The Potency of Material Evidence

How do we preserve the history of a community? What it was? Who made up its members?

The “Oneg Shabbat” archives found after WWII is one answer. These records of Jewish life under Nazi occupation & Holocaust were unearthed from a few milk cans and tin boxes in Warsaw. Organized by historian and community figure Dr. Emanuel Ringelblum, the “Oneg Shabbat” archives were meant to record life across the political, religious, and social spectrum. Glenn Adamson outlines the painstaking process of the archive's creation in Fewer, Better Things:

Working with others in the neighborhood, he collected thirty-five thousand documents in all over a period of two and a half years. As the historian Peter Miller recounts, the collection was very diverse and heartbreaking in its quotidian detail: “tram tickets, programs to school plays, restaurant menus, maps of the complex doorbell schemes needed to accommodate the reality of 30 percent of a city's population forced into less than 3 percent of its space.” Some inhabitants contributed essays and economic analyses of life in the ghetto, with titles like “Processes of the Adaptation of the Jewish Artisan to Wartime Conditions” and “On Jewish Barbers.”

As Adamson continues, these records would become the sole source for a particular community at a particular time in a particular place:

When Ringelblum buried these records to evade discovery by the Nazis, he no doubt hoped he might be able to return to them himself, but probably also feared that they might never be recovered. In fact, though only a few years passed before the archive was found, his worst fears had been realized. Warsaw's Jewish population was all but wiped out, and with them, their collective memory, apart from the contents of these precious vessels. As Miller put it, had the archive not been assembled and preserved, “then no one would believe that such a place had existed; not on the moon, but right here, in the center of the earth's most sophisticated continent.” Most objects from the past, thank goodness, are not so tragic. But the story of the Warsaw ghetto, the condensation of all that life as it was lived, amply attests to the potency of material evidence.

The potency of material evidence. We do not put our records into milk cans but into electronic milk cans – computers of all shapes and sizes. Thankfully the majority of us do not live under the occupation of a genocidal regime. These are different times with different technologies. However, the question of preservation still gnaws at me. As I contribute to a forum, I wonder how it will be preserved for future generations to see how online communities functioned. As I write this post, I wonder how this blog will be preserved for my grandkids to see what I was thinking during this time. Because, as Joel Dueck explains, there is this “Unbearable Lightness of Web Pages” (source):

Web pages are ghosts: they’re like images projected onto a wall. They aren’t durable. If you turn off the projector (i.e. web server), the picture disappears. If you know how to run a projector, and you can keep it running all the time, you can have a web site.

But as soon as there’s no one to babysit the projector, it eventually gets turned off, and everything you made with it goes away. If the outage is permanent, the disappearance is too. This is happening all the time, as servers fail, or companies are acquired and shut down.

That's why I'm floored by the “Oneg Shabbat” archive. A few milk cans and tin boxes carry what Adamson calls the freighted history of a whole community. It isn't made up of abstractions on a projector. These are pulp squares with ink on them — essays and menus and report cards and maps all crammed into tin containers dug into the ground. And what are the chances that the archive was unearthed in the first place?

But I sense that this was what Ringelblum and Jewish community in the Warsaw ghetto intended. By creating a capsule that was meant to be unearthed, they created the means to preserve a history and culture for future generations to acknowledge & act upon. That kind of work strikes me as more important as we continue to put our records on these projectors. I won't stop publishing to this blog or elsewhere on the web. Others won't stop either. All the while I yearn for what Dueck refers to as durable writing, that which can be unearthed for future generations to see.

So how do we better create potent material evidence out of our web artifacts?