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Recovered Archive Shows Jewish Life and Death in the Warsaw Ghetto

April 21, 2005
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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 fruition.

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,” Kahn said.

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 been found.

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 Internet.

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.

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