March 10th is the anniversary of Emanuel Ringelblum’s death. He was executed in 1944 in the ruins of the Warsaw ghetto. Emanuel Ringelblum? The name sounds exotic and doesn’t say much to someone who is outside of the circle of Holocaust historians. Among them, Ringelblum as an initiator and creator of the underground Warsaw Ghetto Archives has the reputation of a hero of the highest rank.
What is his atypical heroism about? What led to it?
There was Buczacz, in which Ringelblum was born in 1900, Nowy Sącz, where he graduated from the public high school (these schools before the war guaranteed the best secular education), and finally Warsaw, where he wanted to study medicine. From our point of view, it was fortunate that he was prevented from studying medicine by the numerus clausus, which was a restriction in the admission of Jews to some university departments, and that Ringelblum had to settle for history, yet for him it was a severe disappointment and a proof of existing discrimination.
As a historian, he was researching the old history of the Jews of Warsaw, but he had to earn his living by teaching, writing for the press, taking part in civic activism at courses for illiterates. With incredible energy, he worked in various fields. He joined the socialist-Zionist party Poale Zion-Left, whose ideals, such as the fight to improve the fate of the uneducated masses of Jewish workers (an aim much closer to his heart than the plan to build a Jewish homeland in distant Palestine), love for Yiddish, and a strong sense of moral responsibility, shaped him as a historian and a leader. Despite the growing anti-Semitism, he was an optimist, certain in the 1930s that Jews had their future in Poland and he believed that the history of Jews in Poland is an integral part of Polish history.
One of his major organizational experiences, so useful later in the ghetto in creating and leading Oneg Shabbat, he gained in 1938 in Zbąszyń, where he went to work during the campaign to help Jewish citizens of Poland who had been displaced from Germany.
At the end of 1939, Ringelblum was in Geneva at the Zionist Congress. When the information about the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact was announced, Polish participants suggested to him to remain in Switzerland. Ringelblum was however so rooted in Poland, so wrapped up in the problems of the Jewish community in the country, and had such a sense of civic duty that he decided to return to Poland immediately.
As of September 1939, Ringelblum held an important role in the Jewish Social Self-Help. Already in October 1939, he saw the need for a comprehensive documentation of the life of Jews under Nazi occupation. In 1940, under Ringelblum’s leadership, a group of people began to work in the strictest confidence. The group worked under the code name Oneg Shabbat (”the joy of the Sabbath”), because their conspiratorial meetings were held on Saturdays.
The work of Oneg Shabbat was not restricted to gathering available materials, such as official announcements, posters or even personal letters, notes and photographs. Interviewers and researchers were conducting interviews, mainly with refugees from other regions of Poland, collecting children’s essays, writing reports and working on many other forms of records documenting the Holocaust.
At the same time as the Germans were realizing their plan of the final solution of the Jewish question, the Oneg Shabbat members — afflicted by hunger and disease, decimated by executions and deportations like everyone else in the ghetto – did not relent in their work until the spring of 1943. Out of over 60 members, only three survived. Before their death, they managed to hide thousands of documents in milk cans and tin boxes.
In February 1943, Emanuel Ringelblum decided to hide together with his wife, Jehudis, and their son, Uri, on the Aryan side, in the bunker “Krysia“ near 81 Grójecka St, where he wrote, among others, his bookPolish-Jewish Relations During World War II. Still then, he kept going back to the ghetto and trying to figure out ways for saving others, especially for saving lives of Jewish children, and certainly also monitoring the hiding of the Archives. He went to the Archives a day before the uprising and, during the fight, he fell into the hands of Germans who transported him to Trawniki camp. Thanks to the efforts of Polish and Jewish underground activists, he was taken out of there in the guise of a railwayman and returned to Grójecka.
On March 7, 1944, as the result of a Polish denunciation, the Gestapo took to the Pawiak prison over 30 hiding Jews together with their Polish protectors. The underground activists managed to contact Ringelblum and offered him help. They were, however, unable to take his family out of Pawiak, and Emanuel Ringelblum refused to leave them.
Three days later, all of them were executed in the ruins of the ghetto.
Emanuel Ringelblum did not carry grenades, did not pick up a gun, did not fight in the uprising. In a gesture of equally heroic resistance, he used all his knowledge and determination to make it possible for future generations to learn the truth about German atrocities and about the last moments of the communities of Polish Jews.