- Constanze Baumgart
The Memory of the World: the Ringelblum Archives
Emanuel Ringelblum died in March 1944. The exact day is unknown. Together with his wife Yehudith and their twelve-year-old son Uri, he was killed by the Germans in the ruins of the Warsaw Ghetto. To the tireless historical research of Ringelblum and his intrepid colleagues we owe a unique record of the life of the inhabitants of the ghetto and the atrocities perpetrated there by the Nazis: the Oneg Shabbat (Yiddish Oyneg Schabes, ‘joy of the Sabbath’) archives.
The name is significant: Ringelblum and his small group of intimates met secretly on Saturday afternoons. They formally established the archives on November 22, 1940, only a few days after the sealing of the Warsaw ghetto. Under Ringelblum’s direction his colleagues – among them the later well-known literary critic and TV personality Marcel Reich-Ranicki (1920-2013) – collected, copied, and archived documents and materials, with the set purpose of recording every aspect of life in the ghetto and the crimes committed there against against Polish Jewry.
The German literary critic Marcel Reich-Ranicki (1920 - 2013) was one of Ringelblum's fellow campaigners (© public domain)
‘He was a quietly tireless organizer, a sober historian and passionate archivist – an astonishingly composed and goal-oriented man.’
(Marcel Reich-Ranicki on Emanuel Ringelblum)
In Who Will Write Our History? (2007), his great study of Ringelblum’s heritage, Samuel Kassow states categorically that ‘The task of the archives was not just to chronicle the crime: it was an integral part of the struggle for a better future.’ At the beginning of the German occupation Ringelblum firmly believed in the resurgence of Polish Jewry after the war, and Oneg Shabbat was initially, for him, an act of civil resistance. But the clearer it became that the National Socialists aimed to systematically exterminate the Jews, the more closely the archives focused on their crimes. Ringelblum himself recorded the events of the day in his personal ‘ghetto chronicle.’
A collective effort
Oneg Shabbat used every possible source and narrative format for its work, from reports, interviews, articles and essays to academic studies – e.g. of economic development. People of all backgrounds were encouraged to contribute. The organization even ran opinion polls, circulating a questionnaire among Jewish intellectuals in spring 1942, for example, on the post-war future of Polish Jewry.
Emanuel Ringelblum (© public domain)
Life in the ghetto
An important area of interest was the structure, functions and organization of the ghetto. Reports about the house committees that played an important public role in the ghetto, about smuggling and soup kitchens and the ever-present hunger, or about the humiliating parowki (disinfectioning), document day-to-day life including (but not restricted to) German chicanery. Deportees returned from the labor camps told of the horrors they had experienced. Essays written in school by the ghetto’s children telling of their life, their daily experiences, and their impressions were all carefully stored in the Oneg Shabbat archives.
Countless children starved to death in the Warsaw ghetto (© public domain)
Many texts are based on interviews, for which Ringelblum developed comprehensive questionnaires. Rachel Auerbach, one of Oneg Shabbat’s few surviving organizers, spoke to people who had managed to escape from Treblinka death camp and returned to the ghetto.
‘The moment the train began to move, a deep despair filled the truck. The horror of imminent death filled every mind, and on every side one heard the Kaddish, the prayer of mourning.’
(Abram Jakub Krzepicki on his deportation to Treblinka)
From academic studies to ration cards
As well as creating its own documents, Oneg Shabbat collected documents, artifacts and archive material of every kind, from reports of Jewish organizations to directives of the German occupying forces and announcements of the Judenrat (Jewish Council), from religious texts to pamphlets from the underground press, from paintings and drawings to ration cards, Star of David armbands, and even candy wrappers.
From early 1942 it became ever clearer that the National Socialists planned the systematic extermination of the Jewish people. Escapees told of what they had seen in the death camps, and Oneg Shabbat took on the task of informing the world of the horror, in the hope of contributing to the salvation of the Polish Jews.
The archives in the milk churn
When the main wave of deportations to Treblinka began in July 1942, Ringelblum ordered part of the archives to be hastily packed in milk churns and metal boxes and buried in the cellar of a school – a highly dangerous operation. More items were buried in February and April 1943.
Some 35,000 documents, constituting the larger part of the archives, survived the war and the destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto. Today these treasures are held in the Jewish Historical Institute, Warsaw. In 1999 the UNESCO Memory of the World program adopted the Emanuel Ringelblum Archives into its register of the documentary heritage of humanity.
‘Every member of Oneg Shabbat knew that their efforts and trials, their hard work, endurance, and ultimately the risk to their own lives […] served a great ideal and that, on the day of freedom, society would reward this with the highest honors a free Europe could bestow.’
(Emanuel Ringelblum, Ghetto Chronicle)
In 1932 Ringelblum’s doctoral thesis bore the title ‘The Jews of Warsaw from the Beginnings through 1527.’ Little did he think that with Oneg Shabbat he would record their end.
The journalist Dr. Constanze Baumgart edits the Jewish Libraries Worldwide Blog
For further information see:
The secret archives of the Warsaw Ghetto. Documentation (arte-TV): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=676QCfdYwbE
Samuel Kassow, Who Will Write Our History? Emanuel Ringelblum, the Warsaw Ghetto, and the Oyneg Shabes Archive (Indiana University Press 2007)
Oneg Schabbat. The Underground Archives of the Warsaw Ghetto, Jewish Historical Institute Warsaw (https://www.jhi.pl/en/about-the-institute/oneg-szabat-program)
Marcel Reich-Ranicki, The Author of Himself. The Life of Marcel Reich-Ranicki (Princeton University Press 2001)
© Title image: public domain