Source: San Fernando Valley Sun, 8-25-11
Polish Jews faced a cruel destiny in 1940. Nazis soldiers had crammed more than 400,000 Jewish citizens into 1.3 square miles of territory known as the Warsaw Ghetto. From there they would be taken by trains to death camps.
Left in ruin, with faltering spirits, shattered hope and deteriorating health, the people of the ghetto began collecting all kinds of information to document their history for the future. The group was called the Oneg Shabes — Joy of Sabbath group. It was organized by a history professor who was an underground leader and social worker in the ghetto named Emanuel Ringelblum.
Their work came to be known as the Ringelblum archives. They contained, among other things, underground newspapers, public notices by the Jewish council, stolen Nazi propaganda and poetry, which was all illegal to write and possess under penalty of death.
“I thought it would be very interesting to look at the Yiddish poetry,” said Sarah Moskovitz, professor emeritus at California State University, Northridge who compiled poems from the Warsaw ghetto into a new online book, “Poetry in Hell.”
“I became interested in the material and I knew it was housed in the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw. I was fortunate to learn from the historian Samuel Kassow that this poetry had recently been sent in microfiche format to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) in Washington, D.C.”
In 2001 Moskovitz applied for a grant from the Emeritus and Retired Faculty Association (ERFA), proposing to translate the poetry. She was awarded $1,500 from ERFA and invited to come to the museum as a visiting scholar with an additional grant from the museum. With the help of her husband, Irving. spent three weeks going through the relevant microfiches to make copies to translate when she returned to California. He also made unreadable microfiche copies readable.
“It’s been a 10-year endeavor,” Moskovitz said. “I not only wanted the English translations, but wanted to keep the original Yiddish language in case future scholars wanted to see the originals, which has made getting it published very difficult.”
The collection contains 153 poems, most of which was written during the Nazi occupation of the Warsaw ghetto. Some were written by professional poets, some by amateurs. Several were not written in the ghetto, but were the favorites of people living in the ghetto so they were collected with them, Moskovitz said.
Moskovitz divided the poetry into five different groups: “Nature;” “Home, Love and Life;” “Ghetto;” “Hunger and Struggle;” “Death, Protest and Mourning;” and finally, “Tradition, Faith and Legacy.”
Moskovitz starts with “Nature” because she wanted to introduce a sense of familiarity to the reader. Each section deals with particular themes. “Home, Love and Life” is people recollecting normalcy. Poems about home life, parents. “Ghetto” is life in the ghetto, which included the daily struggles and hunger the poets suffered and witnessed. “Death, Protest and Mourning” deals with loss of family, attachments people one loves through illness, death, people being taken away, dying, disappearing. “Tradition, Faith and Legacy” deals with the underground, forbidden schools that were training young people who survived to continue with tradition.
Most of the poetry was written by adult males in their 30s. About one-fifth of them are anonymous, while the others have an author attributed to them. There are six poems written by women and one written by a child.
“What piqued my interest and made it intense was my own life,” Moskovitz said. “My parents were Polish Jewish immigrants. I never met my other family that both my parents left behind in Poland, like cousins, aunts and uncles. I have one picture of an aunt Rivele with her husband and three children taken in 1938. They disappeared in the Holocaust and were never heard from again. Murdered in Treblinka? Auschwitz? Babi Yar? Even the Red Cross Tracing Service does not know. By the time I was 13 I knew that if I hadn’t grown up in the United States and my parents had stayed in Poland, I wouldn’t be alive.
“In a way, I was uncovering what could have been my past and paying homage to the families that belonged to my family. I learned a lot about history. A lot of detail and a lot of courage it takes to go into it,” she said. “I wanted to know. I was inspired by the fact that there are people who can write even while living in tragedy. I, myself, shut down during tragedy. I admire that ability and it is inspiring that some people were able to do that.”
Sarah Moskovitz taught at California State University, Northridge for 28 yearsand retired in 1997. She taught human development and even developed a course in adult development. She also taught individual counseling, group counseling and family therapy.
She did research on people who were children during the Holocaust and established the first organization that gathered them together in the Los Angeles area called Child Survivors.
“In that first group, there were only 35 people,” she said. “Now there are thousands who meet internationally. These are people who lived in Europe during the war and survived. Some survived camps. I gathered them together and wrote a book in 1981 called ‘Love Despite Hate: Child Survivors of the Holocaust and their Adult Lives.'”
Moskovitz’s current poetry collection of the Ringelblum Archive Poetry translated from Yiddish to English can be found and freely downloaded online at www.poetryinhell.org. It contains a forward and introduction by two eminent historians: Professor Samuel Kassow of Trinity College in Connecticut and Professor Michael Berenbaum at American Jewish University in Los Angeles.