Salem State University professor Stephenie Young is making the most of a unique opportunity to curate an exhibition on the Warsaw Ghetto.
Young, a professor of English and a research assistant at Salem State’s Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies (CHGS), has been in Warsaw since October as a senior research fellow at the Emanuel Ringelblum Jewish Historical Institute (JHI).
Through a first-ever partnership between the institute and Salem State, Young is working on an exhibition for CHGS based on JHI’s extensive historical photos from the Warsaw Ghetto, including images from the Ringelblum Archive and the “Oyneg Shabes” collection.
Ringelblum was a Polish-Jewish historian who was a central figure in documenting ghetto life. He hid the collection before escaping with his family, only to be executed in 1944 by the Nazis when their hiding place was found. Some of the collection was found in milk cans after the war.
In recent years, Oyneg Shabes has become the subject of an exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts and the Nancy Spielberg documentary “Who Will Write Our History?”
As Young explained in an email correspondence with The Jewish Journal, the archive was “part of an underground Jewish community who collected testimonies, objects and photographs and then buried them… for protection so that after the war, the story of the Jews rather than the Germans would have a chance to be told to the world.”
Young will work at the institute through December, with the goal of showing the exhibition first in Warsaw in the spring of 2021, and subsequently in the US, including the North Shore. Aided by a donation from the Gardner-Specter family, the exhibition’s themes will be “Jewish life and the concept of borders during this historical period,” Young said.
A secular humanist with a Ph.D from the State University of New York at Binghamton, Young is a scholar of genocide and violence across borders whose research extends to Bosnia and Latin America.
“My research is the first part of a multi-stage project that we think will go on for a few years,” said Young. “The success of this important project for Holocaust studies and Jewish cultural heritage will rely on donations from our generous supporters here on the North Shore and in other communities.”
Young’s appointment builds upon endeavors that Salem State has been developing in Poland through educational visits by students organized by CHGS Director Christopher Mauriello.
Prior to their visits, students examine readings and testimonies as well as films about the Holocaust – all of which Mauriello describes as vital before seeing such sites as what is left of the Warsaw Ghetto, Oskar Schindler’s factory in Krakow, and the death camps of Auschwitz and Majdanek.
Next summer, according to Young, the trip will extend to Ukraine with a visit to Lviv, a historic opportunity for Salem State students, community members, and local teachers. The trip will include a one-day workshop on the Ringelblum Archive at JHI.
Of the 76 photos known to be from the archive, 65 are at JHI. Each day, Young says, she and her German research assistant, Mona Bechauf, examine these and the 4,000 others in the institute’s collections.
“I am looking at all of the photos housed in the JHI, but I am focusing on the ones that depict the Warsaw Ghetto’s borders,” she explained. “The exhibition will focus on this idea of borders to give it a contemporary link to what’s happening in our world today, and to show the trajectory of violence associated with walls and borders.”
She added that the photos offer “a unique perspective” and that many of them were taken in secret.
“For instance, there are pictures taken of smuggling operations at the wall of the ghetto, and violence against the Jews living in the ghetto,” she related. “This [past] week I have been in the main archive looking at the photographs of the aftermath of the ghetto and the ruins of Warsaw.”
Young also plans to do research beyond the institute, with hopes to visit the Warsaw Uprising Museum and the Polin Museum. This month, she and Bechauf will visit Treblinka.
“Every day is a learning experience that I will take with me into future projects about war and representation,” she said.