In November, 1940, the German occupiers of Warsaw forced nearly 400,000 Jews into 1.3 square miles of land, then walled off the neighborhood.
That's when a group of Jews got together to document what was happening. They wrote of disease, starvation and torture, both physical and psychological, but also of themselves, their families and the brief moments of normalcy amid all the horror. This was the Oneg Shabbat archive, and it's our primary record of the Warsaw Ghetto to this day.
Emanuel Ringelbum and The Warsaw Ghetto secret Archive - TRANSCRIPTION
Hello and welcome to On the Holocaust, a podcast by Yad Vashem: the World Holocaust Remembrance Center. I’m your host, Nate Nelson.
By 1946, Warsaw was a fraction of the great city it once had been. Formerly a center of culture in Eastern Europe, it had served as a theater for two popular uprisings during the war. By the time the fighting had ended, vast swaths of city blocks and even entire neighborhoods and districts were completely leveled. You can check out pictures from the time--it looks more like a post-apocalypse Hollywood set than a real place. A couple of housing blocks, a single church, stand alone amid miles of rubble.
On September 18th, 1946, a group of Jews and Poles ventured out into the ruins and began digging. It wouldn’t have been obvious, from the outside, why anyone would do such a thing--anything of value, surely, had been destroyed twice over and buried under heavy brick. What could possibly have been found in the remains, other than broken furniture and skeletons?
But this group of venturers had a mission. With shovels and metal probes they began to search for one of the most important, most secretive artifacts from the war.
Samuel Kassow : I’m Samuel Kassow and I teach history at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut.
Dr. Samuel Kassow is perhaps the world’s leading expert on the person we’re going to be following in this story, Emanuel Ringelblum.
Samuel Kassow : Everybody who knew him remembered him as a very serious and at the same time as a very giving person who cared deeply about everything that he did.
In the 1930s, Ringelblum was in the midst of carving out a pretty remarkable life, already an accomplished political activist and historian.
Samuel Kassow : he was a person who tried to do many things. Before the war in Poland, he was active in Jewish politics. That is he was an active member of the Left Labor Zionists.
To say that he was committed to his political beliefs would be an understatement.
Samuel Kassow : the Left Labor Zionists would have a meeting every January to mark the anniversary of the death of Ber Berochov and everybody had to arrive by a certain time because then they would lock the doors to keep out hecklers, to keep out opponents from the Bund or from the communists and one year, it was 20 below zero and Ringelblum arrived late and he didn’t want to bang on the door to disrupt the meeting but he also didn’t go home and he stood at attention for an hour in the 20-degree frost, standing rigidly at attention and when the comrades came out, they saw that he had gotten frostbite on his nose and they said, “Why did you stand like that?” and he said, “This is the punishment I took upon myself for having arrived too late to honor the memory of Ber Berochov.”
Ringelblum’s staunch moral character bordered on intense. But when you get to know him, you realize he has a softer side. Like, in 1930, he and his wife had a son. Uri.
Samuel Kassow :He was their only child. He was the apple of his eye. He cared about him very, very much.
Uri was a glorified celebrity in the high school classrooms where his father taught history.
Samuel Kassow :I was able to track down one of his former students many years ago who told me that the girls in her class would often make fun of Ringelblum because he was going from one job to another and sometimes he would come into class a little sweaty, a little disheveled. The girls would giggle and when a day – and when there was a day that had a scheduled exam and they felt that they didn’t want to take the exam that day, they would hatch a plan that one of the girls would raise her hand and Ringelblum would call on her and she would say, “Dr. Ringelblum, how is your son Uri doing? You haven’t talked about him for a long time,” and Ringelblum would start to – they will start to gush and he would pull out his wallet and show the girls pictures and talk about Uri and then the bell would ring and they would have an extra day to study for the exam.
This duality--intense drive, and care for others--defined Emanuel Ringelblum. But it would only really be put to the test in the late 1930s, when his entire world--everything he’d known and been building for twenty years--began to fall apart.
In September, 1939, the Germans took Warsaw. Almost immediately, the occupiers began a campaign of intimidation against the city’s Jews, freezing bank accounts, mobilizing forced labor and ordering them to wear armbands and display Jewish stars on their doors and windows. It all culminated in November, 1940, when the Nazis informed all Jews that they had two weeks to cordon themselves off in a small section of the city.
Samuel Kassow :They were living in their own homes and they may have put by enough food to survive.
Then suddenly, there’s a knock on the door. You have to get out of your house. You have 15 minutes to pack and we’re all sending you into the Warsaw Ghetto.
In a few hours, they become totally penniless, totally dependent.
Nearly 400,000 people were packed into just over a square mile of land. On November 16th, the neighborhood was closed off to the rest of the city. A ghetto had been established. A prison. Worse. One inmate captured the feeling:
"I entered. I crossed the boundary not just of a residential quarter but of a zone of reality, because what I saw and experienced cannot be understood by our reason, thoughts, or imagination."
What little relief came by way of food rations, or aid supported by Western organizations, was hardly enough to stem the rampant starvation and disease. And the disease and starvation were only amplified by an environment of terror.
"[. . .] one- and two-year-old children [were] sitting on a sofa in the middle of the road and crying “mama” while Jews, their hearts bleeding, were passing by, watching the horrible scene and crying. The Germans had probably done it deliberately. They could have taken the children away, but they did not. On the contrary--they let the Jews see and grieve."
What is one to do in a place like this? Starving, exhausted, under constant threat of torture and death. Walking past starving children, knowing you can’t help or even comfort them. Utter powerlessness.
Emanuel Ringelblum didn’t flee Warsaw when the Nazis invaded, and he wasn’t prepared to give into them now. Powerless against his captors, he had only his mind and his two hands at his disposal. So he did the only thing he could do. He began, simply, to write down what was happening around him. In one journal entry, he explained why:
"The war produced rapid changes in Jewish life in the towns of Poland. Each day was different from the next. It was therefore important to capture every event in the heat of the moment, when it was still fresh and pulsating."
After the ghetto was established, Ringelblum gathered other inmates--former artists, historians, teachers, from a wide range of political and social backgrounds--to also record their experiences, and what they observed happening around the Ghetto as well as collect documents of the fate of Polish Jews in other areas, as a group undertaking.
"I thought it expedient to organize this highly important work as a group undertaking. Not only adults, but also young people and, in some instances, even children. [. . .] Our aim was a presentation of a photographically true and detailed picture of what the Jewish population had to experience, to think and to suffer."
Samuel Kassow : there was this sense that we’re going to build a historical record to help Polish Jews rebuild after the war, to expose the mistakes, to expose the elites who had failed. Perhaps to give Polish Jews the evidence after the war was over to avoid the mistakes that had been made.
Ringelblum’s group met every Saturday, and so they took on the name “Oneg Shabbat.” Or “Oyneg Shabes,” in Yiddish.
Samuel Kassow :You have to find new sources that reflect the ordinary life of poor Jews, folklore, jokes, the traces, the hints of the Jewish every day. This means building a new kind of archive
[. . .]
in the Warsaw Ghetto.
The main goal of Oneg Shabbat was to record everything happening in the Ghetto. From one of the archivists, Cecilia Slapakowa:
"It’s ten o’clock [. . .] a hot sunny day. The Jewish street pulsates with the intense rhythms of its anemic life. People push, hurry, shove, stand close against the wall. A mix of faces, voices, smiles--“Rolls, fresh, tasty, white, cheap!” [. . .] “Dear good people, have mercy on a mother of three orphans!” “Oh my God, catch the thief!” “I have a hairdresser’s appointment.” “Thank God, I earned some money this week.” [. . .] “It’s such a beautiful spring. You so much want to live.”
Samuel Kassow :their first priority, which they started when the archive was organized in 1940, was to collect stuff and they collected stuff right up until the very end.
What do I mean by stuff? The menus from the fancy restaurants in the ghetto
[. . .]
Theater tickets in the ghetto, tram tickets from the ghetto. [Indiscernible] instructions on how to make edible the frozen, rotten potatoes that the Germans dumped in as part of the food ration.
So that’s one agenda. That is collecting the evidence of the material culture, the doorbell instructions when five families are living in one apartment. The number of rings for each family. The second agenda item which from the point of view of the historian, like myself, is extremely valuable, is their project, which they began in 1941 to study Jewish society under Nazi occupation, and what they did is that they came up with 80 different topics. Women under the Nazi occupation, children, corruption, religious life, German-Jewish relations, Polish-Jewish relations.
Each topic had a team leader to develop questionnaires and bullet points, you might say, to be investigated and some members of the Oneg Shabbos were team leaders of four or five different topics.
This was supposed to result in a study of 1600 pages and this study was in full swing with interviews and essays.
As you’d imagine, actually doing this work was perilous. Merely stepping into the wrong place could mean earning the attention of a policeman, or coming in contact with disease.
Samuel Kassow :So these interviewers literally had to take their lives in their hands and risk getting sick, risk getting typhus and talk to these people in great detail and then get the information back to the archive and in fact a number of these Oyneg Shabbos workers died.
[. . .]
Now there was another challenge which gets back to the issue of secrecy. At no time ever could a member of the Oyneg Shabbos staff go up to anybody in the ghetto and say, “I’m working for the secret archive and I want you to tell me about this, this or that.”
[. . .]
You had to keep this project absolutely secret and that was very, very difficult because there were so many informers who were ready to pass on information to the Gestapo.
[. . .]
So the trick was, how do you interview people?
[. . .]
The cover, the camouflage, was the fact that Ringelblum was a director of a big organization in the Warsaw Ghetto called the self-help or the Aleynhilf. The self-help was partially funded by the Joint Distribution Committee and since the US was not at war with Germany until December 1941, the Aleynhilf had quasi-legal status in the eyes of the Germans.
With their cover as aid workers, the archivists were able to carry out the work of documenting Ghetto life. But that would soon change. In the summer of 1942.
Samuel Kassow: Ringelblum ordered everybody to simply hand over their unfinished notes, their unfinished materials and hand them over to the archive and they were buried on the night of August 3rd, 1942
Everything was shoved into metal boxes and placed deep underground. Because what was coming threatened the entire project, and everyone involved in it.
On July 22nd, 1942, Nazi high command ordered the deportation of Warsaw’s Jews to death camps in the east. In the weeks and months that followed, Poland’s Jews would be gradually, methodically exterminated. From the archivist Chaim Kaplan:
"I haven’t the strength to hold a pen in my hand. I’m broken, shattered. My thoughts are jumbled. I don’t know where to start or stop. I have seen Jewish Warsaw through forty years of events, but never before has she worn such a face… What we dreaded most has come."
"The Jewish streets are an appalling sight - the gloom is indescribable. [. . .] The savagery of the police during the round-up, the murderous brutality. They drag girls from the rickshaws, empty out flats, and leave the property strewn everywhere [. . .] the pavements are fenced off, you walk in the middle of the road. Certain streets are completely closed off with fences and gates and you can't get in there. The impression is of cages. [. . .] Those who are faraway cannot imagine our bitter situation, they will not understand and will not believe that day after day thousands of men, women and children, innocent of any crime, were taken to their death."
By year’s end, 80 percent of the Jews in Warsaw would be deported and killed. And, according to Oneg Shabbat’s own records, nearly 99 percent of the children.
What good is an archive project in the face of...that?
Samuel Kassow :one has to step back and wonder, “How did they keep going when their lives were in such danger in the summer of 1942?”
When the Germans forced over 400,000 Jews into just over a square mile, starving and freezing innocent people who’d once had fruitful lives before their freedoms were stripped from them, the act of documenting it all seemed important. But now, nearly everybody was dead--not just dead, but murdered with staggering pace and efficiency. Against that, what purpose was there in an archive?
One of the Oneg Shabbat writers, Gustawa Jarecka, reflected on the irony of just how insufficient words were in the face of such acts.
"The desire to write is as strong as the repugnance of words. We hate words because they too often have served as a cover for emptiness or meanness. We despise them for they pale in comparison with the emotion tormenting us."
Samuel Kassow : I remember, she says this. She says, “How could we Jews had known that the story of history is not a story of moral progress from savagery to decency as we’ve been taught?”
But that as we look at Germans, these civilized, educated Germans, murdering kids in the streets, that the story of history seems to go into the opposite direction, that history has gone in the direction of savagery and of brutality, that we were totally wrong about the direction of history’s wheel.
"The record must be hurled like a stone under history’s wheel in order to stop it [. . .] One can lose all hopes except the one--that the suffering and destruction of this war will make sense when they are looked at from a distant, historical perspective. From sufferings, unparalleled in history, from bloody tears and bloody sweat, a chronicle of days of hell is being composed which will help explain the historical reasons for why people came to think as they did and why regimes arose that [caused such suffering]."
Samuel Kassow :meaning that she hopes someday if people in the future read what she’s writing and they say, “Oh my god. How could we have allowed this to happen? How could this have happened? Let’s make sure that such mass murder never happens again.”
So that’s what she meant by “stone under history’s wheel”
[. . .]
it was that sense that now, we are burying time capsules under the ground that will provide evidence for justice in the future that will convince people that this really happened, that maybe the writings that we’re doing might serve in some small way to help avert such a disaster in the future.
So I think that a sense of mission was very, very strong.
Little prospect remained of continuing the archive project, at least in its previous form. The Ghetto commons had disappeared--once there were schools, political gatherings, marketplaces and organizational networks, now receded into isolated housing blocs and shops, and barracks which housed the soon-to-be deported. Even if there were modicums of Jewish life and culture remaining, one could no longer walk down the street to talk to people to record it, or do much of anything really, without the direct threat of kidnapping and deportation.
Leveraging the only connections to the outside that they had left, Ringelblum and two of his most trusted colleagues prepared reports to be smuggled to the Polish government in exile. They described the atrocities being carried out against the Jews, in the hope that it would awaken sympathy and action in the rest of Europe.
"No one can delude himself. If events continue to develop as they have, the Jewish population of Poland will cease to exist. [. . .] Only action on the international stage, action that the Germans would clearly understand, can rescue the remaining Jews from total destruction."
Samuel Kassow :The 60 members of the Oyneg Shabbos became 50, became 40, became 30. Every day another team member of the archive was sold off to the box cars and yet they kept on going.
It was clear that these were unprecedented historical events. It was not clear whether any Jews would be around, by the end of it all, to tell of what happened.
That made it ever more important to record what was happening in the Ghetto. But, at the same time, it was becoming nearly impossible to do so. The archivists who remained began on a second set of archives, but fear and distance made it harder to organize in a meaningful way, and introduced conflicts about whether and how to proceed. What archivists remained either took refuge in shops, working 16-hour days, or went into hiding, some only to be found and taken away by German soldiers anyway. Ringelblum was a perfect example of this, shuffling back and forth between hiding and continuing his work out in the open.
Samuel Kassow: He is torn between his responsibilities to the archive and his natural desire as a father and a husband to go into hiding and to save his wife and son.
[. . .]
You could see that Ringelblum was on the verge of a nervous collapse during that summer. His handwriting changes. He doesn’t write complete sentences.
One goes before 5 o’clock, before the sentries. In order to be shot. [. . .] Hostages. 10,000 a day. The story about orphanages for 10,000 children. The behavior of the police. Threw the sick on the carts. People report [for deportation] because of hunger.
Samuel Kassow: He and the other members of the archive are living in constant fear
The day Ringelblum decided he could no longer continue his work on the archive was January 18th, 1943. Yitzhak Giterman, one of his personal mentors, had been caught trying to warn his neighbors about an S.S. roundup. So he was shot.
My hand shakes as I write these words; who knows if a future historian, reviewing this list, will not [remember] my name, Emanuel Ringelblum?
The following month, Ringelblum made his escape into hiding. Along with his wife, Yehudis, and his son, Uri, he took refuge in a bunker on the Aryan side of the city. And he ordered the second set of archives to be packed into two, large aluminum milk cans, then buried underground in what remained of Warsaw.
Israel Lichtenstein, who buried the documents, added in his final testament. “We are the redeeming sacrifice for the Jewish People,” he wrote. “I believe the nation will survive. We the Jews of Eastern Europe are the redeemers of the People of Israel.”
On March 7th, 1944, German and Polish police received a tip about a bunker where Jews were hiding. They visited the residence of the Wolski family, knowing exactly where to look. They seized the head of the household, brutally beating him, then made a beeline for the hothouse out back. One of the policemen fired a gun in the air, and shouted that anyone who didn’t come out would be gassed to death right then and there.
Finally, the flap concealing the entrance to the bunker was raised from the inside, and, in the opening, the victims started to appear one by one. First, the mothers came out with their children. The poor kids blinked, dazzled by the daylight and the glare of the sun, which they had not seen for such a long time. Some of them were crying; their mothers hugged them helplessly and desperately.
Among those mothers and children were Yehudis and Uri Ringelblum, along with Emanuel. They were sent to Pawiak prison, in the Ghetto, to await death.
Behind bars, Emanuel Ringelblum wrote a letter to the YIVO Institute in New York. After a short but remarkable career of writing down the history of the Polish and Jewish peoples, these would be the final words he’d ever have to say on the matter. He chose to end his letter by emphasizing that, even amid the worst atrocities in human history, expressions of Jewish life and culture remained.
"[I]n the SS camps, to which part of Warsaw Jews were deported, camps that became places of bitter suffering and slow death, the cultural activists continued their work. In Poniatowa, Trawniki, and other camps, an underground network of mutual aid was set up, as were units of the Jewish Fighting Organization [ZOB]. From time to time there were cultural events and artistic performances. The flow of cultural and public life continued so long as there were Jews living in groups; so that the embers continued to be preserved, even if at their feeblest. Know, that the cultural and public activists, until their last moments, remained faithful to the ideals of the culture of the times and the ideal of human redemption. Until their last breaths they held in their hands the banner of culture and its war against barbarity.
This is what we wanted to tell you, dear friends. It is doubtful whether we will ever see each other again. Please send, in our names, our warmest regards to all the activists* and the fighters for the new Jewish culture and the general deliverance.
Dr. E. Ringelblum"
Emanuel, Yehudis and little Uri were shot one week later.
The Oneg Shabbat archives--a history of Warsaw’s Jews, told by Warsaw’s Jews, through starvation, exhaustion and many hours of toil--sat deep beneath the city as World War II came to a close. To avoid the enemy getting to them first, a select few people had been told the actual locations of these burials. The problem? Of the sixty-plus Oneg Shabbat members who stuffed fears, sorrows and dreams into those metal containers, only three survived.
Hersh Wasser, by all logic, should not have been among them. In 1943, he was put on a train destined for Treblinka. But he jumped off and, through injury, ran away into hiding. In 1944, the Nazis discovered his hideout in north Warsaw. An intense gunfight ensued, and three of his friends died. But Wasser and his wife Bluma, also an Oneg Shabbat member, survived.
So twice, according to all logic, Hersh Wasser was doomed to die at the hands of Nazi soldiers. But, somehow, he and Bluma made it through. It was a miracle--two miracles--which had ramifications far beyond him alone. Because Hersh Wasser, as the former secretary for Oneg Shabbat, was the only surviving archivist who had any idea where those documents were buried. All hope for finding them laid on his shoulders.
In the Fall of 1946, excavations began. And to say “excavations” is no exaggeration. The diggers had to move carefully and slowly--it was dangerous work. Like seasoned archaeologists they built tunnels fitted with ventilation shafts, deep under the ruins. They took long, metal probes and pushed them deep into the debris, to scour for what was hidden to the naked eye.
For many days they searched like this. Until, on September 18th, 1946, one of those metal probes made a clang instead of a thump.
A member of the search team stepped into the crevice in the earth, bent down, and came back up with a metal box. The box was worn, wearied, covered in a thick, greenish mold. When tilted, one could hear water inside. The paper inside...they could only imagine the state it was in.
Together, the team dug up the ten such metal boxes, lifting them out from the rubble and, eventually, bringing them back to the Jewish Historical Institute in Poland, to see what might be recovered. Gradually, with the precision of a surgeon, the historians--and the three archivists who’d waited years for this very moment--uncovered page by page, separating and drying them off. Slowly--very slowly--they discovered the journal entries, essays and last letters of their fallen friends and countrymen. They found the work of once great writers, and the fleeting thoughts of young Jews who didn’t have a chance. Like one boy, David Graber, 19 years old, who’d been charged with helping to bury the boxes. Before he finished burying, he added one more letter to the collection.
"What we were unable to cry and shriek out to the world we buried in the ground [. . .] I would love to see the moment in which the great treasure will be dug up and scream the truth at the world. So the world may know all. So the ones who did not live through it may be glad, and we may feel like veterans with medals on our chests. We would be the fathers, the teachers and the educators of the future [. . .] But no, we shall certainly not live to see it, and therefore I write my last will. May the treasure fall into good hands, may it last into better times, may it alarm and alert the world to what happened [. . .] We may now die in peace. We fulfilled our mission. May history attest for us."
The prisoners of the Warsaw Ghetto had no means of defeating their captors--no amount of resistance would’ve beat the Nazi forces, no amount of running would’ve saved most of them. They had no options. But in some of the darkest, most dangerous streets humans have ever been forced to walk on, the Oneg Shabbat archivists managed to transform their pens into shivs. As the writer Gustawa Jarecka wrote:
"These documents and notes are a remnant resembling a clue in a detective story. I remember from childhood such a novel by Conan Doyle in which the dying victim writes with a faint hand one word on the wall containing the proof of the criminal’s guilt. That word, scrawled by the dying man, influenced my imagination in the past [. . .] We are noting the evidence of the crime."
With dying hands, the Jews of Warsaw wrote the word on the wall containing the proof of the criminal’s guilt. But they also did much more than that. They wrote of themselves--who they were, what they felt and what they did and what they dreamed of doing one day that they never got to.
Ultimately, the Nazis murdered almost every person from the Warsaw Ghetto. But they could not erase their memory.
Samuel Kassow: Think about this, that if the Oyneg Shabbos Archive had been lost, we really wouldn’t have had any of the many fine books that have been written about the Warsaw Ghetto. We would have only had a history written from the point of view of the perpetrators. We would have had a record of German meetings, of German decisions, of German orders. But the Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto would have been remembered as a mass of faceless victims, as objects, as not people with names, as not people with agency.
It’s only because of the Oyneg Shabbos with all the documentation that you could write about the Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto as people who are part of the community, as people who have an identity.
[. . .]
The Germans thought they would not only murder the Jews but they would decide how they would be remembered and the Jewish historian Yitzhak Schipper said that what we know about murdered people is usually what their killers choose to say about them and Ringelblum was determined that even if he and his comrades died, that they would be remembered on the basis of Jewish and German sources and this is an enormous achievement.
That concludes this episode, but it’s not the end of the Oneg Shabbat story. There are all kinds of details, characters and even entire subplots we didn’t have time to cover here. In fact, you heard about the two buried archives, but there’s actually a third whole archive--the most mysterious of them all, as it’s not yet been found, all these years later. If you’re interested in learning more, visit yadvashem.org.
This has been On the Holocaust, from Yad Vashem: the World Holocaust Remembrance Center. Our program is produced by Itamar Swissa, edited by Ran Levi, sound design from Guy Bin-Noun and written by me, Nate Nelson. Thanks for listening, and remember to hit ‘Subscribe’ for more stories just like this.