Letters to Oneg Shabbat

A special publication by the Jewish Historical Institute Publishing House accompanies the permanent exhibition — „What we’ve been unable to shout out to the world”.

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This collection of essays, Letters to Oneg Shabbat, accompanies the permanent exhibition — „What we’ve been unable to shout out to the world” — and is an element of the Oneg Szabat program.

The participants of the project represent various fields of science and art. They have been asked to read documents from the Ringelblum Archive and to make an attempt to „bring this continent of experience closer to the readers”. The list of authors includes: Krystyna Dąbrowska (poet), Piotr Cywiński (historian, director of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum), Marta Janczewska (JHI academic staff member), Bożena Keff (poet, essayist, literature researcher at the JHI), Jacek Leociak (literature historian), Piotr Matywiecki (poet, essayist), Tomasz Pietrasiewicz (culture manager, theatre director), Paweł Śpiewak (social scientist, historian of ideas, director of the JHI), Krzysztof Środa (writer, philosophy historian), Maciej Zalewski (philologist).

The common quality which connects all the essays – albeit different in form, approach, workshop, applied tools — is the task which the authors had to challenge. Each of them shows a „different face of the Archive”. Thanks to filtering through personal sensitivity and knowledge, readers receive not only a vast spectrum of interpretations of the source materials, but also a variety of questions asked in confrontation with an experience which evades definition.

Piotr Cywiński writes: It’s difficult to write about the Ringelblum Archive, and everybody agrees in their own way.

Krystyna Dąbrowska and Krzysztof Środa decided to show the complexity of this task through revealing the background of their work. Krystyna Dąbrowska’s moving poem is a poetic record of editing biographical notes of Oneg Shabbat members, while Krzysztof Środa’s essay is a report which tells the story of reading”, an honest account of „failures and doubts” occurring on various stages of his work. The reader accompanies the author through the entire process – from the initial verification of beliefs and opinions on the Ringelblum Archive and its contents, through constant returning to particular fragments and revealing new layers of text, details such as names of people or circumstances of their death, and eventually – through shared reading of Abraham Lewin’s Diary.

Piotr Cywiński writes about the role of Archive at the time of its creation and today, as well as about the mission of the Jewish Historical Institute, „the ohel of that world”. Marta Janczewska makes an attempt to challenge talking about death in the language of statistics, through numbers and summaries, present in the documentation o the Archive. Death, treated not as a statistical fact, but as „an experience of separation”, is a subject of Paweł Śpiewak’s essay. Death has many names is a reflection on writing about the Holocaust in personal accounts – letters, announcements, diaries, notes, which were preserved in the Archive. Bożena Keff recalls the term „Churban Forszung” („research on defeat”), used by Ringelblum and his co-workers, and in the light of its meaning analyses the significance of the Archive for its creators and for further generations who read it. She also makes an appeal that the school programs should include the Ringelblum Archive. Jacek Leociak reflects on the presence of four elements, known from Empedocles’ teachings (fire, water, earth, air) in the content and material form of the Ringelblum Archive. Tomasz Pietrasiewicz shares his thoughts on the best ways of presenting documents in exhibition space, while Maciej Zalewski tries to locate the Archive on his personal map (family map, map of Warsaw). Zalewski and Piotr Matywiecki both explain why one should read the accounts collected by Oneg Shabbat, even though it’s impossible to fully understand the suffering they carry.

„Letters to Oneg Shabbat” are an invitation to a personal meeting with the „continent of experience” present in the Archive. They encourage to follow the authors, who generously and honestly share their own feelings, in a journey through the Underground Archive of the Warsaw Ghetto. One of its goals is to stop considering the Holocaust in general terms, and instead to face Salomea Ostrowska, „employed at the quarantine office”, house painter „named Dziedzic” from 17 Dzielna street, candy seller from 36 Leszno street, Mrs Karaś from Nowy Dwór, who „died a horrible death in Pomiechówek”, or any other person which the members of Oneg Shabbat tried to commemorate with such care. As Emmanuel Levinas wrote, to see a face means to hear: don’t kill.

Don’t forget.

I am trimming the biography of an eighteen-year-old boy. He helped to bury the rst part of the Archive.
In his testament he wrote: I am ignorant of my fate.
I do not know if I will be able to tell you what happened next. Just remember: my name is Nachum Grzywacz.

(Krystyna Dąbrowska, Biographical notes; translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones)

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.

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