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Historian of the Ghetto

“Let the world read and know”

Emanuel Ringelblum, the “historian of the Warsaw ghetto,” compiled an extensive archive of documents depicting the everyday life of the ghetto’s doomed inhabitants. The Ringelbaum Archive is the most important eyewitness accounting of the Holocaust to survive the war.

Born in Buczacz, Poland (now Ukraine) in 1900, Emanuel was a bright child and a top student. His native language was Yiddish and although he learned several other languages, he had a special affection for his native tongue and a lifelong interest in Yiddish literature and theater. Emanuel attended Warsaw University, where he studied history, completing his doctoral thesis in 1927 on the Jews of Warsaw during the Middle Ages.

Emanuel worked as a history teacher in multiple Jewish high schools and in 1923 he co-founded the Young Historians Circle, an influential organization that brought together Jewish history teachers and students to advocate for Jewish causes. Two years later he joined YIVO, the preeminent organization for the study and preservation of Jewish European culture. Emanuel published 126 scholarly articles and was recognized as the world’s foremost expert in the history of the Jews of Europe.

As the Nazis rose to power in the early 1930’s, Emanuel started working with international Jewish relief organizations to help refugees by collecting and distributing funds, as well as providing emotional support. The American Joint Distribution Fund sent him to Zbaszyn, a Polish town near the German border where 6000 Jewish refugees from Germany were being held. Germany had expelled them and Poland didn’t want them so the Jews were stateless. Emanuel spent five weeks there, passing up his own opportunity to escape from Europe so that he could help his suffering Jewish brothers and sisters.

When Germany invaded Poland in 1939, Emanuel described it as “a wave of evil rolled over the whole city.” He became the leader of Aleynilf (Self Help), a group that provided Jews with tools to survive in an increasingly hostile environment. In 1940, Emanuel and his family – his wife Yehudit and small son Uri – were forced into a squalid ghetto, along with all the other Jewish inhabitants of Warsaw. Every city with a Jewish population soon had its own ghetto.

As the days, weeks, and months passed, conditions grew steadily worse. Emanuel wrote, “No day was like the preceding. Images succeeded one another with cinematic speed.” The necessities of life became increasingly scarce – running water, electricity, medical supplies and most critically of all, food. Every day people died of starvation or illness, and there was no way to bury them. Rotting bodies, many of them children, lay in the street.

Emanuel decided to write about life in the ghetto. It was the most important story he would ever tell. He encouraged other inhabitants to write their own testimonies, recording history as it happened. During the day Emanuel wandered the ghetto collecting information, stories and data, and he wrote at night. Emanuel defined the mission: “It must all be recorded with not a single fact omitted. And when the time comes – as it surely will – let the world read and know what the murderers have done.” He knew that the archive would likely be the only testimony about what had happened to the Jews of Poland. It was especially important for him to preserve documents in Yiddish as he feared there would be nobody left to speak his beloved native tongue.

Contributors included writers, rabbis, teachers, social workers, artists, children, and Jews of all ages and backgrounds. They knew they were doomed and the pain was even sharper because all their friends and family were also doomed – leaving nobody behind to remember them. Emanuel’s project was a chance to not be forgotten. The material submitted included essays, diaries, letters, drawings, poetry, music, stories, dark humor, recipes and more. It was an extensive chronicle of ghetto life.

The archive was called Oneg Shabbos – “Pleasure of Shabbat” – because the contributors met on Saturdays to share their writings and discuss their progress. Journalistic ethics were important to Emanuel. “Many-sidedness was the main principle of our work. Objectivity was our other guiding principle. We aspired to reveal the whole truth, as bitter as it may be.” The Oneg Shabbos documents were kept in large milk jars and buried in three different places.

The first document was a poem by Wladyslaw Szlengel called “Telephone” about his apartment building’s last working phone. “With my heart broken and sick/ I think: let me ring/someone on the other side…/and suddenly I realize: my God there/is actually no one to call….”

Hunger was ever-present in the ghetto, and a common theme in the documents is the desperate yearning for food. Leyb Goldin wrote, “It’s you and your stomach. It’s your stomach and you. It’s 90 percent your stomach and a little bit you… Each day the profiles of our children, of our wives, acquire the mourning look of foxes, dingoes, kangaroos. Our howls are like the cry of jackals…The world’s turning upside down. A planet melts in tears. And I – I am hungry, hungry. I am hungry.” (August 1941)

“What we were unable to cry out and shriek to the world, we buried in the ground.” – David Graber, 19

“Sometimes I worry that these terrible pictures of the life we are looking at every day will die with us, like pictures of a panic on a sinking ship. So, let the witness be our writing.” – Rachel Auerbach

“I do not ask for any thanks, for any memorial, for any praise. I only wish to be remembered. I wish my wife to be remembered, Gele Seksztajn. I wish my little daughter to be remembered. Margalit is 20 months old today.” – Israel Lichtenstein

The Oneg Shabbos archive ended in 1943, when the ghetto was liquidated and its inhabitants sent to the gas chambers of Treblinka. Emanuel, his wife Yehudit and son Uri managed to escape before the deportations started and went into hiding. However, in March 1944 their hiding place was discovered. The family was forced outside at gunpoint and executed.

Only three of the 60+ contributors to the Oneg Shabbos archive survived the war. Rachel Auerbach led the search for the buried archive, and her team was able to discover two of the caches, which became known as the Dead Sea Scrolls of the ghetto. The third cache has never been found.

For making sure the murdered Jews of Warsaw would not be forgotten, we honor Emanuel Ringelblum as this week’s Thursday Hero.

Explore the Ringelblum Archive: https://www.yadvashem.org/yv/en/exhibitions/ringelblum/index.asp

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