Jewish intellectuals

Emanuel Ringelblum (left) with other Jewish intellectuals and historians. Poland, 1938.

It had been three years. Three years since the surviving remnant of the Warsaw Ghetto rose up with a few guns, knives and Molotov cocktails to resist the might of the army that had crushed all of Europe. On April 19th, 1946, a handful of those who had survived gathered to commemorate the courage of their fallen comrades in arms. There were speeches. And more speeches. Until a dark-haired woman in her thirties rose to her feet and shouted that talk was meaningless. The only thing that mattered now was finding the metal boxes and milk cans containing Emanuel Ringelblum’s Oyneg Shabes Archive, the secret Archives of the Warsaw Ghetto.

Her name was Rachel Auerbach. She had been a journalist and writer before the war. At Ringelblum’s request, she’d run a Ghetto soup kitchen and written about her experiences for the Archive. Auerbach also collected the poetry of doomed Yiddish poets and conducted the first interview with an escapee from Treblinka. Her own wartime diary and other writings also lay buried in the Archive somewhere beneath the rubble of the Ghetto.

Five anxious months after the commemorative gathering, a shovel hit metal. Ten metal boxes were exhumed. Auerbach was present when they were opened. There was damage, but hundreds, thousands of pages were readable. Now, the world would hear the voices of the Archive and know the name Emanuel Ringelblum.

Emanuel Ringelblum and his son Uri

Emanuel Ringelblum with his son, Uri.

Born on November 21st, 1900, in Buczacz, Poland (now Ukraine), Emanuel Ringelblum was among a group of young Jewish historians between the wars who sought to tell the untold 1,000-year story of the Jews of Poland. A lifelong and devoted member of Poalei Zion, a left-wing Jewish party, Ringelblum saw history as a collective enterprise based in part on the gathering of primary documents from the Jewish “folk.” A staunch Yiddishist, Ringelblum was one of the founding members of the YIVO, an organization established in 1925 to preserve the Yiddish language and study the cultural history of Jewish life throughout Eastern Europe.

Ringelblum was indefatigable. In addition to writing scholarly and granular books and articles in Polish and Yiddish on Polish Jewish history, running YIVO’s historical section, teaching classes for Poalei Zion youth and attending endless party meetings, Ringelblum supported his wife Yehudis and son Uri by teaching history at a Jewish girls’ school.

Jewish refugees

Jewish refugees in a makeshift outdoor kitchen.

Before the war, Ringelblum also worked part-time for the Joint Distribution Committee (the Joint), an American Jewish relief organization. The Joint sought to ameliorate the problems of Eastern European Jewry in an atmosphere of rising anti-Semitism, pogroms and poverty. In 1938, Ringelblum was sent by the Joint to the border town of Zbaszyn where 6,000 Jewish refugees from Germany were stranded with nothing but the clothes on their backs. Forced out of Germany with no warning and not allowed into Poland, the refugees were trapped in a no man’s land without shelter or food.

Ringelblum spent five weeks in Zbaszyn. There, his unique abilities in communal organization became apparent. Believing in organizing and empowering people in need rather than patronizing them with beneficence handed down from above, Ringelblum focused on organizing the desperate refugees into various self-help committees.

Zbaszyn was a turning point in Ringelblum’s life. There he learned four things:

  1. The German intentions towards the Jews were nothing short of murderous.
  2. Zbaszyn was probably a portend of what was yet to come.
  3. The Jews would have to rely on one another in order to survive. No one else would help them.
  4. Someone would have to gather the evidence and write this unfolding and unprecedented chapter of Jewish history. Otherwise, in the future, no one would know or believe what was happening.
Ghetto Soup Kitchen

Line outside Ghetto Soup Kitchen

In September 1939, the Germans invaded Poland. Warsaw fell four weeks later. The city had a population of around 1.2 million people, its Jewish population almost one-third of that number. The Germans moved quickly to isolate and persecute the Jews, and in November 1940, forced them, 30 percent of the city’s population, into less than three percent of its space. Ringelblum, his wife and son, along with all the Jews of Warsaw and 150,000 refugees, were walled into a 3.5-square-mile area of buildings that would become known as the Warsaw Ghetto.

Cut off and subsisting on starvation rations, over the next year and a half, over 80,000 Ghetto residents would die from hunger and disease. Drawing on what he’d learned in Zbaszyn, Ringelblum became one of the primary architects of the Ghetto’s self-help organization, the Alenhilf, a kind of shadow “people’s” government as opposed to the Judenrat, the Nazi controlled Jewish Ghetto authority. Like the Judenrat, the Alenhilf ran soup kitchens, orphanages and cultural organizations. Ringelblum was also a primary mover behind the House Committees, cooperatives that attempted to deal with the deprivation and economic inequality in the Ghetto by sharing resources among the residents of individual apartment blocks. Ringelblum also founded a society for the advancement of Yiddish culture.

Journal kept by Rabbi Shimon Huberband

Notepad kept by Rabbi Shimon Huberband, who collected and saved the weekly Ghetto sermons of Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Szapiro (the Tsadik of Piaseczno).

Ringelblum saw it clearly. Nothing in the two thousand year history of the Jewish people served as precedent for what was happening. Isolated from the world, with an enemy intent on destroying not only the Jewish people, but Jewish culture, memory and history, it would take a collective effort to resist.

And so, only one week after the sealing of the Ghetto, on the 22nd of November 1940, Ringelblum called the initial meeting of the Oyneg Shabes collective. The goals of the Oyneg Shabes were to gather evidence and to study Jewish society during the war, collect individual testimony, document German crimes, and alert the outside world to the terrible and rapidly deteriorating conditions of the Jews in the Ghetto.

The 60+ members of the clandestine collective were handpicked by Ringelblum. Poets and painters, sociologists and rabbis, businessmen and doctors, Zionists and Bundists, and even the young leaders of what would be the first armed uprising anywhere in Nazi-occupied Europe—they were, by Ringelblum’s design, a cross-section of the rich diversity of Polish Jewish life before the war. For three years, the group met secretly each Saturday, hence the name, Oyneg Shabes which means “the joys of Shabbat.”

Ruins of the Warsaw Ghetto

Ruins of the Warsaw Ghetto, 1943.

For the Oyneg Shabes no subject was taboo. No detail too small. Under Ringelblum’s meticulous direction, members of the secret society tried to create a portrait of all aspects of Jewish life in the Ghetto. They wrote essays about corrupt Jewish police and collaborators, about young smugglers, underground schools, religious affairs, the secret economy, and prostitution. They collected poetry, Ghetto humor, songs and folklore. The Archive recorded statistics on deportations and deaths. They collected issues of the dozens of underground newspapers circulating in the Ghetto. And, because Ringelblum had close relationships with members of the Zionist youth movements, he was also able to support and document the emergence of their plans for armed resistance.

Ringelblum encouraged everyone, not only Oyneg Shabes members, to write. He ran essay contests for children to write about their lives in the Ghetto. The Archive also collected artifacts: armbands, official Nazi pronouncements and Judenrat issued IDs. Candy wrappers, tram tickets, theater posters, announcement of concerts and lectures—the stuff of daily life was also included. Moreover, in an ongoing effort to make sense of what was happening beyond the Ghetto walls, Oyneg Shabes members debriefed eye-witness survivors of destroyed Jewish communities who managed to straggle into Warsaw.

At first Ringelblum believed he and his collaborators were collecting the raw material from which, after the war, they would write volumes of history. As the stark truth of the Nazi machine for total annihilation of the Jews emerged, it became increasingly clear that they themselves would probably not survive, but rather that they were collecting the raw data from which others would write their history after the war.

Ghetto Police Summons

Summons, issued by Ghetto Police, informing the public that all who voluntarily report for “resettlement” will be given 6.5 pounds of bread and 2 pounds of jam per person.

Ominous rumors and reports reached Warsaw from Vilna, Lublin and Lodz, of camps called Chelmno and Belzec. Ringelblum closely interviewed an escapee from Chelmno. It was becoming increasingly clear: the Jews of Poland were being systematically murdered. Drawing from eye-witness accounts of shtetl massacres, carefully collected statistics about deportations from Warsaw, and reports from other Ghettos and scattered camps, Ringelblum composed a report alerting the world to the undeniable fact that the Nazis were in the process of total annihilation of the 3 million Jews of Poland. According to Ringelblum’s statistics, 700,000 had already perished. Through connections in the Polish Underground, the report was smuggled out of the country to the Polish Government in Exile in London. On June 26th, 1942, Ringelblum managed to hear a BBC radio broadcast from London:

“[This] has been a great day for Oyneg Shabes. This morning, the English radio broadcast about the fate of Polish Jewry. They told about everything we know so well: about Slonim and Vilna, Lemberg and Chelmno… The Oyneg Shabes group has fulfilled a great historical mission… I do not know who of our group will survive… but one thing is clear to all of us. Our toils and tribulations, our devotion and constant terror have not been in vain. We have fulfilled our duty… Nor will our deaths be meaningless, like the deaths of tens of thousands of Jews.”
Emanuel Ringelblum

Now the world knew, but help didn’t come. Instead, one month after the broadcast, came the beginning of the end: The Great Deportation.

Gele Sekstein and her daughter
Margalit Lichetenstein

Gele Sekstein and her daughter Margalit Lichetenstein

On 22 July 1942, Adam Czerniaków, the head of the Judenrat, received instructions from the SS that Warsaw's Jews were to be “resettled” to the East at the rate of 6000 per day. When Czerniaków failed to obtain an exemption for Ghetto orphans, he swallowed a cyanide pill. The Great Deportation was underway. In the chaos of brutal daily roundups, Oyneg Shabes members were among those murdered on the street or swallowed into railway cars. Ringelblum managed to pull only a few of his colleagues away from the Umschlagplatz. On the 10th day of the Action, Ringelblum signaled for first cache of the Archive to be buried.

The job of burying the treasure was assigned to teacher Israel Lichetenstien who, for reasons of security, had no other connection to the Oyneg Shabes. On August 3, 1942, with the Germans only a block away, Lichtenstein hurriedly deposited his last testament.

"I do not ask for any praise. I only wish to be remembered...I wish my wife to be remembered, [the artist] Gele Sekstein. The past three years she worked with children in the Ghetto as a teacher. She designed stage sets and costumes for the children’s theatre ... My daughter Margalit is 20 months old today. She has fully mastered Yiddish and speaks it perfectly. I don’t lament my own life nor that of my wife, but I pity this lovely little talented girl. She, too, deserves to be remembered."
Israel Lichetenstien

Greenhouse sketch

Sketch of the greenhouse with the hiding place below.

When the deportations finally stopped, 300,000 people had been taken away by train and murdered at Treblinka. There were no children and elderly people left in the Ghetto, only 60,000 mostly young people working in German-owned workshops. Among the Ghetto survivors were members of Zionist, Bundist and communist youth groups who resolved to die fighting rather than be taken in the next round of deportations.

While the Jewish fighting organizations made Molotov cocktails and prepared bunkers, Ringelblum, his wife Yehudis and son Uri managed to escape to the Aryan side of Warsaw. There, with 34 others, they hid in a cramped bunker under a greenhouse owned by a sympathetic Pole.

One woman who left the bunker for another hiding place wrote about Ringelblum after the war:

“At one end of the table, beside the burning carbide lamp, a middle-aged, silent man sat, always in the same place, and wrote. He wrote ceaselessly during whole days and evenings and did not leave the table, which was loaded with his books and papers. Dr. Ringelblum was only physically present in the bunker. His thoughts were far away from there."
Eyewitness Ora Jagur

While in the bunker, Ringelblum wrote a voluminous history of relations between Jews and Poles during the war. He wrote profiles of important Jewish intellectuals who had already perished. And, much to his wife’s chagrin, smuggled himself in and out of the Ghetto to continue his work on the Archive.

Ghetto in flames

Nazis burn down the Warsaw Ghetto to quell the Jewish Uprising, 1943.

Two days before Passover, 1943, Ringelblum returned to the Ghetto alone. He visited the young fighters in their bunkers and also saw to it that the final cache of the Archive was buried. These metal boxes contained penciled notes in shaky handwriting smuggled out of the Umschlagplatz, begging for last-minute rescue, and broadsides calling for armed resistance. Ringelblum put his own writing in the milk cans, including the entire manuscript of the history of Warsaw Jewry that he wrote during the war and his essay on the Oyneg Shabes Archive itself.

When the Germans entered the Ghetto on April 19, 1943, the eve of Passover, to begin the final liquidation of the Ghetto, they were met with fierce, organized resistance.

Over 1,000 Jewish fighters used pistols and Molotov cocktails against sophisticated Nazi weaponry. In several days of intense fighting, the Ghetto Fighters engaged and harassed the well-armed Germans. Facing stiffer opposition than anticipated, the Nazis brought in reinforcements of troops and arms and attacked with force. Using flame throwers, they methodically burned down building after building, where tens of thousands of Jews were hiding in bunkers and refusing to come out. Finally, after weeks of desperate fighting, a handful of Jewish fighters escaped to the Aryan side of Warsaw through sewers. The remaining Jews were rounded up and executed or deported to various camps.

Emanuel Ringelblum and his son Uri

Emanuel Ringelblum and his son Uri.

For several months after the Uprising, Ringelblum’s whereabouts were unknown. Finally, in July, it was discovered that he’d been captured in the Ghetto and taken to the Trawniki labor camp. Two members of the Warsaw Underground – a non-Jewish Pole and a Jewish woman – smuggled Ringelblum out of the camp disguised as a Polish railway worker. They returned him to Warsaw, where he was reunited with his family in their underground hideout.

On March 7th, 1944, the bunker’s location was betrayed and the captives were taken to the infamous Pawiak Prison in the destroyed Ghetto. Another Jewish prisoner in Pawiak became involved in an attempt to rescue Ringelblum. The prisoner later recalled how he had managed to enter the cell where Ringelblum was held:

“The cell was jammed with people; apparently these were the Jews whom the Germans had seized with Ringelblum in the bunker. Ringelblum himself was sitting on a straw mattress close to the wall... On his lap he was holding a handsome boy. This was his son, Uri ... I told him that we were making attempts to take him in with us. ‘And what will happen to him?’ he asked, pointing his finger at his son. ‘And what will happen to my wife who is in the women’s section?’

What could I answer him? We all knew well that even if we succeeded in taking Ringelblum out of there, his family would still be doomed. My silence conveyed the truth to him, and he added right away: ‘Then I prefer to go the way of Kiddush Ha-Shem (The Sanctification of God’s Name) together with them.’ In the middle of our conversation he suddenly asked: ‘Is death so hard to bear?’ And then, a little later, he went on with a voice broken from despair: ‘What is this little boy guilty of?’—and he again pointed his finger at his son—‘It breaks my heart to think of him.’.”
Pawiak prisoner

A few days later, Ringelblum, his family, and the other Jews who had been captured together with them in the bunker were executed in the ruins of the Ghetto.

Rachel Auerbach

Rachel Auerbach

Rachel Auerbach survived the war. Only two other members of the Oyneg Shabes survived: Hersh Wasser and his wife Bluma. As Secretary of the Oyneg Shabes, Hersh Wasser was the only person besides Ringelblum who knew the location of the three buried caches of the Archive. As Kassow writes, “Wasser survived by only the narrowest margin,” first jumping off a Treblinka-bound train in 1943 and then, in 1944, being the sole survivor of an intense firefight when Germans discovered a Jewish hideout on the Aryan side of Warsaw. “Without Wasser directing the search,” Kassow writes, “it is unlikely that the Archive would have ever surfaced.”

In September 1946, Wasser lead rescuers to the location where the first cache of the Archive had been buried on August 31st, 1942. After days of fruitless digging under the rubble of the Ghetto, a shovel hit metal. Ten metal boxes were unearthed. Boxes containing an astonishing 25,540 pages of material: scholarly essays on hunger, women and children in the Ghetto, photographs, poems, underground newspapers, arm bands, invitations to a play at a Ghetto orphanage, food ration cards showing the starvation rations of the Ghetto—a real time, unfiltered record of Warsaw Jewry’s struggle to survive in Hell.

Auerbach and the Wassers had already left Poland for Israel by the time the second cache of the Archive was accidentally discovered during construction in Warsaw in 1950. Buried in February 1943, it held 9,829 pages from the period August 1942 to February 1943. For four years the first cache lay buried in the ground, where water penetrated the ten tin boxes and a fungal bloom ruined many documents and photographs. The second cache emerged from its seven years’ inhumation in relatively better condition, because its aluminum milk cans were more watertight. The third cache was never found and is believed to have been buried under what is now the Chinese Embassy in Warsaw.

Auerbach would spend the rest of her life shouting, mostly in vain, for the world to pay attention to the treasure of the Archive and to honor the legacy of the extraordinary man who created it.

Who Will Write Our History?

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