Where was the world when the Jews were going to their death? Szmuel Winter

Written by: Anna Majchrowska
Entrepreneur, philanthropist, enthusiast of Jewish folklore and language, Szmuel (Shmuel) Winter supported financially the activity of the Oneg Shabbat group – from his own money and from the finances of the Supply Department, where he worked. According to the Oneg Shabbat cash book, more than half of the means managed by Ringelblum’s group was donated by Winter.

Szmuel Winter was born in 1891 in Włocławek. His father, a rabbi, provided extensive education for his son, both religious and secular; Winter graduated from economic studies in Frankfurt. After returning to his hometown, he ran a successful company exporting crops and seeds, also belonged to the board of the Jewish Merchants Society. As an affluent entrepreneur, he cooperated with the Bund Socialist party. According to Rachela Auerbach, Winter supported Bund due to its attitute towards the Yiddish language rather than its political stance.

Winter was an enthusiast of folklore and secular Jewish culture. Despite many professional duties, he found time for his own research; he was especially interested in Yiddish dialects, among them – his own Kuyavian dialect (from the Kujawy [Kuyavia] region of today’s central Poland). He was also one of the founders and early supporters of YIVO, or Yiddish Scientific Institute, where he was also a board member. Winter regularly published articles about Jewish culture and language in “YIVO Bleter” – the Institute’s bulletin, also wrote for “Wilner Tog”, a periodical known for its high standards and interest in Jewish culture. He also collected a great private library, comprising thousands of volumes.

Rachela Auerbach wrote about him: Winter probably had his political sympathies (…), but like a husband faithful [to only one woman], he dedicated his passion and heart to only one idea – secular Jewish culture. On his shoulders, he carried the responsibility for its very existence, for its every need. [1]

Samuel Kassow writes that Winter was called by his friends a “Don Quixote” due to his persistence with using Yiddish in business and letter headings.

Izrael Gutman remembered him: Winter was an outstanding person in the ghetto, even in terms of appearance. He was very tall, with wide, arched back. He would always look down at the ground. In the middle of his yellowish face, there was a giant nose with a pair of glasses on top. [2]

At the beginning of the war, Winter arrived in Warsaw with his wife and three children. He engaged himself in the activity of Ikor, a Jewish cultural organization promoting Yiddish culture among the ghetto’s inhabitants. Thanks to his cooperation with YIVO, he met Emanuel Ringelblum and Icchak Giterman. Belonging to the strict management body of the Archive, he worked also in the Jewish District Supply Department, where he cooperated with Abraham Gepner, head of the Department and one of the most important members of the Judenrat (Ghetto’s Jewish Council). This way, he became one of the most important connections between the community and the Self-Help; he facilitated food deliveries for the soup kitchen and, as we can assume, he was informing Ringelblum about the Jewish Council’s plans.

winter_2.jpg [121.40 KB]
A letter from Szmuel Winter to the head of the Jewish Council in Warsaw,
regarding the arrest of Salomon, head of an unidentified house committee in the Warsaw Ghetto,
by the Jewish Ghetto Police / source: The Ringelblum Archive

Winter was supporting Oneg Shabbat’s activity from his own means and from the finances of the Supply Department. During the Great Deportation in the summer of 1942, he was arranging employment for people who Oneg Shabbat wanted to protect. Unfortunately, he didn’t manage to save his wife Toba and youngest son Heniek. Despite personal tragedy, he continued his work in resistance. In the weeks following the Great Deportation, under the guise of deliveries to the soup kitchens, the Oneg Shabbat leadership were holding meetings in Winter’s office at 30 Franciszkańska Street to discuss archives.

Winter provided money and food for Ringelblum and his associates, as well as a priceless telephone for connecting with the „Aryan side”. He also tried to employ people who Oneg Shabbat wanted to save, such as Rachela Auerbach and Szyja Perle. Thanks to Winter’s telephone and a connection to Adolf Berman, Rachela Auerbach and others managed to plan their escape from the ghetto. In autumn 1942, Winter organized a new job for Auerbach, which gave her an opportunity to take up Oneg Shabbat’s new task: listening to and writing down accounts of Jews who managed to escape from the Treblinka death camp. Work for Oneg Shabbat was a priority for him. In my opinion, from the historical point of view, Oneg Shabbat’s work is more important for the future than the Jewish war. [3] – wrote Gutman.

After the January 1943 deportation, when first gunshots were fired by the Jewish insurgents, Winter wasn’t certain whether he should support the fight or focus on Oneg Shabbat activities. The Archive was in danger of complete destruction in case of a battle. Only after several days, he became an avid supporter of military resistance and joined, together with Ringelblum, a committee collecting money for the Jewish Combat Organization. As he managed large amounts of money, he noted in his diary with concern, that he was not used to sending and receiving such amounts without a receipt. [4]

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An index of articles by Szmuel Winter published between 1926 and 1938
in an unknown periodical / source: The Ringelblum Archive

Back then, Winter was living in a small flat with his rescued son Julek, daughter Marysia, her fiance and Gutman, whom he took care of. In the hiding place, he was writing a diary, from which only a small fragment survived, found after the war in the burned ruins. The pages reveal the horrible pain he suffered in the last months of his life. He felt guilty that he didn’t manage to save his wife and son. He wrote that he could not sleep and was in such pain that he felt ready for his life to end. [5]

Winter firmly refused leaving the ghetto, doomed to destruction. Auerbach was insisting for him to try and leave, but he replied: What does it mean, to leave? Not everybody has the right to stand up and leave. What will happen to those who don’t have a chance to get out? [6]

When the uprising began on 19 April, Winter joined two of his surviving children, who were hiding in a bunker at 30 Franciszkańska Street. Kassow writes: “(…) during the first days of the battles in the ghetto, Winter was writing a diary. When Izrael Gutman was wounded in the eye, Winter visited him – that was their last meeting. He told Gutman that his life was over, and that after losing his wife and son, he was a wreck of a man. Only one question kept following him: where was the world, when the Jews were going to their death?” [7].

On 3 May 1943, the Germans discovered the bunker. According to Marek Edelman, who saw this event with other insurgents from their observation point at 30 Franciszkańska Street, Germans let tear gas inside and people began to crawl out. Winter, led by the Germans, marched away with others. Every person from this group was murdered on the same day.

Unfortunately, neither the original version nor a copy of Szmuel Winter’s diary survived the war. Single pages were miraculously found in the ruins of the ghetto. Winter’s notes from 19, 20, 22 January 1943 were published by Bernard Mark in 1947 in “Dos buch fun gwure”, and other found notes in 1950 in “Bleter far Geszichte”.

Written by: Anna Majchrowska

Translated by: Olga Drenda

Polish translation of Mark’s article from „Bleter far Geszichte” in Magdalena Siek’s translation, expanded with fragments of the diary from January 1943 published in „Dos buch fun gwure” (unknown translator) and fragments read from photographs published in „Bleter far Geszichte” (transl. Magdalena Siek) with an introduction by Aleksandra Bańkowska, will be published in the next issue of the Jewish History Quarterly (May 2019).


[1] Rachela Auerbach, Warszewer cawoes, Tel Aviv 1974, p. 272-284.

[2] Samuel D. Kassow, Who will write our history?, translated by Grażyna Waluga, Olga Zienkiewicz, JHI, Warsaw 2017, p. 281.

[3] Israel Gutman, Żydzi warszawscy 1939 – 1943, translated by Zoja Perelmuter, Oficyna Wydawnicza Rytm, Warsaw 1993, p. 426.

[4] Samuel D. Kassow, Who will write our history?, op. cit., p. 283.

[5] Ibidem, p. 282.

[6] Rachela Auerbach, Warszewer cawoes, Tel Aviv 1974, p. 272-284.

[7] Samuel D. Kassow, Who will write our history?, op. cit., p. 285.


Emanuel Ringelblum, Pisma Emanuela Ringelbluma z getta, full edition of the Ringelblum Archive, Vol. 29, ed. Joanna Nalewajko-Kulikov, JHI, Warsaw 2018.

Rachela Auerbach, Warszewer cawoes, Tel Aviv 1974, s. 272-284.

Samuel D. Kassow, Who will write our history?, translated by Grażyna Waluga, Olga Zienkiewicz, JHI, Warsaw 2017.

Anna Majchrowska