Aleksandra Bańkowska from JHI will present her paper ‘Witnesses to the Holocaust, an account of the underground archive collections from the ghettos in Warsaw and Białystok’ at the conference co-organized by JHI, „Being a witness to the Holocaust”.
In the paper I present the accounts given be people who escaped extermination. They talk about executions and extermination camps. The accounts come from the archives of two ghettos, in Warsaw and Białystok. They differ in terms of chronology and type which is the reason why for archival researcher they are a valuable source of different sorts of information — says Aleksandra Bańkowska
The Underground Archive of the Warsaw Ghetto, known as Ringelblum Archive, is the result of months of work of the team "Oneg Szabat” led by Emanuel Ringelblum. The members of „Oneg Szabat” used to gather documents of everyday life, which is why we are now able to reconstruct the aspects of daily life in the Warsaw Ghetto. The Archives consist of polls, interviews, written accounts as well as tickets, theater listings and even candy wrappers.
On the other hand, the Underground Archives of Białystok Ghetto (Meresik-Tenenbaum Archives) are not well known or described by academics. The main obstacle is the predominant language of the reports, Yiddish. In November 1942, Mordechaj Tenenbaum-Tamaroff, an activist in a Zionist youth movement Dror in the Warsaw Ghetto, arrived at the Białystok Ghetto. Immediately, he began gathering reports and documents related to the fate of Jews in Białystok and nearby areas. His closest co-worker was Cwi Hirsz Mersik. On 2nd November, 1942, Białystok ghettos were liquidated and their inhabitants were relocated to temporary camps.
The Białystok Ghetto Archives include significant documents from the final phase of the Holocaust. Some of them are accounts given by the escapees of extermination camps and massive executions. Especially unique is an account by Issak Kagan, who managed to escape an execution in Ponary - Bańkowska explains.
A group of Jews managed to escape to the Białystok Ghetto, hence in Meresik-Tennebaum Archives reports about the ghettos in Lida, Grodno, Svislach, Gródek, Białystok area, Ciechanowiec, Grajewo and Łomża. They include information about the number of Jews inhibiting the cities before the war and descriptions of weeks of Nazi occupation and final extermination.
The Archives in the Warsaw and Białystok ghettos were created by people of various experience. In "Oneg Szabat” the documents were assembled and elaborated, among others, by historians, whereas the co-workers Tennenbaum and Mersik lacked methodological experience. They were young people with no intellectual background. Undeniable value of the Białystok Ghetto Archives is the accounts given by the escapees of the extermination camps. Only a few of such can be found in Ringelblum Archives.
The theme of the conference is Raul Hilberg’s triad triad Perpetrators-Victims-Bystanders. The last debate will be devoted to it in particular. Paweł Śpiewak, the Director of the Jewish Historical Institute, will chair the conference.
Aleksandra Bańkowska points out the exceptional situation of Jews-witnesses who were destined to become victims. It meant leaving the group of victims and becoming witnesses to the Holocaust, which took their loved ones. They were absolutely aware of the fact that the Holocaust had not ended yet and that it was happening then and there. They also knew that having managed to escape death once, did not mean not being in danger anymore. Their accounts are not given from perspective, which is the case in post-war reports. Jews-witnesses inform us about the process of extermination, they have — consciously or not — a mission to warn others. They warn Jews not to be misled by lies. Szlamek Winer (alias Jakub Grojnowski), an escapee from Chełmo (SS Sonderkommando Kulmhof), came to Warsaw in February 1942 and shared with ‘Oneg Szabat’ detailed information about the camp. His testimonies are a valuable document on the Holocaust.
We invite you to the conference, which will take place on 22nd-23rd April 2013 in the Educational Center of the Institute of National Remembrance, ‘Przystanek Historia’.