Emanuel Ringelblum – an optimist who believed in the human being

21 November marks the 119th birthday of Emanuel Ringelblum, historian and social activist, founder of Oneg Shabbat – an underground organization dedicated to the documentation of the fate of Jews under the German occupation.

Wide wide wide ringelblum 11 fotka
Emanuel Ringelblum

Childhood and youth

Emanuel Ringelblum was born on 21 November 1900 in Buchach in East Galicia, as were his siblings – a brother and two sisters. His mother, Munie nee Heler, died when Emanuel was 12. his father, Fajwisz, was a grain merchant. He identified himself with the Jewish enlightenment movement – according to one of his friends from the World War I era, he looked like an ordinary Jew (…) dressed half Jewish, half European, without sidelocks, only with a short red beard. [1] Even though he wasn’t religious, he sent his son to the local cheder; Emanuel completed the primary school in Buchach and began his education at a state gymnasium, he also joined a small Zionist youth organization ran by Cwi Heller. Unfortunately, Ringelblum’s accounts of his childhood in Buchach weren’t preserved, although we know that he liked to recall his childhood days.

Ringelblum’s father got married again. When the World War I began, the Ringelblum family, in fear of Cossack pogroms, escaped from Buchach to Nowy Sącz. Younf Emanuel attended there the Jan Dlugosz Gymnasium no.1. His schoolmates called him Edek or Edzia. He passed his final exams in 1920.

The Ringelblums found themselves in a bad financial situation. Mendel Najgroszl recalls that one could sense quiet sadness in a home where poverty and loneliness of uprooted people prevailed. [2] Some people remember him being sad and rarely smiling in that period. Others had different memories, like Rafal Mahler: A handsome, fair-haired student attracted everyone’s attention in his student’s cape. His light, sincere laugh, his Jewish folk and socialist songs could be heard in the city park, where he would spend summer evenings in a company of other young men and women. [3]  Most likely, both memories are true and describe two different periods in Ringelblum’s life.

Years spent in this city sparked the beginnings of his political activity: he joined the youth section of the Poalej Syjon party, with whose left-wing faction he remained associated for the rest of his life.

In 1919, he participated in the congress of the Jugnt organization in Warsaw. Soon, thanks to his political activity, he also met his wife, Judyta Herman (born in 1904), a fellow member of Poalej Syjon-Lewica. In 1930, their son Uriel (Uri) was born. Ringelblum was a dedicated father. One of his students recalls: when we wanted to distract him from an upcoming test, we were asking him how little Uri was doing. He would beam with smile and begin to delight in telling us how clever Uri was and how quickly he was learning. [4]

In 1920, he applied for a place at the medical studies at the University of Warsaw, but he wasn’t accepted due to numerus clausus. In 1922, he began to study history in Warsaw. He made a living by private lessons and translations, he was also teaching in Poalej Syjon-Lewica’s evening schools, among others – in high schools in Vilnius.

On 20 May 1927, he defended his PhD (Jews in Warsaw, from the oldest times until 1527), and one year later he received the diploma of a high school teacher. He began to work at the „Jehudija” private gymnasium for Jewish girls, where he met Abraham Lewin – later to become an Oneg Shabbat associate. He gave up teaching in 1938, having decided to dedicate himself to social work.

His sister Gizela (Giza) married Artur Eisenbach, later – a historian of the Holocaust and director of the Jewish Historical Institute (1966–1968). She died during the war, as did their daughter Emilia. In the Ringelblum Archive, one telegram from Giza was preserved – in a message sent on 19 September 1942 from Buchach, she is asking about „her family’s health”, presumably already aware about the „resettlement” of the Warsaw Jews. [5]


Emanuel Ringelblum — historian

As Paweł Fijałkowski writes, Emanuel Ringelblum was not only researching the past, but also popularizing knowledge about it. He was certain that the history of the Jewish community is an integral and crucial element of Poland’s complex history. [6] 

In 1930, together with Rafał Mahler, he announced Sources for researching the history of Jews in Poland and in Eastern Europe. Two years later, his dissertation was published. Ringelblum was working on its continuation (History of Jews in Warsaw until the end of the 18th century), but he didn’t manage to publish it; many fragments were used as articles about the history of Jews in old Poland. He also wrote a study Projects and attempts to modify the status of Jews in the king Stanislaus Augustus era (1934) and the first historical study on Szmul Zbytkower.

Since 1930, he had been cooperating with the „Encyclopedia Judaica” in Germany, where he published about 30 monographs on Jewish communities in Poland. In 1937, his monograph Jews in the Kościuszko Uprising was published.

He founded the Seminar on the History of Jews in Poland, reformed in 1923 into the Society of Young Historians under the patronage of YIVO (Institute for Jewish Research) in Vilnius. From 1929, the Society had been functioning as the Warsaw Commission for Jewish History. The height of its activity was in the 1930s — from 1926, the organization had been publishing the „Junger Historiker” periodical (from 1934 — „Bleter far Geszichte”). [7]

Ringeblum was prolific – he never ceased to write, even when he had to hide on the „aryan side” in 1943. Artur Eisenbach wrote in his introduction to the „Chronicle of the Warsaw Ghetto”, that a bibliography of Ringelblum’s studies covers about 126 positions. [8]

 

Emanuel Ringelblum – social activist

Emanuel Ringelblum linked his scientific interest with social engagement (…) He believed that historical research should support the struggle for social and national liberation of the Jews, prove their contribution to the economic development and the independence movement in Poland, and through this – provide arguments for equality of Jews among other citizens of Poland. [9]

Ringelblum had an exceptional talent for management and didn’t give up even in the most difficult circumstances. According to his possibilities, he was trying to help others. His activity in the Poalej Syjon-Lewica had shaped in him a deep dedication for the research of Jewish history, love for Yiddish language, an attachment for the Jewish masses and a strong sense of responsibility. In particular, he cared about popularizing Yiddish – already at school, he was encouraging his friends to speak the language. In mid-1930s, he contributed to a campaign supporting the idea of organizing a global congress of Yiddish-language culture in Poland.

Genia Silkes remembered Emanuel Ringelblum as a person full of optimism. Even in the hardest times, he was spreading good mood and lifting the spirits. He was boosting people’s courage and didn’t allow for resignation. People were becoming attached to Emanuel, liked him, followed him. [10]

Since 1929, he had been cooperating withe the Interest-Free Funding Central, supported by Joint; soon, he became an editor of „Folkshilf”, a periodical published by the institution (until 1938). He was a member of the Union of the Jewish School Teachers in Poland and the Jewish Writers Society. He was also active in the Program Committee for History Teaching, a section of the Central Organization for Jewish Education. In the late 1930s, he was a full-time employee of Joint (American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee). Since 1938, he was involved in its various initiatives, mostly in providing help fot 6,000 Polish Jews expelled from Germany and remaining in a border camp in Zbąszyń.

In August 1939, he took part in the 21st Zionist Congress in Geneva. After the outbreak of the war, despite receiving invitations to stay in the West, he returned to his home country in order to organize social support. As he wrote in the „Chronicle of the Warsaw Ghetto”: Our decision to return to the country was dictated by civic duty. [11] His brother-in-law, Artur Eisenbach, was encouraging him to leave Warsaw, but he refused – he decided to manage social help on behalf of Joint. In November 1940, the house in which he lived in together with his family at 18 Leszno street, was included in the Warsaw Ghetto.

He was active in the Central Committee for Help (later the Coordination Committee), which oversaw the activity of Jewish humanitarian and charity organizations in Warsaw. It became a basis for the Jewish Social Self-Help in the ghetto; Ringelblum became the manager of the Social Work Section. He was also involved in resistance: in 1942, he joined the Antifascists Block, he participated in founding the Jewish Combat Organization, he remained in contact with the Jewish Military Union, and from 1943 — with the Jewish National Committee.

 

Oneg Shabbat and the underground archive of the warsaw ghetto

Already in the first months of the war, Emanuel Ringelblum began to collect accounts of the events he witnessed and which – of what he was aware from the start – had no precedent in history. Since September 1939, he was writing down notes in a diary-like form; he was recording not only his experiences, but also information shared by defectors escaping to Warsaw or people resettled from various parts of Poland. In May 1940, Ringelblum decided to add a framework to his documentation and to involve friends and acquintances, usually related to the structures of the Jewish Social Self-Help. He accomplished his project in Autumn of 1940, when the Germans began to fully close down the Warsaw Ghetto.

This is how the underground Oneg Shabbat organization was formed (Hebr. The Joy of Sabbath – the meetings were held on Saturdays). The group, which included several people from various social backgrounds (journalists, writers, teachers, economists, representants of business and trade, students etc) took the challenge of collecting and documenting the life of Jews under the German occupation. Israel Gutman stressed the focus on following changes in the lives of individuals, families, various social groups, official and underground organizations. [12] As Ringelblum himself stressed: Versatility was the main principle of our activity. Objectivism was the second. Each person was working in an assigned area. Certain associates were responsible for documentation and evidence, others – for collecting and editing accounts. Some were following the daily lives of people; creatives contributed their own essays, personal accounts, works of literature.

The group was entirely secret. For cover, it used the Jewish Social Self-Help (JSSH), an official organization, tolerated by the occupant, but also involved in vast unofficial activity. The JSSH offices were located at the Main Judaistic Library, next to the Great Synagogue at Tłomackie street. The building has been the home of the Jewish Historical Institute since 1947; also, the Ringelblum Archive is being stored here.

Initially, the work of Oneg Shabbat was focussed on collecting materials and documents dedicated to life in the ghetto – official papers, brochures, posters, ID cards, address cards, proofs of employment, food vouchers, tram tickets, photographs, illustrations, paintings, even candy wrappers or restaurant menus. Gradually, the group began to focus on the research and documentation of the life of the ghetto, and the general situation of the Jewish community in occupied Poland. When the first news about mass murder committed on Jews began to reach Warsaw in early 1942, Oneg Shabbat had reoriented their interests. The group began to document the extermination of Jewish communities and making this knowledge public. The organization remained in contact with the Polish resistance movement (such as the Government Delegation for Poland) and passed copies of collected documentation to them. In 1942, thanks to Polish and Jewish organizations, Oneg Shabbat’s reports on the Holocaust had reached the West.

The documents were hidden in two parts, in the Ber Borochov school basement at 68 Nowolipki street. The entire preserved Archive comprises more than 35,000 documents – the last accounts of life, suffering and death of individuals and entire communities of cities and towns all across Poland. They provide a priceless resource for research on the Holocaust.

In 1999, UNESCO included the Ringelblum Archive on the Memory of the World list – the most important documents of the written word.

 

the „Krysia” bunker

The Ringelblum family managed to avoid being sent to Treblinka during the Great Deportation. 13-year old Uri was taken away from the ghetto in the Summer or early Autumn of 1942. He remained in hiding for about half a year, staying in Teresa Nowakowa’s flat in Treblinka. The Ringelblums left the ghetto in February 1943 thanks to the help of Barbara Temkin-Bermanowa and Adolf Berman. All three of them found themselves in a bunker called „Krysia” on the back of a house at 81 Grójecka street, which belonged to the Wolski family. Ringelblum would depart from there to his meetings with friends and associates.

During one of such situations, in mid-April 1943, he was arrested and transported to the forced labour camp in Trawniki – the Home Army and the Council to Aid Jews managed to rescue him. For about 3 months, he had been living in Praga, at 2 Radzymińska street, but later he returned to „Krysia”. [13]

There, he was continuing his scientific work, and documentation of the life of Jews in the occupied Poland; he wrote an extensive essay on the labour camp in Trawniki (it was lost during the war), an essay on Polish-Jewish relationships during World War II, a study on the tragic fate of the Jewish intelligentsia, and on the Jewish resistance movement (probably unfinished). He managed to pass these works to his friend Adolf Berman, at that time – the head of the Jewish National Committee. Together with him, he wrote a document on the culture in the ghettos and the tragedy of the Jewish artists. The document was sent to Pen-Club and to the Institute for Jewish Research in New York.

People were suggesting that he could leave the hiding place – due to „aryan appearance”, he had a chance to move around Warsaw freely. He refused – he didn’t want to leave his family and abandon his historian’s work, which would become difficult if he joined the resistance actively. Ringelblum didn’t accept an offer to escape abroad either.

The bunker covered an area of 28 sq.m., was 1,83 metre high; in the middle, there were two rows of 14-storey, narrow metal beds, and a long table. 38 people remained in hiding there altogether; 34 people were staying on the beds (Uri was sleeping head to toe with his parents), the remaining 4 – on additional folded beds. Ringelblum wrote to the Bermans on 6 January 1944: The food is decent, but it’s unbearably tight here. (…) A possibility of staying outdoors all day is a great advantage which balances the inconvenience. (…) Only first days are awful, later everyone gets used to it, and even remain in good moods. [14]  Emanuel’s account was completed by his wife Judyta (Józia): The reality is so much different – arguments, fighting over space, dirt. The differences between husband and wife’s words can be probably explained by different obligations, personalities and temperaments. Irena Grodzińska (Orgna Jagur), who had spent 8 months in the bunker, wrote: At one of the tables, always at the same place, a quiet middle-aged man sat writing by the light of a carbide lamp. He was writing nearly all the time, through entire days and evenings, spending hours by the table full of papers and books. (…) Dr Ringelblum was only physically present in the „Krysia” bunker; his thoughts were far away from there. He didn’t take part in the daily life, remaining unmoved in the moments of fear as well as relief. He didn’t participate, didn’t take part in discussions or arguments. [15]  His wife Judyta certainly did – they tok their toll on her physical and mental health.

Ringelblum received an offer to replace Berman as the head of the Jewish National Committee, but he refused. He wrote in one of his letters to the Bermans (3 March 1944) that he coulnd not leave due to his wife’s health and his own mental condition (he wrote about himself in the third person): Regarding E.’s condition, he’s feeling like a dead dog. He’s going through a deep depression caused by the hopelessness of the situation. Józia strongly opposed the plan to leave, believing that E is unable to take the proposed position in his current condition. [16]

The bunker was discovered on 7 March 1944. Samuel Kassow wrote that Wolski was probably betrayed by his girlfriend when they broke up. The Germans knew who to look for and where. According to Mieczysław Wolski’s mother, recalled in Orna Jagur’s memoir, the Germans were supposed to yell: You bloody Jewish servant, you will pay for hiding the Jews, you fool! [17] 

All of the inhabitants, along with the owner of the house and his nephew, were packed by the Germans into trucks and taken to the Pawiak prison. The greenhouse and the bunker were destroyed with grenades.

In Who will write our history? Samuel Kassow refers to writer Jechiel Hirschaut’s account, accourding to whom there was a plan to rescue Ringelblum, but he refused, not wanting to leave his wife and son. According to Hirschaut, Ringelblum was tortured by Gestapo who wanted to gain information about the Jewish resistance. During the last meeting between the writer and the historian in the prison cell, Ringelblum was supposed to look at his son Uri and say: What is this kid guilty of? My heart breaks because of him, and then he asked Hirschaut: Is it difficult to die?

Several days later, probably on 10 March, Germans shot all of the „Krysia” inhabitants in the ruins of the ghetto.

Israel Gutman, Jewish historian, a resistance activist in the Warsaw Ghetto, wrote that Ringelblum for his whole life had been an optimist who believed in the human being. He was affected by the suffering of others and tried to help them, even if he was in a hopeless situation himself.

His greatest dream, and his greatest fear is: whether his life’s work, the Archive, a common achievement of people he lived among, will reach the free world. [18]

Ringelblum’s will was fulfilled: both parts of the Archive had been unearthed soon after the war and a cry of dying Jewish nation reached the free world.

--------------------

The article is a part of the Oneg Szabat Program.


Footnotes:

[1] Samuel D. Kassow, Who will write our history?, JHI, Warsaw 2017, p.59.

[2] Ibidem, s. 66.

[3] Ibidem.

[4] Ibidem, s 71.

[5] Aleksandra Bańkowska, Buczacz — place of birth of Emanuel Ringelblum21.11.2013, http://www.jhi.pl/en/blog/2013–11–21-buczacz-place-of-birth-of-emanuel-ringelblum

[6] Paweł Fijałkowski, Warsaw’s Polish-Jewish Topography. Ringelblum’s Contributions to Warsaw History, Jewish History Quarterly, December 2015, nr 4 (256), p. 659.

[7] Paweł Fijałkowski, Emanuel Ringelblum as a Student of History of Warsaw’s Jews, Jewish History Quarterly, op. cit.

[8] Ertur Eisenbach, Introduction to: Emanuel Ringelblum, Chronicle of the Warsaw Ghetto, Warsaw 1983, p. 9.

[9] Paweł Fijałkowski, Emanuel Ringelblum as a Student of History of Warsaw’s Jews, op.cit., p. 45.

[10] Genia Silkes, Two Meetings with Emanuel RingelblumJewish History Quarterly, December 2015, nr 4 (256), p. 113.

[11] Emanuel Ringelblum, Chronicle of the Warsaw Ghetto, Warsaw 1983, p. 31.

[12] Israel Gutman, Emanuel Ringelblum’s Letters, Zagłada Żydów. Studia i materiały, t.1, Warsaw 2005, p. 194.

[13] Eleonora Bergman, Sidenotes Regarding Emanuel and Judyta Ringelblums Letters to Adolf and Basia Berman (25 November 1943 – 3 March 1944), Jewish History Quarterly, December 2015, nr 4 (256).

[14] Emanuel Ringelblum’s Letters, Zagłada Żydów. Studia i materiały, t.1, Warsaw 2005, p. 215.

[15] Orna Jagur, „Krysia” bunker, Oficyna Bibliofilów, Łódź 1997, p. 33–34.

[16] Emanuel Ringelblum’s Letters, op. cit., p. 228.

[17] Orna Jagur, „Krysia” bunker, op. cit., p. 10.

[18] Emanuel Ringelblum’s Letters, op. cit., p. 195.


Bibliography:

Orna Jagur, „Krysia” bunker, Oficyna Bibliofilów, Łódź 1997;

Samuel D. Kassow, Who will write our history?, JHI, Warsaw 2017;

Emanuel Ringelblum, Chronicle of the Warsaw Ghetto, Warsaw 1983;

Jewish History Quarterly, December 2015, nr 4 (256);

Zagłada Żydów. Studia i materiały, t.1, Warsaw 2005.






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