How do we acquire knowledge of life and struggle in the Warsaw Ghetto?

Written by: Jewish Historical Institute
Jewish Historical Institute has in its possession a collection of documents of great significance.

Jewish Historical Institute has in its possession a collection of documents of great significance, the only one of such which was assembled during the war. The underground archive of the Warsaw Ghetto, known also as Ringelblum Archive, is located in the basement of JHI’s building. The archive consists of dozens thousand of pages of documents, photographs and drawings. The collection was assembled systematically, nothing was accidental. Data on how Jews functioned in Warsaw was being collected for the archive, but they also tried gathering general information on the life of Jews during the war. It is a testimony of Jewish Warsaw: documents focusing on the situation of women and children, showing orphanages and hospitals. The materials being a case study offamine in the ghetto, presenting case histories of its residents. The evidence of political activity taken up by Jews has also been assembled in the Archive. According to the gathered information, 20 underground magazines, from Zionist to communist, were issued in the ghetto.

Valuable materials are various types of journals. A lot of them were kept at the time, but unfortunately most of them did not survive. They were destroyed by the war. A document written by Chaim Kaplan is probably the most interesting of the ghetto journals. It was published in English and only its extracts were printed in Polish. Kaplan’s journal is the key document from artistic and stylistic point of view. It also has a great information value.

Another element is belles-lettres. One of the most important novels about the Warsaw Ghetto is ‘Bread for the Departed’ by Bogdan Wojdowski. The novel, published in 1970, is a firsthand report of a Jewish child that managed to escape from a ghetto and survive. This book providing information of literary character is highly significant.An important medium documenting the life in the ghetto is photography. Especially now when we are so susceptible to the visual media, it has a crucial meaning. JHI created, perhaps the most interesting that has ever been made, a documentary based on the photographs about the Warsaw Ghetto. Undoubtedly, there are a lot of documentaries and feature films of greater or lesser significance that can help us understand what the Warsaw Ghetto and the confinement meant. 


A separate type of material is German documents. From a historian point of view the most important of them is Jurgen Stroop’s Report. It was prepared for the commander of the forces responsible for the destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto. The report covers the order of events and shows them from German perspective. It points out particular elements not only of the destruction of Jewish troops, but also Polish ones who of course in a very limited way, but still, joined the uprising.
Even though we have gathered a lot of information about the order of the events of the uprising in the ghetto, there are obviously a lot of mysteries. One of them, especially difficult to solve, is the matter of the involvement of the Jewish Military Union, ŻZW, in the uprising. Ar far as we know what the Jewish Combat Organization, ŻOB commanded by Mordechaj Anielewicz was and when and where they fought (quite a majority of ŻOB members survived and gave a rather thorough report about the situation), the fate of the Jewish Military Union is partly shrouded in mystery. It is due to the fact that probably only two of ŻZW soldiers survived and if they did, they emigrated immediately after the war without leaving any testimonies. The documents of the Jewish Military Association are therefore limited. We know only that the symbol of the uprising was raising on one of the buildings two flags: the Polish one and the one with the Star of David which symbolized the unity of the fate of the Polish and Jews. The flags were hanged by the ŻZW soldiers.

The hardest is to recreate not the facts — because they are possible to recreate — but the atmosphere of this city, people’s feelings and emotions. The insight into the world of experience give us literature, journals, pieces of photographs. It is a sphere on which we have to meditate and reflect, consider what those people felt, confined, sentenced to inevitable death. Extremely important, from this point of view is an account given by Karski, an emissary of The Government Delegation for Poland, who with this data arrived to London. Using an underground tunnel built by the ŻZW soldiers, as far as I remember in October 1942, he got through to the ghetto and met with a representative of the underground. A description of what those people looked like, the expressions on their faces, what they, according to him, felt as far as he could tell basing it on what he could see. This account is to me one of the most important war testimonies that I remembered. 
We need to understand that in 1942 about two million of Polish citizens of Jewish descent were killed. Never before had Poland lost so many of its citizens in such a short time. There had been of course the victims of the uprisings, of the First World War, of September ’39, but never on such a scale, which means, two million people of which about 300 thousand were deported from Warsaw to Treblinka. It is something absolutely unbelievable in terms of biological and cultural loss. That is how Poland was deprived of its fundamental tradition, the foundation it rested on. The nation which since the Statute of Kalisz had been an integrated part of Polish community and had had an influence on Polish identity was murdered.

The death of Jews is the moment when Polish history started to be included in the history of the world. It was not the history of only one of the occupied countries in Europe. A massacre not having a precedent happened in Poland. ‘Factories of death’ to annihilate the whole nation were built on our grounds. Through the Polish fate we know how much cruelty and massacre stood behind such systems as the National Socialism and as we learned later, Stalinism.

Jewish Historical Institute