Recently, in a conversation with Professor Paweł Śpiewak, we have discussed the shared history of the JHI and the Association. I would like to ask you about the Association’s main goals.
The Association is a custodian of the heritage of the Jewish nation – both material and spiritual. The material legacy includes archives of various documents and objects, some of them as old as mid-17th century, library comprising about 80,000 volumes, paintings, drawings, posters, sculptures, works of handcraft, metalwork, photography...
In a moral sense, this heritage belongs to all the Jews who survived – not only those from Poland, but from the whole world. This is why we treat the responsibility of guarding this legacy as a duty and a honour at the same time. We’re aware of the dignity of this role. I fully agree with late Michał Friedman, a long-time president of the Association, writer and translator, who wrote: „50 years in the thousand-year history of Jews on Polish soil is not a lot. But 50 year of continuous work of the Association of the JHI is a great, nearly heroic period in the history of post-war Jewish community in Poland”. I would add only one thing – that now, 20 years later, the Association has initiated and accomplished many significant projects and enterprises.
Despite difficulties throughout the years, the Association manages not only to survive, but to grow as strong and efficient as it is today.
Because it represents the interests of society and at has a mission which has attracted people – in the past as much as now. People of the Association may have various opinions, tempers, they may argue over history and lifestyles. But one thing is undisputed – that in our hands, precisely – in the building which we own now, and in which once worked the Oneg Shabbat group, we keep a treasure of a decimated nation. As the Association, we have been preserving, maintaining, studying it for years. In 1994, we have passed the collections to professionals – to the Jewish Historical Institute. It is, in my opinion, a good example of a public-private partnership, cooperation between a social organization and a state research institution.
This partnership means a lot to us. We can complement each other perfectly. Without the Institute, we wouldn’t have been able to accomplish many projects for which we manage to receive financial support. A very important step in deepening our cooperation is the beginning of the Oneg Szabat program. We fully notice and appreciate the engagement of the JHI’s employees in their care for the legacy of the Jewish nation.
Does care for this treasure involve more than archive work?
History is one thing, but we must not forget about education. We have been dreaming about making the Ringelblum Archive available to a wide audience, and about popularizing it, for a long time. Most people in Poland and in the world don’t know anything about the Oneg Shabbat group, they don’t know about Emanuel Ringelblum and his work. Even sadder fact is that even the Jews don’t know about the Archive – which is, after all, a part of the UNESCO’s World Heritage! This is why, together with the Jewish Historical Institute, on 18 September we have initiated the Oneg Szabat program, which includes – among others – a permanent exhibition, a travelling exhibition, a translation of the Polish edition of the Archive to English. The program includes also a large internet campaign and many educational and research projects, which we will be dedicated to for the next several years.
Having in mind the Association’s role during the development of the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews, the program is in good hands.
The Association was the initiator, founder and co-contractor of the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews, which has achieved a significant success. It is owed to people of the Association, but also, to a large extent, of the JHI. It’s unbelievable that such a small group of dedicated people was able to accomplish such a great project.
People ask me: what is the most important thing about the Museum? As a Jew living here in this country, in a family which has been living here for centuries, I would like to repeat: we have contributed to the fact that people begin to use the word „Jew”. Everything begins from here. This word can be used in various ways, also pejorative ones. There are people who are afraid of this word: they’re concerned that they may hurt someone, that after the Holocaust one shouldn’t say: a Jew, Jews. But in a moment when someone enters the Museum and begins to talk about it, the word „Jew” becomes natural, returns to its place. I believe that due to the permanent exhibition created by the JHI, dedicated to the Oneg Shabbat group and the Ringelblum Archive, we will talk about it more, and the word „Jew” will be naturally in use even more often. Visitors of the exhibition will find out who was Ringelblum and his coworkers from Oneg Shabbat, about their efforts to document life in the Ghetto and the Holocaust of Jews in Poland. It’s absolutely incredible for me that these people, in the horrifying living conditions of the Warsaw Ghetto, organized an underground archive and collected documents so important for history. Another special aspect is the fact that the exhibition will be presented in the building of the former Main Judaistic Library, which was part of the Great Synagogue at Tłomackie street complex, survived its destruction, and today serves as headquarters of the Jewish Historical Institute and the Association of the Jewish Historical Institute of Poland. The Oneg Shabbat group held their secret meetings exactly here.
Our dream – shared with other Jewish organizations – is to connect various locations important for getting to know and understanding Jewish history into one route: such places as Umschlagplatz, the Monument to the Ghetto Heroes, building of the former Main Judaistic Library at Tłomackie, and POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews.
You have said that the Association is a custodian of the legacy of the murdered Jewish nation. Will there ever come a moment when you’ll be able to say: we’ve done everything we had to do?
There will never come a moment when we’ll say: we’ve done everything. A quick thought of comparison: when could one say that there’s a right moment for a family to stop taking care of graves and heritage of their ancestors? Never. Following generations take the responsibility, then the next ones, and yet next ones... We feel an internal need to visit our ancestors’ graves, to take care of them, to stand for a while and reflect. And we are one big Jewish family. Do we have a moral right to stop caring for everything which our great family had left? We don’t. We can only share a part of our responsibilities, and invite such people as the employees of the JHI to work with us – people entirely dedicated to the idea.
The Oneg Szabat program will last until 2025…
The Association has two children: the Jewish Historical Institute and the POLIN Museum. I would like to emphasize that before 1993, when the Association began to focus on the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews, the most urgent necessity was to find funds for maintenance and preservation of our collections, so they could serve academic and publishing purposes. Now, we work on the Oneg Szabat program together. After opening of the permanent exhibition, next challenges will follow, of which probably the most important one is to complete the full edition of 36 volumes of documents from the Ringelblum Archive, translating them to English, and launching the travelling exhibition. We would like to reach with the story about the Oneg Shabbat group and the Ringelblum Archive to people in the USA, Canada and in other countries.
People who are also heirs of this great legacy.
Absolutely! It is a heritage of the entire, great, 3-million Jewish family. Their children have a right to learn about it. They have to know that this treasure is preserved here, in Poland, in Warsaw, at Tłomackie street. And that this treasure won’t be divided. It is a treasure which belongs to everyone, but it also belongs to this place, to the building in which the Oneg Shabbat group held their secret meetings. And we, the custodians, count on their support.
The Oneg Szabat program is implemented by the Emanuel Ringelblum Jewish Historical Institute and the Association of the Jewish Historical Institute of Poland, within a public-private partnership.