The discipline and determination are half-brilliant, half-mad: In 1940, in Warsaw, the Polish-Jewish historian Emanuel Ringelblum decided that the entire experience of Jewry under Nazi rule should be thoroughly documented. The internment of Jews within the Warsaw ghetto, he wrote (with chilly irony), "provided even greater opportunity for development of the archive."
A competition was established to select writers, teachers and intellectuals; they would study topics like community life, education, crime, youth, art and religion, while helping to smuggle information into the ghetto. Comprehensiveness and objectivity were meant to eclipse surrounding horrors, documenting them for the future. The secret project was called, in heavily sardonic code, Oyneg Shabbes, using the Yiddish words for a celebration welcoming the Sabbath.
"To our great regret, however, only part of the plan was carried out," Ringelblum writes, explaining with hyperbolic understatement: "We lacked the necessary tranquility for a plan of such scope and volume." Writers were executed; some were exiled for slave labor; and, in 1942, hundreds of thousands of ghetto residents were deported to death camps. Before the ghetto was consumed in the final conflagrations of an armed rebellion, Ringelblum's archive was buried in tin boxes and milk cans that were only partly rediscovered after the war.
This epic is briefly alluded to in the exhibition Daring to Resist: Jewish Defiance in the Holocaust, opening Monday at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in association with the Ghetto Fighters' House in Israel. Ringelblum is mentioned here, and facsimiles of the buried documents (now housed in Warsaw) are shown, but they are primarily demonstrating that in extreme times resistance to tyranny takes many forms. One is the enterprise of Oyneg Shabbes: documentation.
Other forms of resistance are reflected in objects that in ordinary times have no distinctiveness: a ritual slaughterer's knife used at great risk to butcher kosher chickens in Denmark so they could be smuggled into Germany in the 1930s; a blue-and-white wrestling sash from 1934 awarded to Jewish contestants no longer permitted to compete with their fellow Germans; a girl's 1938 report card from a school founded by Jews in Berlin after Jewish children were banned from public schools.
And reflecting later years are artifacts from even darker times, including false documents used by Jewish women who were couriers secretly bearing information from beyond the walls of ghettos and camps.
Also on view are a violin, a stage set, school notebooks: all relics of a resilient Jewish life nurtured at the brink of extinction. ("When the children will come out of the cage," one survivor recalls being told, "they should be able to fly.")
There is even a pillowcase given to a Lithuanian woman by Rivka Gotz, who defied the Nazi ban on Jewish childbirth and smuggled her newborn son, Ben, out of the Shavli ghetto in a suitcase, placing him under the woman's secret care. The pillowcase now comes from Ben Gotz's collection.
Such is the evidence of resistance of one kind or another: creating institutions in the face of oppression; following religious observances that were the object of Nazi repugnance; continuing cultural life with defiant pride; risking life to bring new life into being. It is not until late in the exhibition that visitors see the first guns used by Jewish partisans or can read the first accounts of their sabotage as they darted from forests like gnats in the face of the German war machine.