February 28, 2010
posted by caroline picard
I really enjoyed thinking about this film as a search of the mother figure, in part–the way the main character is always talking about the “mer” (French “sea”), and ultimately ends up there, on the beach, in a moment of closure. The only closure that seems possible, when the relationship he has with his mother is so fraught–the child lives with the awareness that he was an unwanted bastard–manifested, of course, in her imaginary death when he lies to her professor.
In another sense, I think it’s a great portrait of the rebel or misfit–one who, out of no real malice or fault (I find him to be a pretty “good” kid, actually–he sets the table every night–always takes out the trash, all in all–) does not quite fit in. There is an amazing scene where he chugs a stolen jar of milk in the middle of the night, looking everything like a wino. What, no doubt, serves as a kind of foreshadowing.
Lastly, I love the regular references to film–the scene at the amusement park where the boy slides around on the gravitron wall, the way it is filmed it looks like a film reel. The boy go to the movie theater, just as the family goes to the movie theater–films seem both a chance to escape life as they are used in the course of self-reflection, i.e. the boy trying to work out his place in society, in relation to his mother–whether negotiating her betrayal, the absense of her affection. And even his need for her–
what, it seems, he can only ultimately find away from her, outside of society (there is an amazing scene where he gets into a prison car with prostitutes), in the natural world.
February 26, 2010
STARTING FRIDA!!! Winter Settings: Animation Screenings
Friday, February 26th, 2010
Doors at 6pm, Program starts at 7pm
Suggested Donation: $10.00
Chasing Two Rabbits is a special event curated by Sonia Yoon and Shannon Stratton that pairs animators with live performances by sound artists and musicians. Inspired by the experimental films of Norman McLaren, who combined abstract imagery (including scratching and painting into the film stock in earlier work, as well as paper cut-outs and live action and dance) with imaginative music and sound, Chasing Two Rabbits, acts to pair artists in both genres to produce a unique event where, rather than leaving art to illustrate a story, perhaps sound and vision will illuminate each other.
The program for the evening will include animations by Gracen Brilmyer, Peter Burr, Tom Burtonwood, Dana Carter, Jodie Mack, Tracy Taylor, and Rebecca Schoenecker with sound by The Chicago Phonographers, Chris Hammes , Eric Zeigenhagen, Steve Lacy, Frank Van Duerm, Kotoka Suzuki, Cait Stevens, George Monteleone and Broken Chooser.
Friday, March 5th, 2010
Doors at 6pm, Program starts at 7pm
Suggested Donation: $10.00
Kissing hats, elephants driving, a man who turns into the sun, and dinosaurs roaming the countryside rarely happen in real life, but at the stop-motion film screening Stop & Go all of this will become ordinary. Established filmmakers and visual artists using stop-motion, tell stories, examine visual phenomena, and make political statements in a collection of short videos.
Curated by San Francisco Bay Area artist and animator, Sarah Klein, Klein (who uses hand-drawn images and stop-motion animation in her own work), chose pieces that explore the possibilities of stop-motion processes. The animators breathe life into magazine cutouts, homemade drawings, everyday objects, and even the body itself. The result is a selection of videos that are humorous, poignant, and marvelous.
Selected videos in the Stop & Go screening include The Manipulators by Clare Rojas and Andrew Jeffrey Wright who alter and collage images from fashion magazines to create an entirely different story. Intricate paper-cutout circles by sculptor Jen Stark become a series of regurgitating rainbows and mysterious organic structures in Papermation. Quilt-maker Sherri Wood and animator Ignacio Alcantara collaborate on Sewing for Jesus as they animate the making of a quilt that honors the missing American and Iraqi citizens who have died in the Iraq War. Young students from the Croatian animators workshop SAF Cakovec Studio create a darkly funny animation of two characters and their mishaps in We’ve All Fallen From Mars.
The international program includes Ignacio Alcantara, Eddie Alonso, Tommy Becker, Lilli Carré, Pete Davies, Samara Halperin, Meredith Holch, Sean Horchy, Stephanie Hutin, Andrew Kelleher, Lana Kim, Sarah Klein, Mike Leavitt, Michael McHam, Laurie O’Brian, Saelee Oh, Mel Prest, Clare Rojas, Judith Selby, SAF Cakovec Studio, Jen Stark, Melinda Stone, Claudia Tennyson, Philippe Vendrolini, Sherri Wood, Aeneas Wilder, and Andrew Jeffery Wright.
Sarah Klein has exhibited her work widely in galleries and museums, on television, and in film festivals. In 1999, she earned a Masters of Fine Arts degree from Mills College in Oakland, California. Stop & Go was Sarah Klein’s first curatorial project. It premiered at the Electric Works Gallery in San Francisco in 2008. It has since traveled to Electric Works Gallery, San Francisco, CA; Bemis Center for Contemporary Art, Omaha, NE; LA Filmforum at Echo Park Film Center, Los Angeles CA; Hallwalls, Buffalo, NY; Downtown Special Events, Las Vegas, NV; Exploratorium, San Francisco, CA; and the Jack Straw Foundation, Seattle, WA.
Klein’s many awards and honors include residencies at the International Animated Film School, Cakovec, Croatia; Djerassi Resident Artist Program, Woodside, California; McColl Center for Visual Art, Charlotte, North Carolina; and Bemis Center for Contemporary Art, Omaha, Nebraska.
threewalls is dedicated to increasing Chicago’s cultural capital by cultivating contemporary art practice and discourse, and by creating a locus of exchange between local, national and international contemporary art communities through a range of programs.
February 24, 2010
posted by Caroline Picard
A few nights ago I had the pleasure of going to see Doug Aitken speak at the Art Institute. Over the course of his talk he went through the development of his practice, starting with his latest film, a story about an old man who’s’ sense of reality unravels. I made a little video of the beginning of his lecture (as a selfish pasttime, I’ve been really into filming performances in this way–where the image is predominantly dark and impossible to see).
I found myself thinking most about the artist as monument maker. Aitken has made four-story kaleidascopes with mirrors set overtop at fourty-five degree angles which follow the sun. The interior mirrors reflect an ever-changing abstract of the city inverted. He has also designed buildings sheathed in televesion screens which feature video of the ground that existed before the building’s construction. It makes the building itself look invisible, and Aitken seemed to feel, was a way to create land art without devastating land it incorporated. It reminded me of a walk I took with a friend who told me that other militarists had devised “invisible cloaks,” shields one could wear which reflected its surroundings digitally, like a chameleon–they almost worked perfectly (according to this friend, whom I realize is not the most reliable source). We of course made endless jokes about D&D folks who’d have a field day, eventually realizing how a) cool a cloak of invisibility would be and b) dangerous. Seeing Aitken’s buildings, I remembered that cloak. I suppose because some of his sonic installations use technology divined by militarists.
His work is stunning, giant, the film quality is comparable to big budget films with lush colors and sexy cuts. The whimsy and, even, idealist arc compound the sense of effortlessness in the work. And yet, all of those elements combine to leave me relatively suspicious, uneasy. Like underneath benign exterior there is something threatening.
I think it’s because the work occupies such a large scale–there is something aggressive about its seduction. It smells like money–these things could not be produced without it. The famous people he uses in his films–Keiffer Sutherland, Cat Power, Tilda Swinton–they themselves are emblematic of a lifestyle, one which, by Aitken’s use of them, Aitken himself seems to have graduated into.
His work fulfills our expectations of famous art-making, giant, flashy, well-traveled, dumb sometimes, sometimes really awesome. Isn’t that just a crazy waste of money? These objects cost a fortune, whether the high-end production of a film with movie stars in it, or a giant building projecting the images of his work. It’s big budget Hollywood art, one requiring a staff and airplanes and laborers.
In contrast, it’s interesting to consider Francis Alys who seems to place himself in an entirely other context. Again, perhaps like Coppola, Aitken simply suffers from an inborn American-ism–one invested in larger gestures. Meanwhile, Alys lives in Mexico city, cultivating his own persona (accidentally or otherwise) on a small scale, walking through a city with magnets, pushing a block of ice, chasing small tornados.
There is something more subversive and captivating about Alys’ work. In a world where everyone is clamoring to get attention, building taller and taller skyscrapers all the time trying to make more and more and more money to accomplish more and more, to leave a deeper mark on the surface of history, Alys seems quiet, like a spider, building a very small web.
February 23, 2010
What follows is an incredible article about a book “Who Will Write Our History?” by Samuel D. Kassow. This article was originally published in The New Republic.
‘What We Know About Murdered Peoples’
Peter N. Miller, The New Republic
Published: Wednesday, April 09, 2008
Who Will Write Our History? Emanuel Ringelblum, the Warsaw Ghetto, and the Oyneg Shabes Archive
By Samuel D. Kassow
(Indiana University Press, 523 pp., $34.95)
This may well be the most important book about history that anyone will ever read. It is also a very important book of history, telling the story of an extraordinary research project in the Warsaw Ghetto between 1940 and 1943. As a tale about why doing history matters, Samuel D. Kassow’s book has few equals in our collective record. Marc Bloch, arrested by Klaus Barbie’s henchmen and executed in 1944, has become the martyrsaint of modern history, and his book The Historian’s Craft, left incomplete and published posthumously, has emerged as our time’s classic work on the meaning of doing history. Now, with the publication of Who Will Write Our History?, Marc Bloch will have to share his great and dark honor with Emanuel Ringelblum. Like Bloch, Ringelblum is a hero of history and a hero of historiography.
In 1940, Warsaw had a population of around 1.2 million people, its Jewish population swollen to almost one-third of that number by forced immigration. In the autumn of that year, the Jews of Warsaw were walled into a 3.5-square-mile area of buildings–30 percent of the city’s population less than 3 percent of its space–where, in the next year and a half, 83,000 proceeded to die from hunger. In the summer of 1942, 300,000 Jews were taken away for murder, mostly at Treblinka. In April and May, 1943, the remaining Jews, perhaps 60,000 were killed, or captured and deported, in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, during which the Germans leveled that part of the city.
To contemplate, to plan, and to carry out an elaborate project of scholarly self-study under such conditions is almost unimaginable. But even had it not been undertaken in one of the deepest circles of hell, the Oyneg Shabes project would still be astonishing for the sophistication of its approach to the questions that interested the best historians of the 1920s and 1930s. As their own history was coming to an end, these historians were breaking new historical ground. And if the contents, or even just the contours, of their work had been known, the shape of historical research in the second half of the twentieth century might have been different.
But almost no one knows about the Oyneg Shabes Archive. The reasons are many. It was written in Yiddish and Polish. It was buried in tin boxes and milk cans under the ghetto’s buildings in 1942 and 1943. And after it was excavated from beneath the rubble, in 1946 and in 1950, the surviving 35,000 pages of documents were locked away in the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw. Only recently has a substantial restoration project been undertaken. A complete catalogue still does not exist. There are few translations (and existing ones are of poor quality). Only a handful of scholars have worked on the material, and its popular echoes are dim. Kassow, a historian of imperial Russia with a Yiddishist’s sixth sense for the cultural landscape of interwar Poland, is the first to give a picture of the whole project, and of its amazing chief protagonist. For all these reasons, this book–itself an act of historical rescue–is a work of tremendous significance.
And yet, had it not been for a most malign fate, Emanuel Ringelblum would probably be unknown today. He was born in 1900 in the eastern Galician town of Buczacz, the same town memorialized by his landsmann S.Y. Agnon (and whose more recent fate has been studied by Omer Bartov in his book Erased). Ringelblum went to Warsaw, taught in school, took a doctorate in history, and became active in socialist Jewish politics, serving as editor of a variety of journals. His pre-war life reflected the tumultuous times. Yiddish, Bundist, Zionist, anti-Zionist, Polish cultural and religious politics: they all roiled away through the pre-war decades. But Ringelblum’s intellectual path also cut across many important themes of modern historical–and modern Jewish historical– scholarship, such as the rise of folklore studies in Eastern Europe and the opening to economic and social history. In this, one could say that Ringelblum followed the path first sketched out by the great Jewish historian and thinker Simon Dubnow and later elaborated by Isaac (Ignacy) Schiper (1884-1943), a pioneering scholar of medieval Jewish economic history. In those years, an ethnographic and economic horizon jointly opened onto the world not of the “Sabbath Jew” but of the “Everyday Jew.” And this Jew spoke Yiddish. The “Task of Yiddish Philology,” as it was formulated before World War I, was to hitch the study of Yiddish literature–of great writers such as Mendele Mocher Seforim and I.L. Peretz–to the folklorists’ and ethnographers’ study of Yiddish life. This call to rediscover and to explore the uncharted world of the Yiddish universe was no different from the fifteenth-century Italian humanist’s call to explore the universe of ancient Latin literature. He, too, started with the text and followed its unraveling skein deeper and deeper into the recesses of a lost world–along the way encountering and explaining costume, religion, law, sport, music, food, calendars, sexual practices, work, buildings, technology, and so on. A Yiddish philology, like classical philology, would reconstruct the worlds of books. But unlike classical philology, the worlds of the Yiddish philologist still survived–until 1939.
When the Yiddish Scientific Institute, or YIVO, was founded in 1925, its goal was to recover this world. And it succeeded. Questionnaires about the way everyday life was lived were sent out, and back flowed the answers. Ringelblum absorbed both the message and the method of YIVO–its emphasis on philology, economics, folklore, history–and celebrated it in a series of articles written while he was still a student. As much as anything, Ringelblum’s Marxism– he was a member of the Left Poalei Zion (LPZ), a Zionist group for which the road to Tel Aviv passed through Moscow but nevertheless remained committed to cultural education in the Polish diaspora–amounted to a scholar’s commitment to blast away the old hierarchies of theme, evidence, and audience. Marxism legitimated the demolition job, but it did not really provide, or guide, the content. This was an eclectic Marxism not much different in function from the Marxism of Walter Benjamin–a method of historical imagination, and a stumbling block for the orthodox.
Ringelblum’s doctoral dissertation on the medieval and early modern Jews of Warsaw was published in 1932. True to the message of Yiddish philology and YIVO, he brought a whole new cast of characters into Jewish history: tavern keepers and pickpockets, beggars and vagabonds, wandering jesters and thieves. But Ringelblum was also committed to studying the monuments of Jewish Warsaw and the physical space in which Jewish history was lived. If this all sounds like Ringelblum was as much a Warsaw representative of the Paris-based Annales d’histoire économique as of the Vilna-based YIVO, it might be because his promotor, Marceli Handelsman, actually was in sympathy with the early Annales School. Handelsman was a social historian, but he wrote extensively about historical methodology and source criticism–and these “auxiliary sciences,” derived in the eighteenth century from earlier antiquarian practice, provided an alternate path to the study of social and economic reality.
Much of Ringelblum’s historical writing was “descriptive,” paraphrasing and summarizing court documents. Some professional scholars, reflecting the centuries’-old division between antiquaries who collected, described, and compared, and historians who spun smooth-surfaced narratives, mocked Ringelblum for this “descriptiveness.” But the winds of change were behind Ringelblum. The future, though his critics might not have realized it, would belong to the describers. Folklorists, anthropologists, sociologists, geographers, and social historians would rule the social sciences in the second half of the twentieth century, even if this future would not belong to him.
Emanuel Ringelblum took his vision of an ethnographically informed social history with him into the Warsaw Ghetto. What emerged from the ground, nearly a decade later, was this amazing record of an extraordinary research project, the Oyneg Shabes Archive. The first cache of documents, buried probably on August 3, 1942, contained 25,540 pages of material. The second, buried in February 1943, held 9,829 pages, all from the period August 1942-February 1943. For four years the first cache lay in the ground, where water penetrated the ten tin boxes and a fungal bloom ruined many documents and photographs. The second archive emerged from its seven years’ inhumation in relatively better condition, because its aluminum milk cans were more watertight.
What was the Oyneg Shabes project? In the first instance, it was people. About fifty or sixty of them, to be precise, nearly all intellectuals. Before the war they had been professors, journalists, writers, poets. In the ghetto, they participated in Ringelblum’s project from their particular vantage points, documenting house committees, soup kitchens, or postal routes, so as to interview, study, analyze, and record daily life in that purgatory. Their essays were then copied over by a second group of collaborators. There was a third group, the executive committee, that provided funding–typically, well-to- do Jews whose surviving wealth was spent on everything from pen and ink to the medicines needed to keep valuable contributors alive. Ringelblum also took advantage of his position in the Jewish self-help umbrella organization in the Warsaw Ghetto. The soup kitchens run by the Aleynhilf fed his writers.
It was called Oyneg Shabes, or Sabbath Joy, because its board met on Saturday afternoons. But its content was secret. Besides Ringelblum and his closest secretaries, no one had contact with the three people whose task was to store and, on the appropriate signal, to bury the archive. They lived entirely cut off from the collective project, so that if the ring were broken they would not be compromised. Revolutionary organizations had used a cellular structure of this sort to protect the lives of killers; here it was adopted to protect documents from the killers. Not lives, but documents: everyone in Oyneg Shabes, at least by the autumn of 1942, knew what their fate would be. (Only three survived the war, including one who knew the location of the hiding place.)
Most importantly, perhaps, the Oyneg Shabes group was a collective–the first real “History Workshop.” (It was the Oyneg Shabes project that, in a head- spinning irony, created the history of everyday life, Alltagsgeschichte, which German left-wing historians later re-invented in order to grasp better the enormity of the German slaughter of the Jews.) In Ringelblum’s archive, a scholarly instrument and a social ideal merged. The ambitions of all those pre- war ethnographic projects now seemed to offer the only way in which the story of the Warsaw Ghetto could be adequately told. Collecting, comparing, and describing also offered the Jews an ideal of survival–individual and collective–to which they could cling amid the shipwreck of Polish Jewry.
But as much as it was a collective, posterity has committed no error in calling it the “Ringelblum Archive.” For he led the executive committee, and shaped the research projects, and enlisted the writers, and managed the stages of the process, and oversaw the whole. Soon after the ghetto was walled off, in November 1940, Ringelblum launched the enterprise, recognizing that this was a historically unique moment. At this early stage, one could still have imagined that there would be a “post-war” Jewish world in Poland that would have to take stock of this unprecedented reality. And so the methodological goals of the Oyneg Shabes group were to collect evidence and to study Jewish society, gathering individual testimony, documenting German crimes, and, later, alerting the outside world to the mass murder being perpetrated. It was, in short, about truth. As Ringelblum later wrote: “To ensure objectivity, to achieve as accurate and comprehensive a picture as possible of the War events in Jewish life, we tried to have the same incident described by as many people as possible. By comparing various accounts, the historian is able to arrive at the historical truth, the actual course of the event.”
The archive commissioned essays and collected ephemera, knowing that one day it would be precious documentation of a world as strange and distant as deepest antiquity. We find samples from the underground press, documents, drawings, candy wrappers, tram tickets, ration cards, theater posters, invitations to concerts and lectures. The archive preserves copies of complex doorbell codes for apartments housing dozens of tenants, and also restaurant menus advertising roast goose and fine wines. There were hundreds of postcards from Jews in the provinces about to be deported into the unknown, and there was the ghetto poetry of Wadysaw Szlengel and Yitzhak Katznelson. There is the entire script of a popular ghetto comedy called “Love Looks for an Apartment.” There are long essays on ghetto theaters and cafes alongside school primers and reports from orphanages. The first cache of tin boxes also contained photographs, seventy- six of which survived, showing street scenes, starving children, Jewish police, the building of the walls, smugglers throwing sacks of flour over the walls, people listening to loudspeakers in the street, and so on. Last inserted were German posters announcing the deportation–these materials would not have existed prior to July 22, and the first cache was buried thirteen days later.
In the milk cans of the second cache were placed penciled notes in shaky handwriting smuggled out of the Umschlagplatz, begging for last-minute rescue. But there was also a much higher percentage of “official” documents, both German and Jewish. The surviving Jews now collected as much as possible about Treblinka. They also documented the psychological consequences to those who survived the Great Deportation, including the world of the shops and barracks that replaced ghetto life. We find poetry of the period, as well as information on the first armed confrontation between the Jewish Fighting Organization (ZOB) and the Germans in January 1943. The remaining contributors to the Oyneg Shabes project put their “ego documents” into this second cache, including university diplomas and personal writings. It was to these milk cans that Ringelblum entrusted the entire manuscript of the history of Warsaw Jewry that he wrote during the war–still unpublished, uncited, and, so it seems, unread; and among the last documents in the second cache was Ringelblum’s essay on the Oyneg Shabes Archive itself, as well as pamphlets put out by the ZOB calling for armed resistance. The third cache, buried in April 1943 on the eve of the Uprising, probably contained more material of this sort.
In early 1942, Ringelblum, and Menakhem Linder, an economist, and Eliezer Lipe Bloch, who in the pre-war period was director of the Jewish National Fund in Poland, re-conceptualized the work of the archive under the rubric of “Two and a Half Years”–a history of the ghetto, and a history unlike any history written in Europe at the time. As Ringelblum formulated it, the project “will describe the inner life of Jewish society in the Warsaw Ghetto…. Two and a half years of war have produced as many changes for European Jewry as previous generations might have experienced in decades.” He and his colleagues compiled comprehensive questionnaires, conducted interviews, and organized essay contests, all designed to yield a picture of the economic, cultural, and communal life within the walls. Ringelblum was in charge of the cultural history, Linder of the economic history, and Bloch of the communal history (which was devoted to the documentation of Jewish mutual aid). The whole was slated for 1,600 printed pages. The weekly meetings of the Oyneg Shabes board worked out the theses and the guidelines to be pursued.
Economic questions were approached as windows onto cultural history. The commissioned essays include “New Trades in Wartime,” “On Jewish Barbers,” and “Processes of the Adaptation of the Jewish Artisan to Wartime Conditions,” as well as an anonymous study of the wealthy Jewish brushmaking entrepreneurs Weitz and Krygier. Eliyahu Gutkowski wrote on price changes in foodstuffs and various basic commodities. There were studies of ghetto exports, of the Transferstelle (where goods officially entered and exited the ghetto), and of the trade in used articles, and of the gigantic flea markets that emerged to satisfy unmet material needs. There were also essays on “Jewish Economic Life in Poland During the War and Occupation,” on the black market in foreign currency, and on smuggling.
The discussion of smuggling was paradigmatic. It began with the question of how Jews in the ghetto did not starve to death. German rations for the more or less 400,000 Jews in the ghetto amounted to approximately 180 calories per day per person. For the Jews to survive, the ghetto had to buy food illegally. From legal means, the ghetto took in 1.8 million zlotys’ worth of food each month, but in order to buy enough food for the community it had to spend another 70 to 80 million zlotys per month. Where did all this money come from? The answer, as was obvious, was smuggling. Less obvious, however, but entirely in keeping with Ringelblum’s wider historical vision, was that it took two parties to smuggle: Jews inside the walls, Poles outside the walls. And so he concluded that the survival of the ghetto constituted a high point of hundreds of years of Polish- Jewish relations. After the war, he wrote a monument to “the unknown smuggler” would not be out of place in Warsaw.
Another projected area of study was the shtetl–Jewish town and village life. This line of inquiry was launched when it became clear that Jewish towns and villages were being eradicated. Unlike the Yizker bikhr, the memorial books that were published after the war, which recalled villages through the memories of their survivors, the accounts in Ringelblum’s archive were collected in real time from deportees who had found their way to Warsaw, with a recognition that only writing now stood between centuries of Jewish life and oblivion. These accounts were full of information on deportation, torture, and murder.
Again, a normal response to the encircling reality would surely have been utter despair. But Ringelblum the historian thought in terms of change. Thus, as a part of “Two and a Half Years,” the Oyneg Shabes group launched a new survey on the future of the Jews. In the Warsaw Ghetto! The researchers approached fifty Jews from different backgrounds and asked them what they thought the future would bring. Names of thirty-one of them have survived in the archive, and nine of the interviews were preserved intact in the first cache. These responses represented a cross-section of Warsaw Jewish intelligentsia.
The plan to document the lives of children in the ghetto was among the most painful. It was also left radically incomplete, since the Great Deportation of July-September 1942 removed 99 percent of the children. (Of 51,458 children in the ghetto, only 498 remained.) Indeed, the entire project almost collapsed under the weight of the Great Deportation. Though Ringelblum used every resource at his disposal to shelter his collaborators and to bribe the Jewish policemen who carried out much of the work, his ranks were decimated. And those who were left had to face life without their wives or children.
Even in the midst of this devastation, however, Ringelblum kept thinking about how to study the changing present so as to benefit the future. Statistics were key. One of the Oyneg Shabes contributors, Gustawa Jarecka, explained that “statistics and official proclamations are the fundamental documents of the [Great Deportation]. Written accounts can only provide some additional details about events and specific incidents. But basically nothing is more expressive than statistics!” It was one of the truly remarkable accomplishments of the archive that the commitment to the authority of numbers never degenerated into the tyranny of numbers. In the Oyneg Shabes Archive, the individual remains intact and central, unobscured and unvarnished. This is a record of human beings, with human voices, in an inhuman existence. There are many essays in the archive written by parents memorializing their dead children. What on this earth could be more personal than that?
This perhaps explains the singular importance of poetry in the archive: it is the most individuated form of memory, and thus the essential complement to the project’s social-scientific perspective. Ringelblum seems already to have understood what Arnaldo Momigliano later posited as a rule for the study of ancient history: read poetry. It was the only way to understand how people in the past actually felt. Wadysaw Szlengel, in a poem called “Pomnik,” or “The Monument,” invokes Pindar and other classical poets of remembrance when he sings of the Jewish mother and wife taken “just as she was,/standing near the kitchen stove,” leaving a hole in space where once there had been life.
For heroes–poems and rhapsodies!!!
For heroes–the homage of posterity,
Their names etched in the plinths,
for them a monument of marble.
But who will tell you, the people of
Not about bronze or mythic tales
But that they took her–killed her,
That she is no more.
The Oyneg Shabes project was completed at the beginning of April 1943, when the final trove of materials was buried. When the Uprising broke out on April 19, Ringelblum was captured and sent to the Trawniki labor camp. He was there until August 1943, when he was smuggled out by the Jewish-Polish underground, brought back to Warsaw, and sent into hiding on the Aryan side. There, in a bunker seven meters long by five meters wide that he shared with thirty-nine other Jews, including his wife and son, Ringelblum completed four major works: a detailed study of the Trawniki camp, perhaps the first study ever made of the concentrationary universe; a report on Jewish armed resistance; a treatment of the Jewish intelligentsia; and a survey of Polish-Jewish relations during World War II. The first two were lost, the latter two survived. Ringelblum himself did not. The bunker was eventually betrayed, and its occupants were taken away. In prison his fellow inmates again sought to save him, but he refused to abandon his boy, and soon afterward he was executed.
In the ghetto, the archive was not the only thing buried in the earth. But only the archive rose up from it. Biondo Flavio’s fifteenth-century words describing the fragmentary survival of the ancient world, later repeated by Francis Bacon, come to mind when contemplating what has come down to us from Ringelblum’s world: “like planks from a shipwreck.”
Aura confers authority. The conditions under which books are produced add to their force. Thanks to Samuel Kassow, the Oyneg Shabes Archive is now restored to history. But this is also a story about historiography. Marc Bloch’s The Historian’s Craft is a wonderful book, but knowing that its author was martyred in mid-sentence changes the way we read it. The same could be said of Emanuel Ringelblum and his archive. And reading it in this light we may discern precepts for doing history, for understanding the “historian’s craft,” as compelling as its narrative of life in the Warsaw Ghetto. Here are what we might call Ringelblum’s Rules:
1. Seriousness of purpose is crucial.
“‘When a Jewish sofer [scribe] sets out to copy the Torah, he must, according to religious law, take a ritual bath in order to purify himself of all uncleanliness and impurity. This scribe takes up his pen with a trembling heart, because the smallest mistake in transcription means the destruction of the whole work. It is with this feeling of fearfulness that I have begun this work with the above title. I am writing it in a hideout on the Aryan side. I am indebted to the Poles for having saved my life twice during this war…. It is my wish to write objectively, sine ira et studio, of the problem of Polish- Jewish relations during the present war.” (Ringelblum, Polish-Jewish Relations during the Second World War)
2. Words are powerful.
“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–an instrument of communication between people.” (Gustawa Jarecka, “The Last Stage of Resettlement Is Death,” late 1942)
3. Facts matter.
“Facts!” (Anonymous, scrawled in the margin of a questionnaire being prepared on the subject of German-Jewish relations in the ghetto)
“Two and a Half Years … which goals? A photograph of life. Not literature but science.” (Ringelblum, note deposited in the Archive, late 1942)
“I consider it a sacred duty for everyone, whether proficient or not, to write down everything he has seen or heard from others about what the Germans have done…. It must all be recorded without a single fact left out.” (Menakhem Mendel Kon, diary, Autumn 1942)
“The mass murder, the murder of millions of Jews by the Germans, is a fact that speaks for itself. It is very dangerous to add to this subject interpretations or analyses. Anything that is said can quickly turn into hopeless hysteria or endless sobs. So one must approach this subject with the greatest caution, in a restrained and factual manner … this had been my intention: not to express but to transmit, to note only facts but not to interpret.” (Rachel Auerbach, writing of the ghetto on the Aryan side, 1944)
4. Nothing is unimportant.
“Collect as much as possible. They can sort it out after the war.” (Ringelblum to Hersh Wasser, recorded by Wasser)
“Comprehensiveness was the main principle of our work.” (Ringelblum, “O.S.” [Oyneg Shabes], late December 1942)
“Given the daunting complexity of social processes, where everything is interdependent, it would make no sense to see ourselves in isolation…. We have to regard ourselves as participants in a universal attempt to construct a solid structure of objective documentation…. Let us hope that the bricks and cement of our experience and our understanding will be able to provide a foundation.” (Ringelblum to Hersh Wasser, recorded by Wasser)
5. Understanding the past is an inter-generational project.
“The record must be hurled like a stone under history’s wheel in order to stop it…. One can lose all hopes except the one–that the suffering and destruction of this war will make sense when they are looked at from a distant, historical perspective.” (Jarecka, “The Last Stage of Resettlement Is Death,” late 1942)
“Everything depends on who transmits our testament to future generations, on who writes the history of this period. History is usually written by the victor. What we know about murdered peoples is only what their murderers vaingloriously cared to say about them. Should our murderers be victorious, should they write the history of this war, our destruction will be presented as one of the most beautiful pages of world history…. Or they may wipe out our memory altogether, as if we had never existed, as if there had never been a Polish Jewry, a ghetto in Warsaw, a Majdanek. Not even a dog will howl for us. But if we write the history of this period of blood and tears–and I firmly believe we will–who will believe us? Nobody will want to believe us, because our disaster is the disaster of the entire civilized world.” (Isaac Schiper to an unnamed prisoner, in Majdanek, summer 1943)
6. All collectivities are made up of individuals, and every individual is a world.
“I don’t want to leave behind only statistics. Through my poems, sketches, and writings I want to enrich (a bad word, I know) the historical record that will be written in the future.” (Wadysaw Szlengel, “What I Read to the Dead,” January 1943)
“The experience of every Jew–and every Jew during the present War is a world in himself.” (Ringelblum, “O.S.,” late December 1942)
In the Warsaw Ghetto, and elsewhere across Europe, thousands of individual Jews put pen to paper, often amid panic and terror, to record details of their existence for readers in the future that they still believed in. The Oyneg Shabes Archive is a collection of such individual voices. It will stand as the outstanding twentieth-century rebuttal to impersonal forms of social science. Fernand Braudel’s The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II is often described as the greatest work of twentieth-century history, but its eponymous hero is a subject for the historian on only the second to last of its more than 1,200 pages. Braudel’s social history is the sort that is uneasy with human beings. But after Kassow’s truly unforgettable book, can we ever again accept that understanding “the daunting complexity of social processes,” as Ringelblum puts it, requires an indifference to the individual?
In 1944, while Ringelblum was completing his great work in a bunker, Braudel was completing his masterpiece in a German POW camp. In the half-century that followed, Braudel and his vision of social-science history triumphed. During those long years, Ringelblum’s archive lay in the ground, or in restoration baths, or in closed cupboards, waiting, waiting, waiting. But what if Braudel had been killed and Ringelblum had survived? What would the practice of history have looked like these past decades? This possible past may only now be beginning. The age of Braudel’s Annales School is long over. But the more we know of the Oyneg Shabes Archive, the more apparent it is that social history without a human face can never be practiced again.
The Oyneg Shabes project was driven by an acute tension between the imperative of national survival and the individual will to memory. But unlike the pursuit of individual glory, or of selfimmolation in the whole, the members of the Oyneg Shabes Archive understood that their posthumous survival as individuals depended upon their practice of painstaking scholarly research. Though each was only a brick in the wall, if the wall would stand others might come and study the physiognomy of each and every brick. And then they would live again.
On August 3, 1942, with the Germans only a block away from the building at 68 Nowolipki Street, under which he was to bury the first cache of the archive, Israel Lichtenstein hurriedly deposited his testament–and in that instant gained his eternity. “I do not ask for any thanks, for any memorial, for any praise. I only wish to be remembered…. I wish my wife to be remembered, Gele Sekstein…. I wish my little daughter to be remembered. Margalit is 20 months old today…. She too deserves to be remembered.” Working with him were two teenagers, David Graber and Nahum Grzywacz. They, too, left little reminders of themselves in the archive that they were burying. Grzywacz was eighteen years old, and when he heard that the Germans had blockaded his parents’ building, he wrote, “I am going to run to my parents and see if they are all right. I don’t know what’s going to happen to me. Remember, my name is Nahum Grzywacz.” The emphasis is in the original.
Peter N. Miller is a professor and the chair of academic programs at the Bard Graduate Center in New York.
February 22, 2010
posted by Caroline Picard
February 22, 2010
posted by Caroline Picard
I ended up looking at a space last Friday. It looks like it would be a great fit. This will be the fourth attempt to secure a location. Fingers crossed, it will all turn out for the best. What is perhaps most interesting about this process is recognizing how each option creates a variation on the vision, the physical parameters, as well as the projected annual fees create small changes in the administrative organization of the project. Because it’s the fourth space I’ve looked at and tried to commit to, I don’t have the same childish giddy that came about upon seeing the first in the West Loop. I think instead it’s like a kid promised a pony on Christmas. The child imagines the pony he goes to see the next day will be the one. After being tossed off on four separate occasions, the child is perhaps more shrewd. In other words, I’ll see how it goes. In the meantime the process of looking necessarily develops the concept each time, which is maybe why it is an encouraging process.
This used to be a real estate office, so there are a number of interior cubicles, most of which I imagine I’d tear out. That said, I think it might be interesting to keep a “conference room” what could be used for both administrative meetings (of the green lantern group, artists, writers, reading groups, or office mates).
February 21, 2010
posted by caroline picard
Friday, February 26, Noon – 6 pm
Saturday, February 27, Noon – 6 pm
Two days of art, books, talks, things for sale, things for free, and more!
Organized by Temporary Services in conjunction with ART WORK: A NATIONAL CONVERSATION ABOUT ART, LABOR, AND ECONOMICS • www.artandwork.us
G400 Lecture Room & Gallery 400 at the Art & Design Hall, University of Illnois, Chicago
400 S. Peoria St (at Van Buren)
www.gallery400.aa.uic.edu • 312-996-6114
AREA Chicago areachicago.org
Bad At Sports badatsports.com
CAFF “Find us in the real world motherfuckers!”
Gallery 400 gallery400.aa.uic.edu
Esteban Garcia snebtor.chiguiro.org
Golden Age shopgoldenage.com
Green Lantern Press press.thegreenlantern.org
Half Letter Press halfletterpress.com
Terence Hannum terencehannum.com
Harold Arts haroldarts.org
Imperfect Articles imperfectarticles.com
Clifton Meador & guests cliftonmeador.com
No Coast no-coast.org
Onsmith Dog Stew & Monkey Nudd Wine
Pros Arts Studio prosarts.org
Proximity Magazine proximitymagazine.com
Radah & Team
Spudnik Press spudnikpress.com
Bert Stabler bertstabler.com