In 1910, a time capsule filled with ephemera was placed in the cornerstone of the historic temple that now serves as the flagship building of the Jewish History Museum. The capsule was buried in the building as part of the inaugural set of projects, services, and celebrations that surrounded the opening of the temple in October of that year. One hundred years later, in October 2010, U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords helped remove the metal capsule during a program that marked the building’s centennial. Before removing the time capsule from the cornerstone, Giffords remarked, “As we open the cornerstone, we look to the past, but I think, more importantly, we look to the future.”
The time capsule left to us by our ancestors more than a century ago heralded the future of the building as both a site of history and a site dedicated to the preservation of history. Giffords’ remark reflects the way the Jewish History Museum activates the past as a tool that helps us understand the present and serves as a vital resource that guides us during difficult times.
Now, as we enter into a time of difficulty, the collective histories of our ancestors provide us with frameworks for how we can move through this extreme moment. As the scale of the COVID19 pandemic expands and grows closer to us, the staff at the Jewish History Museum has drawn strength and courage from ghetto histories of the Nazi era.
We are not in ghettos; however, we are experiencing another kind of isolation, another form of extremity. Jews imprisoned in Nazi ghettos were isolated from the rest of the world. Currently, we are isolated from each other.
In the past, Jewish people organized themselves in ways that can be instructive for us today. In October 1939, one month after the German invasion of Poland, the Jewish historian Emanuel Ringelblum laid the first foundations of what would become the largest organized writing project in all of Nazi-occupied Europe, now known as the Oyneg Shabes Archive. Between the fall of 1939 and spring of 1943, Ringelblum built a team of chroniclers, statisticians, ethnographers, and social scientists charged with the work of encouraging the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto to write down their daily experiences, to collect that writing, and to systematically archive it within the ghetto. This archive was buried beneath the ghetto in metal boxes while the ghetto was being destroyed. When it was unearthed after the war, the thousands of documents that were recovered included diaries, letters, last will and testaments, poems, drawings, postcards, sermons, songs, essays, various works of fiction, questionnaires, and copies of the publications of the Jewish underground press. The driving ethos of the archive was that everything had value, nothing was unimportant. Writing about Ringelblum and the archive, the scholar Samuel Kassow said, “The archive was part of the struggle for a better future.”
Following the vision and ethics of the Oyneg Shabes Archive, the Jewish History Museum has launched Raw Materials: An Archive of the Present for the Future, an archival initiative for the Jewish community of Southern Arizona. Like Ringelblum, we believe that every person’s experiences are valuable and have a place within the historical record of our time. We invite everyone who is Jewish, cares for someone who is Jewish, or feels connected to the Jewish community to share their experiences of this pandemic with the archive that we are building. Unlike the Jews in ghettos, we have innumerable tools at our disposal to help us document our experiences of this time in various media. Call our Oral History Hotline at 670-9073 and enter option #3 every week to respond to a prompt that will engage you in sharing your oral story. Send your journal entries, photos, voice memos, short videos, and more to [email protected].
Documenting the event as we experience it unfolding around us provides a perspective that cannot be provided by retrospective writing. This archive of our collective experiences connects us to our communal past, keeps us connected to each other, and provides a vital resource for future generations. Like the Oyneg Shabes, this archive can be a tool in our ongoing struggle for a more just and equitable future.
Raw Materials is an updated time capsule for the 21st century. It is open, ongoing, inclusive of many voices and, due to the constraints of social distancing, likely to be largely digital. Unlike the time capsule of 1910, this archive is initiated in a time of crisis rather than of celebration. We are replacing the metal boxes of the 20th century with the digital containers of the 21st. This archive will connect Jews across Southern Arizona to a 2,500-year lineage of rabbis, writers, and religious and secular intellectuals who have documented their encounters with disaster and created a record that bridges the chasms of history.
Archives do not save human lives. They can, however, save the materials and meanings we create with our lives, link us to our ancestors and descendants, and preserve human dignity.
Bryan Davis, Ph.D., is the executive director of the Jewish History Museum in Tucson.