their legacy.
“I wish my wife to be remembered, Gele Sekstein. She has worked during the war years with children as an educator and teacher…,” the director of a ghetto school, Israel Lichtenstein, wrote. “Both of us get ready to meet and receive death. I wish my little daughter to be remembered. Margalit is 20 months old today. In intelligence she equals children of three or four years. I don’t boast.”
For nearly three years, Ringelblum managed to keep the existence of the archive a secret. But as conditions in the ghetto became increasingly tenuous, he acted to preserve the vast amount of evidence he had amassed. He asked Lichtenstein to bury part of the archive within the ghetto itself. Enlisting the help of two students, including the 19-year-old David Graber, Lichtenstein filled ten metal boxes with papers and buried them under the school.
“We fulfilled our mission.”
In February 1943, a second stash of archive materials was placed in two milk cans and buried near the boxes. Two months later, the remaining ghetto inhabitants launched the largest armed uprising of the Holocaust. It ended only when the Nazis burned the ghetto to the ground.
Ringelblum’s comprehensive recording of life in the Warsaw ghetto survived the Holocaust even though its creator did not. In September 1946, the Jewish Historical Institute in Poland, with the help of survivors from the ghetto, unearthed the cache of ten metal boxes. Four years later, construction workers stumbled across the two milk cans.
It is thanks to the archive that we can learn about what was once Poland’s largest Jewish community from those who comprised it, in their own words. For once the victim, not the victor, gets the last word.
“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… ” Graber wrote. “We may now die in peace. We fulfilled our mission. May history attest for us.”
Anne Merrill is Associate Creative Director at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
Auschwitz-Birkenau. Photo © Ruth Ellen Gruber
January 27, the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1945, is marked in many countries as International Holocaust Remembrance Day. It is an occasion for commemorative ceremonies, educational programs, and other initiatives. Monuments and memorials are also dedicated or form centerpieces for commemorative events.
This year we are marking the occasion with a photo essay of Holocaust memorials in Europe. They range from grand structures, museums, and preserved death camps, to poignant or symbolic sculptures, to simple plaques or memorial stones. They have been erected by countries, cities, private individuals, NGOs and others. Many are powerful sites on their own. Others include inscriptions — some of which may leave out information or even be misleading. Others still lack inscriptions or material to provide context and let visitors know what they are meant to remember.
The images we present here encompass a variety of types of monuments.
Memorial in Eisiskes, Lithuania, to the women and children murdered on Sept. 25-26, 1941
Memorial plinth in the old Jewish cemetery in Busk, Ukraine
Many memorials are impressive monuments whose goal is to place the memory of the Shoah in public space.
Ceremony at Warsaw Ghetto Memorial, September 2011. Photo © Ruth Ellen Gruber
Memorial statue in the center of Seduva, Lithuania; part of a larger memorial complex. Photo © Ruth Ellen Gruber
Others personalize the Holocaust by actually giving names to the millions victims. These include, for example, the nearly 60,000 “stumbling stone” or “stolpersteine” commemorative cobblestones around Europe placed by the German artist Gunter Demnig as a memorial art project in front of the houses of people who were deported.
Stolpersteine memorials in Berlin
These types of monuments also include memorials that list names — either full names or simply first names — of victims. Or personalize them in another way, by using fragments of gravestones from destroyed Jewish cemeteries to construct powerful memorials and memorial walls.
Budapest. Holocaust memorial in Kozma utca Jewish cemetery. People write in names and dates that were missed.
Warsaw. Umschlagplatz memorial, listing first names.
Holocaust memorial in PInkas synagogue, Prague, listing the names of nearly 80,000 victims from Bohemia and Moravia. Photo: Øyvind Holmstad via Wikimeida. CC BY-SA 3.0
Krakow. Holocaust memorial in the New Jewish Cemetery, built out of fragments of gravestones
Sculptural monuments take many forms. The monument at Bełzec, Poland, dedicated in 2004, transforms the entire area of the Nazi death camp there into a land-sculpture.
Monument at Bełzec death camp in southeastern Poland. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber
In Berlin, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe includes an enormous, maze-like sculptural complex designed by architect Peter Eisenman and engineer Buro Happold, but it also includes as part of the complex a small but effective museum that teaches about the “final solution.”
The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin
In the museum that is part of Berlin’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe
In a recent essay on his blog, Samuel D. Gruber described a category of sculptural Holocaust memorial that symbolize the destruction by evoking “things left behind” — a variation on the concept of an enduring “presence of absence.”
These works began appearing in Europe in the 1990s and continue to be made today. They rely on contradictions to convey their powerful message of abandonment and loss. […] While these works are conceptual at their core, they are also highly realistic – even hyper realist in their visible subject and form. They juxtapose the commonplace and every-day with the realization of the reality of unspeakable horror and inconsolable lose. Most powerful of all, these works encounter the view on high intellectual level but with personal immediacy.
In particular he mentioned the bronze sculpture Der verlassene Raum (The Deserted Room), by Karl Biedermann, installed in 1996 on Koppenplatz, in Berlin; the “Empty Shoes” memorial on the bank of the Danube River is Budapest, where local fascists shot Jews dead into the water; and the 2004 monument by László Kutas in Sopron, Hungary, which was cast from real clothes to suggest the garments left by victims in the “showers” of Auschwitz.
Holocaust monument in Sopron, Hungary, erected in 2004
Holocaust memorial on the Danube River in Budapest, erected in 2005
Der verlassene Raum (The Deserted Room), by Karl Biedermann, Holocaust memorial installed in 1996 on Koppenplatz, Berlin
The bronze sculpture is so natural – one can mistake the table and two chairs as the real thing – though in fact they are slightly bigger than normal and cast in bronze. And yet these cannot be normal – they sit on a faux-parquet floor in a room with walls and ceiling within a small city park. This represent a room on ordinary apartment or houses, that has been left in a hurry. Were the residents who so recently sat at the simple table arrested and deported? Or did they leave suddenly, saving themselves as refugees on the run? Sadly, we must think the former.
Empty chairs are used to another effect in Krakow, Poland — for a memorial to the Krakow Ghetto that covers an entire lot.
Krakow Ghetto memorial.
Another approach to the presence of absence can be seen in Bratislava, Slovakia, where a sculpture has been erected at the site of the destroyed Neolog synagogue, and in front of a black wall that bears a ghostly image of that synagogue. The monument urges people to Remember, but doesn’t explain what.
Bratislava, Slovakia Holocaust memorial. It says “remember” but doesn’t explain what to remember.
Tourists pose at the Holocaust memorial in Bratislava
Sculptural memorials also take different forms, including more direct or less symbolic figurations. But they sometimes provide a backdrop.
Teenagers on a school trip at the Holocaust memorial at the site of the Jewish cemetery in Terezin, Czech Republic
People seem to ignore this sculptural Holocaust memorial on the main Ghetto plaza in Venice
Highly symbolic art can also play a commemorative role.
The Holocaust memorial on Judenplatz in Vienna by the artist Rachel Whiteread (sited above a branch of the Jewish Museum located amid the foundation of a medieval synagogue destroyed in the 15th century) shows a closed “nameless library” with its books turned backward on the shelves so their spines and titles facing inward.
The monument on Judenplatz, Vienna, by Rachel Whiteread
Using related imagery, the Book-Burning Monument on Bebelplatz in Berlin commemorated the Nazis’ burning of books in 1933. Designed by the Israeli sculptor Micha Ullman, it is a subterranean chamber lined by empty bookshelves, which can be viewed through glass at street level.
The Book Burning memorial, Bebelplatz, Berlin. (With anti-Merkel graffiti…)
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Want to read more about Holocaust memorials?
The classic book about them is James E. Young’s Texture of Memory: Holocaust Memorials and Meaning (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995) as well as Young’s other books.
Click to read Samuel Gruber’s blog post about “Things Left Behind” memorials
Click to read Samuel Gruber’s essay about the Holocaust memorials in Warsaw’
Click to read Samuel Gruber’s essay about “what is wrong” with the Holocaust memorial in Bratislava, Slovakia
Watch a video of James E. Young present and lecture and slide show about Holocaust Memorials in Europe