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Word, Body, and Imagination in the Warsaw Ghetto: New Approaches to the Ringelblum Archive

Sun, December 18, 10:00 to 11:30am, Sheraton Boston Arnold Arboretum E 5th Floor

Session Submission Type: Panel Session


While researchers once used the phrase ‘Holocaust testimony’ to refer almost exclusively to victim narratives produced after the 1961 Eichmann Trial, the term now rightfully encompasses attempts to witness the Holocaust in real time. Prominent among such wartime testimonial projects is the well-known Oyneg Shabes Archive of the Warsaw Ghetto, spearheaded by the historian Emmanuel Ringelblum. To be sure, scholars such as Samuel Kassow and institutions such as the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw have done pathbreaking work in calling attention to the value of this archive. Nonetheless, given the breadth of insight, artistic experimentation, and social acumen contained in the Oyneg Shabes papers, scholars have barely begun to scratch its surface.

The aim of our panel is to foster new dialogue among scholars whose current work explores cultural and social life in the Warsaw Ghetto, asking: Which prewar cultural frameworks remained relevant in the ghetto and which became obsolete or transformed? How did embodied experiences such as extreme hunger or disease inform the way that people wrote, spoke and thought? How did internal cultural hierarchies, such as that between men and women, persist or shift within the ghetto? More than an exposition of undiscussed artifacts, we hope to amplify new methodologies that integrate interpretive as well as documentary approaches to ghetto life.

As points of entry, we will focus on matters of language, of gender and of fictional imagination. Hannah Pollin-Galay (Tel Aviv University) will ask how speech was experienced in the ghetto. Specifically, she will examine attempts to document the metamorphosis of Yiddish, asking why people in the ghetto felt compelled to testify to their sensation of words. Katarzyna Person (ZIH) will examine questions of gender in the Warsaw Ghetto, as seen through the examples of several women who worked on the Ringelblum Archive. Sven-Erik Rose (University of California, Davis) will explore Zelman Skalov’s attempt to encompass experiences of the war within the framework of a novel. His paper asks how novelistic conventions fared when confronted with the extremities of Polish Jewish experience, as well as the unusual circumstances of turning history into fiction in real time.

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