RAD Book Club review: Who will write our history?

29 May 2019

For our eighth meeting this season RAD Book Club read Who will write our history: rediscovering a hidden archive from the Warsaw ghetto by German-born American historian Samuel D. Kassow (born 1946).

In this historical work, first published in 2007, and recently turned into a documentary film directed by Roberta Grossman and produced by Nancy Spielberg, Kassow explores the importance of archiving human experience and recording history. Kassow focuses on the Oyneg Shabes Archive of the Warsaw ghetto collected during World War II and organised by historian Emanuel Ringelblum. The book is an intellectual history of Ringelblum and his collaborators as well as a cultural history of life in the ghetto. Seven of us took part in a conversation about memory, resilience and the will to survive.

Opinions about this book were unanimous. We enjoyed reading about the archives themselves the most and appreciated the facsimiles of original documents provided. We were quite fascinated by how the archives were commissioned, collected and preserved. But most of all we were very moved by the fortitude, resilience and determination which Ringelblum and the staff of the Oyneg Shabes Archives showed in carrying out the task of commissioning, writing, researching, compiling, translated and/or transcribing documents in face of the terrible events and experiences occurring around them. Many of us were keen to read about the life experiences of those living in the ghetto, especially to hear them in their own voices. We felt moved and affected by them.

The critical apparatus of the book is very detailed and thorough: the author’s intimate knowledge of the subject matter is evident throughout the book. We found the style and tone of the narrative profoundly moving and effective as it managed to provide a wealth of data about an incredible variety of issues. We also liked that the book narrated history from a very balanced perspective, showing the different dimensions of all the groups and organisations involved in life in and outside the ghetto, thus exploring the complex interactions between different communities and their ideas, aspirations and contradictions.

The downside of this was that all of us found the book hard to follow at times. The fact that the book is printed in a small font also made it a bit difficult to tackle. The book seemed somehow dry, particularly in its first few chapters. We thought some supplementary materials, life genealogical tables, glossaries of terms, or appendix of names with short biographies might have helped the navigation of a quite dense topic and to better understand the interactions between the different individuals mentioned in the book.

A few also found the book to not be quite what they were expecting: the book constitutes largely an intellectual biography of Ringelblum and his role in the creation and organisation of the Oyneg Shabes Archives in the events leading up to the World War II and the fate of the Warsaw ghetto, whereas we were expecting the focus to be more of the actual documents and on the people who created them. This was achieved more in the second part of the book and most people found this half much more enjoyable.

As a group we gave it a score of 6.5 out of 10.

Next meeting

Book Club will meet again on Tuesday 18 June 2019 at the usual time of 1-2 in the Library to discuss the novel The Travelling Cat Chronicles by Japanese author Hiro Arikawa, a road trip around Japan’s changing seasons and a history of solitude and friendship.


Visit out RAD Book Club archive page to read past reviews.