What is the Ringelblum Archive? How did it survive World War II? And why do we need to constantly reassess its importance? Here are the most important facts you need to know about one of the world’s greatest monuments to human resistance and heroism in the face of ultimate evil.
The Ringelblum Archive, known also as the Underground Archive of the Warsaw Ghetto, is a cache of materials and documents, collected and preserved during World War II in the Warsaw Ghetto by a group of scholars and intellectuals, known as Oyneg Shabes (alternative spellings: Oneg Shabbat, Oyneg Shabbos). Written in Yiddish and Polish, and currently stored at the Emanuel Ringelblum Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw, the archive contains approximately 6,000 documents (about 35,000 pages) and is listed on the Memory of the World Register by UNESCO.
Undertaken in one of the deepest circles of hell during one of the darkest hours in the history of mankind, the Ringelblum Archive remains one of the most astonishing research projects in human history. An attempt to write history from within the most terrible event of the 20th century, it gave a voice to victims of the Holocaust, preserving a record of a world doomed to destruction.
1. Oyneg Shabes was an underground research institute operating in the Warsaw Ghetto
The so-called Ringelblum Archive was developed by a clandestine research organisation called Oyneg Shabes. The organisation was established by historian Emanuel Ringelblum in the autumn of 1940 in Warsaw to document everything that happened to the Jews during World War II and under the Nazi occupation. This underground organisation of around 50-60 people functioned in the Warsaw Ghetto and was secret – many of its collaborators didn’t even know about each other. The documentation work was continued even after the Great Deportation in 1942 and ended only in April 1943, shortly before the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Almost all of the members of Oyneg Shabes perished before the war was out.
Find out more about the people behind the Ringelblum Archive here
2. The archive was a collective effort
In an attempt to collect as many diverse materials as possible on Jewish life during the occupation, Ringelblum and his collaborators reached out to ordinary people. They handed out notebooks to Jews in the ghetto and encouraged them to record their everyday life. Thus ordinary people and not historians were becoming ‘an army of collectors’ (or zamlers) – sources of history which would be passed onto future generations. This was in keeping with Ringelblum’s idea of writing history from ‘within the event,’ as he rightly believed that future events, including the subsequent stages of the Holocaust, could effectively distort the memory of earlier life in the ghetto.
3. Not only Warsaw
Though based in Warsaw, the members of Oyneg Shabes reached out to other cities and towns around Poland, secretly sending envoys and soliciting materials from as many places as possible. Their work effectively covered the whole of occupied Poland. As such, the Ringelblum Archive is one of the most major sources documenting the Shoah, and the fate of the 3.5 million people making up Poland’s Jewish community.
4. Not only written materials
The majority of materials collected by the members of Oyneg Shabes consists of written materials, like diaries, journals, reportages, as well as studies of different aspects of life in the ghetto, commissioned secretly by the organisation from its collaborators. But the archive also preserved a selection of artefacts, like newspapers, ration tickets, letters and postcards, German orders, invitations to events organised in the ghetto, leaflets, theatre posters, school assignments, even tram tickets and candy wrappers. These ephemeral artefacts are the real material glimpses of life in the ghetto which otherwise would not have survived.
5. Art & poetry too
The archive includes not only documents and artefacts but also original works of art and literary pieces written in the ghetto, which had a documentary value for Ringelblum. The archive preserved poems by such poets as Yitzhak Katznelson, Władysław Szlengel, Hershele (Hershel of Ostropol), Joseph Kirman, Gustawa Jarecka or Kalman Lis (find the poems here). The archive contains more than 300 drawings and watercolours, among them paintings by Gela Seksztajn (now available online) and remarkable cartoon-style drawings by Rozenfeld, who created eerily postmodern representations of the Holocaust.
Find out more about artists living in the Warsaw ghetto.
6. Centre of civil resistance: informing the West about the Holocaust
When the first news of the mass murder of Jews reached Warsaw at the beginning of 1942, the activity of Oyneg Shabes changed. Instead of collecting materials for a ‘broad monograph’ on the lives of Jewish people on Polish soil, the group started documenting the destruction of Jewish communities and trying to pass this information onto the public. One of the earliest reports about the Nazi extermination of the Jews to reach London and the West, the so-called Grojanowski Report about the Chełmno extermination camp, came from Oyneg Shabes. It was smuggled out of the ghetto through the channels of the Polish underground and was published in June 1942.
7. Treasure buried in the ruins
The materials from the Ringelblum Archive were buried in 10 metal boxes and 2 milk cans. The first cache was hidden in August 1942, at the height of the Great Deportation, and the other in February 1943, not long before the Ghetto Uprising broke out. The first cache was unearthed shortly after the war in September 1946, while the discovery of the second trove came in December 1950. According to the surviving members of the Oyneg Shabes, like Rachela Auerbach, there was also the third cache, which so far hasn’t been found despite various excavation works. As Auerbach noted:
If the third part of the Ringelblum Archive, and with it my papers, turned over for safe keeping after the Great Deportation began, is ever found, it will include a ticket from the ghetto’s laundry with a poem by [Yisroel] Shtern about a tree in the ghetto.
8. ‘A stone hurled under history's wheel’
If not for the archive, our knowledge of the Holocaust and especially what life looked like in the ghetto, would be incomparably smaller. The archive remains a priceless resource for studies and reflection on the Holocaust. At the same time, as Hersh Wasser, one of the three surviving members of Oyneg Shabes, argued, ‘the very existence of this archive (...) is a testimony. Few texts live a life as intense as these, written by the deaths of thousands.’
The Ringelblum Archive was created in defiance to the popular dictum that history is written by the victors. In this sense it was, as poet Gustawa Jarecka, one of the collaborators of the archive, described it, a ‘stone hurled under history's wheel in order to stop it.’ Unfortunately, it did not stop it, but it still may become a stone preventing other genocides from happening. As Dawid Graber, one of the people who buried the archive, wrote in his last will and testament:
What we were unable to shout out to the world, we hid underground. May this treasure end up in good hands, may it live to see better times. May it alert the world.
Author: Mikołaj Gliński, 18 Sept 2017
In November 2017, a new permanent exhibition entitled An Archive More Important Than Life will open at the Emanuel Ringelblum Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw. The complete scholarly edition of 36 volumes of the Ringelblum Archive is expected to be concluded in 2017, with the Ringelblum Archive’s digital version available online at the Main Judaic Library website. Find out more about the programme celebrating the legacy of Oneg Shabbat at the Jewish Historical Institute and explore the interactive site dedicated to Oneg Shabat.
Roberta Grossman’s documentary Who Will Write our History about Oyneg Shabes and the Ringelblum Archive is set to premiere in 2018.