More than 2,000 survivors attended the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s daylong program of Holocaust-related films and workshops at the New York Hilton on March 3. I was moved by actor Marc Spiegel’s one-man dramatization of the secret operation named Oneg Shabbat (Hebrew for Joy of Sabbath), a project undertaken by the historian Emanuel Ringelblum in the Warsaw ghetto. In a dark suit and white shirt, Spiegel channeled Ringelblum, telling the story of how he enlisted a cadre of students, teachers, rabbis and historians to begin collecting documents from inside the ghetto such as diaries, letters, bills of sale, plays, posters, theater programs and testimonials, including, as Spiegel highlighted, “those from smugglers who brought food into the ghetto.”
Spiegel, who is known for his impersonation of Albert Einstein, came down from the stage and handed random audience member copies of the documents, asking each of them to read them aloud. One woman called out, “I was in the Warsaw ghetto and survived after!” Racing back on stage, Spiegel read excerpts from Ringelblum’s diary: “Our children are in many ways our heroes. It is important that we collect their voices for our archives.” Spiegel then read a child’s entry: “When there will be peace in the world… then we will be able to thank our teachers.”
As Ringelblum, Spiegel said that in 1942 he decided to put the archives in steel containers, milk cans, and bury them in the ground. He read: “We are beginning to suspect that the Oneg Shabbat won’t survive. … As part of my last will and testament I want no thanks… it is for the future generations.” Pacing the stage he recited: “On April 1, 1943, the night before the Passover ghetto uprising, there was an assault by Germans and Ukrainians. … Ringelblum was taken to a prison camp, rescued by the underground, returned to Warsaw and hidden in a Polish home. … On March 7, 1944 Emanuel Ringelblum was murdered, as was his wife and son.”
The presentation had special resonance for me because Ringelblum had been a friend of my parents. Before the war, Ringelblum’s son had been my classmate in first grade at the Khmurner Shul on Warsaw’s Krochmalne Street — a street referenced in books by I.B.Singer.
After the war, the ten metal boxes were found buried under 68 Nowolipki Street –not far from where my father, Matvey Berstein, had worked as a journalist at the Folkszeitung. Two milk cans were found in what had been a bunker at 34 Swieto-Jierska Street (my mother’s and my last address before we fled Warsaw). Two cans were never found.
After the presentation I asked Siegel the provenance of this dramatic one-man presentation. Refusing to take all the credit, he insisted: “You must speak with Roberta Gasbarre in Washington.” During our chat, Ms. Gasbarre, director of the Discovery Theater of the Smithsonian Institution, told me: “’Time Capsule in a Milk Can’ was created 10 years ago. In 2002 Shaari Werb, then director of education at the museum, came to me and asked that we create a theater piece to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the founding of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. We originally conceived of it as the story of Emanuel and the Milk Can Archives. We noticed that young people were fascinated by this [can], which the museum owns, and felt that when young people visited the museum it would be a good way to feel a kinship with Ringelblum. By the time they reached the end, [the collectors] knew that what they were putting into the ground were the lives of the people of Warsaw.” She paused, then said: “Among the first-person diaries from children was a last will and testament of a 19-year-old-boy who was helping to collect and bury the material.”
The 20th Anniversary National Tour and Tribute to Holocaust Survivors and World War II Veterans —which has already been to Boca Raton, Florida and Los Angeles — will land at Chicago’s Cultural Center on June 9. At the Holocaust Memorial Museum’s April 28 Tribute Dinner in Washington, D.C., President Bill Clinton — who dedicated the museum 20 years ago — will give the keynote speech and will be joined by Elie Wiesel, museum founding chairman. The Elie Wiesel Award will be presented to Susan Eisenhower, granddaughter of President Dwight D. Eisenhower.