Recovered archive shows Jewish life and death in the Warsaw Ghetto
Jewish Telegraphic Agency
April 21, 2005
Jewish Telegraphic Agency
BERKELEY, Calif., April 20 (JTA) -- As the revered Jewish historian Simon
Dubnov went to his death at the hands of the Nazis in 1941 -- crying out in
Yiddish, "Jews, write it down!" -- his disciple and colleague, the
historian Emanuel Ringelblum, was organizing the largest underground
archive in Europe to record the Jewish experience in the Shoah. The
Ringelblum Archive swelled into a "massive pillar of Jewish civil
resistance," Ringelblum's biographer, Samuel Kassow, said at the San
Francisco opening of an exhibition, "Scream the Truth at the World: Emanuel
Ringelblum and the Hidden Archive of the Warsaw Ghetto."
The exhibit, which opened at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco
on Tuesday, commemorates the 62nd anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto
Uprising, which was among the most significant acts of armed resistance
against Nazi Germany during World War II.
The exhibit opened the same day as the anniversary of the uprising was
marked in Warsaw, honoring those Jews who took up arms against the Nazis
after they heard the ghetto was to be liquidated.
Once the center of Jewish life and culture, both in prewar Poland and
worldwide, Warsaw became the site of death and degradation during the Nazi
occupation. Within its barbed-wired walls, monumental acts of physical and
spiritual resistance took place.
"The Warsaw Ghetto inhabitants fought with guns and grenades, with pens
and paintbrushes, and with their hearts and minds," said Rabbi Yoel Kahn,
who directs the JCC's Taube Center for Jewish Life, which is hosting the
exhibit. "Their brave, bold actions demand of us to remember our perished
communities and lost culture, and to be equally daring and determined in
shaping Jewish identities and cultural meaning today."
In November 1940, even before the Warsaw Ghetto was sealed, Ringelblum
enlisted several dozen men and women to document the life of Polish Jews
during World War II. Calling their secret group Oneg Shabbat, or Sabbath
Joy, because they met on Saturdays, they collected records, diaries,
posters, photos, letters and artwork.
Their goals, as Ringelblum described them, were to "alert the world to our
pain and torment," to maintain contact between Jewish Warsaw and other
communities and to collect documentation that someday could be used to
bring Nazi war criminals to justice.
The members of Oneg Shabbat risked their lives to preserve a record of
their community. In the midst of the unfathomable devastation, they
documented a world on the brink of annihilation. Although the historians
among them hoped to use the material to publish a comprehensive history of
the Jews during World War II, most would not live to see their project to
Of the dozens of Oneg Shabbat members -- the exact number is not known --
only two survived the war.
Soon after Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, Oneg Shabbat
understood, as few others did, that the Nazis were engaged in the
systematic murder of all Jews. In the weeks before Jews were transported to
the Treblinka death camp, determined that the information must survive even
if they could not, the ghetto archivists buried their vast collection in
boxes and milk canisters.
It was their hope that this collection of artifacts would "scream the
truth at the world" after their deaths. "Their courageous endeavor, carried
out over four years until the ghetto was liquidated, demonstrates the
powerful drive to preserve history in the face of tyranny and suffering,"
Ringelblum did not survive, but his colleague Hirsch Vasser did. Vasser
knew the three places where the collection had been buried, so soon after
the war ended he went to search for it among the debris of the ruined city.
On Sept. 18, 1946, after many months of searching, the first cache was
pulled from the rubble where the ghetto once stood. "Thousands of documents
were packed into 10 tin boxes," said Kassow, a professor of European
history at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn. A second cache was discovered
in 1950. The last cache, holding almost half of the entire archive, has not
Half of the memory of Warsaw's Jews remains buried beneath the rebuilt
city, where the Chinese Embassy stands today.
But during the Nazi occupation, it was in this same area, in the basement
of the Ber Borochov school, that 19-year-old David Graber, a member of Oneg
Shabbat, wrote on Monday, Aug. 3, 1942: "What we were unable to scream out
to the world, we have concealed under the ground. I would love to see the
moment in which the great treasure will be dug up and scream to the world
proclaiming the truth. So the world may know all."
Exhibit curator Eleonora Bergman of Warsaw, visiting San Francisco for the
first time, pointed to a young girl's diary entry and a Jewish Symphony
Orchestra poster as examples of "people's attempts to make their lives in
the ghetto as meaningful as possible
"When we look at the symphony poster, our first thought might be, 'They
had entertainment in the ghetto,' " Bergman continued. "But then we read
Ringelblum's words, written in November 1940, a few days after the ghetto
was sealed: 'Tonight, I was in the theater. One wants to escape reality.'
And this reminds us that in the coming months, hunger would be omnipresent.
"As recorded by the Oneg Shabbat, over 5,500 people died in August 1941 --
15 times more than was the average for one month before the war."
Bergman and her colleagues at the Jewish Historical Institute, together
with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and Yad Vashem, are
cataloging and archiving the voluminous collection -- 28,646 recovered
pages -- for scholarly use. They will be accessible to the public over the
The Ringelblum Archive connects the present to the future.
"Memory is also about the future," said Tad Taube, whose Taube Foundation
for Jewish Life & Culture co-sponsored the San Francisco exhibit. "As they
persevered in their heroic work, the archivists of the Warsaw Ghetto held
images of the Jewish people who would survive, carry on and remember," said
the Krakow-born philanthropist.