An archive more important than life

Outside of academic circles very few of us have heard of the The Oneg Shabbat Archive or the exceptional man Emanuel Ringelblum .

With the assistance of associates he created a top-secret archive documenting the tragic fate of 3.5 million Polish Jews also known as the Underground Archive of the Warsaw Ghetto.

Emanuel Ringelblum was a historian and social worker. Perhaps the combination of the two is what gave him the foresight to set up the Oneg Shabbat Group (Joy of Shabbat) at his home, a week after the Warsaw Ghetto was sealed in November 1940.    The aim of this secret group was to gather a confidential array of articles, essays and items documenting day to day life in the ghetto.

Notebooks were given to a variety of hand-picked writers, teachers, scientists amongst others who were encouraged to record their everyday life under German Occupation. Apart from information in the form of candy wrappers, pieces of art and poetry, the project became a unique social study touching on issues such as schooling, economic conditions, the situation of the children and relationships as it became apparent that Jews were slowly being exterminated.

The secrecy around the project was so tightly sealed that the majority of the collaborators were unaware of the other participants involved.  Eventually the archive was buried underground in 10 metal boxes and 3 large milk urns and like its confidential birth, only 3 of the 70 members knew of their location. This was risky but necessary to protect them from being discovered and destroyed by the Nazis.

Sadly, Ringleblum who with his family had gone into hiding was found and shot at the ruins of the ghetto. 3 members survived the war, Hersz Wasser, his wife and Rachela Auerbach. Some truths are meant to be told and miraculously Hersz Wasser was able to locate one urn. The second urn was found accidentally by a Polish construction worker some years later, in December 1950 but the third urn has yet to be discovered. 

The archive is more than a collection of dire last testimonies written at a time of deadly uncertainty. It is a time capsule of a nation trying to shout out to the world the truth of what was really going on and a chance to be remembered.

When the Nazis stripped the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto of their possessions they also stripped them of any dignity, sensitivity or love. The residual piece of humanity was their ability to document their thoughts, a welcome escapism in such a bleak time or perhaps a chance to one day be remembered.

These articles are their moments of hope and wishes that someone one day would find them and know the truth and with the hope that their unexpressed emotions would not die, as they did.

Our Rabbis teach us that the important deeds we do in our lifetime are considered to be our children. Although the authors of the archive were murdered and unable to live free and fulfilled lives the evidence that they courageously tried to preserve for us were like their only legacy. The simple task that they undertook brought justice to so many. The archive was used as evidence in the Nuremberg trials.

In the words of Rabbi Farhi “strength is the challenge that is in front of you, bravery is for a challenge that you don’t know” and in the merit of the courageous and brave contributors to the archive our history as a Jewish people was not rewritten and retold but written and told.

The entire archive can be visited in the Emanuel Ringelblum Jewish Historical Institute – Warsaw.



About the Author
Alexi Kelaty is a member of the World Jewish Congress Diplomatic Corps and a solicitor at ABJ solicitors
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