Photo Credit: Saul Jay Singer

If a hurricane was coming and you had only an hour to gather all your treasured family records going back through all time, which materials would you try to save? If your community faced mass eviction and you had only a few weeks to conserve centuries of its history, which documents would you try to save? And if the entire Jewish population of your country faced extinction and you had only a few months to assemble records of their very existence, what would you prioritize for preservation?

Portrait of Ringelblum as a young man.

For Emanuel Ringelblum (1900-1944), a Polish-Jewish historian, pedagogue, politician and social activist, these questions were not merely hypothetical. He achieved immortality for his singular act of resistance in the Warsaw Ghetto, when he harnessed his talents as a historian to gather vital statistics and information regarding quotidian Jewish lives in the Ghetto and in Poland during and before the Holocaust that became the eponymous “Ringelblum Archives,” the single most valuable source of information about the lives and fate of Polish Jews in the Holocaust. The material was particularly invaluable in helping Holocaust researchers, scholars and historians to chronicle Nazi atrocities and their perpetrators, and Jewish life in general on a micro level, town by town and village by village. In 1999, UNESCO included the Archives in its “Memory of the World” register of uniquely valuable archival collections – history’s most important written documents.

Photograph of Ringelblum and his son, Uri. Both were murdered by the Nazis in Pawiak prison in Warsaw.

The Archives testify to both the depth of suffering and to the rich spiritual life of Polish Jews under the Third Reich. Ringelblum uniquely understood that what was happening to Polish Jewry was unprecedented, and he correctly perceived that his efforts would provide the basic raw material for future histories of the Warsaw Ghetto and of Polish Jewry during the war. His work is widely regarded as an essential exercise in spiritual defiance, as he labored against all Nazi efforts to eradicate memory while hoping against all odds that Jews somewhere, if not in Poland, would be able to write their own history of the Holocaust without having to rely exclusively on German documentation.

During World War II, Ringelblum settled with his family in the Warsaw Ghetto, where he led a clandestine operation code-named Oneg Shabbos (“Sabbath delight,” so named because the group always met on Shabbat afternoon) that collected and preserved a broad range of material that comprised the collective memory of the doomed community. In undertaking these activities, he led the effort to interview refugees and others in filthy refugee centers, risking not only discovery by the Gestapo but also the threat of contracting typhus. While several hundred people ultimately joined Ringelblum’s group, they successfully maintained the confidentiality of their colossal effort not only from the Nazis and Poles but also from the Judenrat and other Ghetto denizens. As a cover for their activities, he used the Jewish Self-Help Service (ZSS), a social services organization tolerated by the Nazis.

Ringelblum’s (untranslated) notes on Oneg Shabbos (copy).

Paying no heed to the broad internecine warfare that characterized Jewish life in Poland at the time – observant vs. secularist, Yiddish speakers vs. Hebrew speakers, Zionists vs. Diaspora nationalists, and workers vs. middle class – Ringelblum recruited people from across the religious, political, and ideological spectrum of Jewish society to create a documentary infrastructure that provided a detailed description of the influence of German occupation on private life and Jewish society. The resulting Archives became one of the most important undertakings to document and preserve Jewish life under the Third Reich.

The collected materials ran the full gamut from texts of literary works written during the Holocaust, including poems, plays and songs, to flyers and posters, including a trove of Nazi posters that announced the great deportation and desperate appeals from Jews awaiting deportations on trains to Treblinka; to food stamps, ration cards and candy wrappers; tickets and tram stubs; street songs and ghetto folklore; invitations, restaurant menus, and copies of doorbell codes for multiple-dwelling apartments; personal diaries and journals; and assorted ephemera. Over time, he began to also accumulate and preserve orders and decrees issued by the Nazi authorities, documents published by the ghetto’s official institutions, copies of the official and underground newspapers published in the ghetto, and dozens of photographs and more than 300 drawings and watercolors. Many of these documents were collected through the involvement of Ringelblum and his associates in the self-help activities run in the Ghetto.

The Oneg Shabbos staff originally planned to assemble all the material into an organized format, but their plans changed when they learned about the Nazi extermination of Polish Jewry, which prompted a reorientation in their preservation priorities to concentrate on gathering documents relating to deportation and extermination, hoping to bring the mass murders to the attention of the world.

The approximately 25,000 preserved documents include detailed descriptions of the destruction of ghettos in other parts of occupied Poland, the Treblinka and Chelmo extermination camps, and several reports by scientists who conducted research on the effects of famine in the ghettos. Ringelblum maintained contact with the Polish resistance movement, including the Government Delegation for Poland, and he provided it with copies of some of the important documents he had gathered. His endeavors to have the material transmitted to London and on to the West were ultimately successful, and his efforts led to the first word of the killings at Chelmno and the deportations of Warsaw Jewry.

Ringelblum’s monumental effort did not cease even when hundreds of thousands of Jews – including several of his leading Oneg Shabbos associates – were deported from the Warsaw Ghetto to Treblinka in the summer of 1942. One of his greatest and sometimes overlooked contributions was proving the lie of “the passive Jew” by recording and describing the psychological transition of the Warsaw Ghetto survivors from terrorized inaction to a keen resolve to fearlessly take on the entire German army.

When the initial liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto commenced on July 22, 1942, Ringelblum and his Oneg Shabbos associates, realizing that the end was near, understood that there was no time to divide the extensive material of the Archives and to bury it in various locations, so they had to quickly develop an emergency plan to hide the documents. Ringelblum enlisted teacher Israel Lichtensztajn to divide the Archive and to bury it deep underground at a few sites. The first part of the Archive (10 tin boxes) was buried in the basement of the Ber Borochov school at 68 Nowolipki; two additional milk cans were buried in February 1943; and the final interring took place on April 19, 1943 (the night before the uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto), under the brush-making workshop near 34 Swietojerska Street – which is today the grounds of the Chinese Embassy to Poland.


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After the war, several efforts were commenced to find the Archives but, sadly, only the first two parts were found. The first success came in a September 1946 archaeological expedition led by Hersh Wasser, the former secretary of Oneg Shabbos and one of only three members of the group to survive the Holocaust (he had jumped from a train en route to Treblinka). Accompanied by a team from the Jewish Historical Institute and a team of surveyors and engineers, who took their bearings in the thoroughly demolished Warsaw Ghetto from the spires of a surviving church, Wasser unearthed the first cache of the Archives, with the thousands of documents that Ringelblum had stuffed into ten tin boxes, now caked in clay. Because the tin boxes had not been hermetically sealed, water had seeped in and destroyed many of the documents and photographs; however, conservators were able to restore most of the cache of documents, but some were irretrievably lost.

After years of searching, two additional milk cans containing documents covering the period from August 1942 to late January 1943 were discovered by Polish construction workers in September 1950 in a cellar of another ruined house at 68 Nowolipki Street, these in fine condition. Despite repeated searches, however, the remainder of the Archives, including the third milk can, has never been found.

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Ringelblum was born in the small religious shtetl of Buchach, an eastern Galician town then in the Austro-Hungarian Empire (now in Ukraine). Though the family was not religiously observant, his father, Fajwisz, a grain merchant, sent him to the local cheder. His mother, Munie née Heler, a relative of Shmuel Agnon, died when her son was 12 (his father later remarried), and he would later sometimes adopt the pen name “Munie Heler” in her memory. Unfortunately, his accounts of his childhood in Buchach were not preserved, although we know that he was fond of recalling his childhood days.

Ringelblum became deeply involved in three major spheres of Polish-Jewish life: historical scholarship, Jewish social services, and radical politics. Influenced by the strong presence of Yiddish culture in his hometown, he developed a passionate devotion to the Yiddish language, culture and literature. His extreme leftist political views were shaped accordingly, including his becoming an active member of the Jewish Communist Union of Poalei Tzion, the Marxist Left World Union of Poalei Tzion.

In November 1917, when two seminal events in Jewish history occurred – the Balfour Declaration, in which the British promised the Jews a homeland in Eretz Yisrael, and the Bolshevik Revolution, which promised Jews equality in a perfect world – Ringelblum showed his true colors. While claiming that it was possible to synthesize Zionism and communism, he proved himself to be less a Zionist and more a leftist communist, as he remained aligned with the leftists of Poalei Tzion after the movement split in 1920, and he joined them in arguing that the path to Jewish salvation was not from working with Great Britain but rather through the new Soviet Union, which would pave the road to Jewish liberation. When the leftists of Poalei Tzion called for a boycott of YIVO, Ringelblum defended YIVO – but he remained a steadfast and active member of the Jewish Communist Union faction of Poalei Tzion.

Ringelblum maintained that extreme Jewish jingoistic nationalism must not be permitted to contaminate pure historical research. Accordingly, he resolved the inherent conflict between the imperatives of objective fact-gathering and the protection of the good name of the Jewish masses in favor of the former, and he collected an enormous volume of negative material that he included in the Archives including, for example, documents about Jewish policemen who had turned their fellow Jews to the Nazis.

Moving to Warsaw, Ringelblum earned a Ph.D. at Warsaw University, where he completed his doctoral thesis in 1927 on The History of the Jews of Warsaw from the Middle Ages until 1527 and, throughout his tragically short life, he combined his academic work with Jewish advocacy and social work. After teaching history at Yehudiya, a girl’s Jewish high school, he became a renowned historian with a specialty in the history of Polish Jews from the Middle Ages to the 18th century.

Ringelblum saw history as a national mission. He believed that historians should leave their academic “ivory towers” to work with the people and that history was not only scholarship but also a community-building process to bring together scholars and ordinary Jews, a view that came to define the Ringelblum Archives. He undertook all his historical research and prolific publication activities in support of the Jewish struggle for social and national liberation and to demonstrate the important contribution by Jews to Polish economic development and to the Polish independence movement.


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In 1923, Ringelblum became one of the founding fathers of the Young Historians Circle, a group of Jewish history students at Warsaw University and, with assistance from co-founder Raphael (Rafal) Mahler, he formed a group with a nucleus of 40 students of Jewish history that grew to include a generation of Jewish historians and that became widely recognized for its publication of two journals and its work to defend the right of Jews to live in Poland. In 1929, the Society functioned as the Warsaw Commission for Jewish History; starting in 1934, it published The Young Historian and it held monthly seminars until the Nazi invasion in 1939.

Exhibited here is Collected Sources of the History of the Jews in Poland and Eastern Europe “from the Middle Ages (until the year 1506)” by Ringelblum and Mahler. The booklet, signed by both, is dedicated to their chashvon fraynd [“important friend”] Yaakov Leschinskly. Its contents include:

I. The Khazars (introductory remarks. Subchapters: (1) Bullying of the Khazarian King to Chasdei ibn Sprut; (2) The Arab writers about the Khazars; (3) Eldad Hadni about the Khazars.

II. The Origins of the Jews in Russia. Subchapters: (1) The Influence of the Jewish religion in Russia; (2) Trade with Slaves in Russia; (3) The First Pogroms of Jews in Kiev.

III. The Origins of the Jews in Poland. Subchapters: (1) Legends; (2) Hebrew Coins are not [ ] in Poland; (3) The First Sources of Information About the Jews of Poland.

IV. Economic Relations. Subchapters: (1) Trade; (2) Credit; (3) Craft; (4) The Rent from Public Revenue; (6) Doctors.

Mahler (1899-1977), one of Ringelblum’s closest associates, was a Galician-born Jewish historian and intellectual who, as a doctrinaire Marxist scholar, believed economics and social conflicts were essential for understanding Jewish history. He continued his Talmudic studies at a modern rabbinical seminary in Vienna while studying history and philosophy at the University of Vienna, from which he received his doctorate in 1922, and he wrote extensively on Jewish history, specializing in the socio-economic theory of Polish Jewry, the history of Jewish social and religious movements, and Jewish historiography. In 1950, he made aliyah and lectured on Jewish economic history at the Tel Aviv School of Law and Economics, and he was awarded the prestigious Israel Prize for his contributions to Jewish scholarship (1977).

Leshchinsky, whom Ringelblum characterized as his “important friend,” was influenced by Marx and the Zionist thinker Ahad Ha-am, and he engaged in lifelong work analyzing the fate of the Jewish people. His best-known work is arguably the landmark The Jewish Worker in Russia (1906), a combination political pamphlet, theoretical excursus and empirical analysis in which he established a foundation for the ideology of the Zionist Socialist Workers’ Party. A founding father of Jewish social science, he served as director of YIVO’s Economics and Statistics Department.

Upon its formation in 1925, Ringelblum joined YIVO – the “Yiddish Scientific Institute” that preserves, studies and teaches the cultural history of Jewish life throughout Eastern Europe, Germany, and Russia as well studies related to Yiddish – where he came under the influence of the prominent Jewish historian Simon Dubnow, who as early as 1891 had issued his famous appeal to East European Jews to collect documents and to study their history. Ringelblum would later recruit some of these document zamlers (“collectors”) as trusted friends to form the heart of the group that would assist in his effort to gather material for the Archives. He worked in YIVO’s historical section in Vilna, serving as an editor for the group and publishing 126 scholarly articles under his name by 1939. Moreover, beginning in 1930, when he became de facto leader YIVO’s history section in Poland, the seemingly inexhaustible historian published some 30 monographs on Jewish communities in Poland for the Encyclopedia Judaica in Germany and his monograph, Jews in the Kościuszko Uprising (1937).

Ringelblum also commenced work for the American Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) in 1932, on whose behalf he promoted Jewish self-help practices that could provide both moral and economic assistance to Polish Jews facing antisemitism and pogroms. His efforts proved so impressive that, in October 1938, the JDC sent him to Zbąszyń, a frontier border town with Germany to which some 7,000 destitute Jewish Polish nationals had been deported, where he directed relief work and promoted refugee self-help programs while collecting important testimonies from the deportees.

In August 1939, mere weeks before the September 1, 1939, Nazi invasion of Poland, Ringelblum served as a Leftist Poalei Tzion delegate to the 21st Zionist Congress in Geneva. After the war began, he was urged by some members of his family and others to accept invitations to remain safely in the West but, refusing to follow the many Jewish leaders who had fled Warsaw, he returned to Poland to continue his social support programs; as he wrote in The Chronicle of the Warsaw Ghetto, “Our decision to return to the country was dictated by civic duty.” On September 28, 1939, Germany occupied Warsaw and, shortly after his return to Poland in November 1940, the house at 18 Leszno Street where he lived with his family was walled in as part of the Warsaw Ghetto.

Over and above his preservation activities and his emergency relief and aid work in the Ghetto, he was also actively involved in resistance efforts, including standing civil defense watches under heavy fire. He participated in founding the ZOB, the Jewish Combat Organization, which was formed on July 28, 1942 – six days after the Nazis under SS General Jurgen Stroop began the action that sealed the fate of the Jews imprisoned in the Warsaw Ghetto – which organized and launched the Ghetto uprising.

Ringelblum and his family managed to avoid being sent to Treblinka during the “Great Deportation.” His son, Uri, had been sent from the Warsaw Ghetto into hiding in early autumn 1942, and the rest of the family left the Ghetto in February 1943, shortly before the Ghetto uprising in April, and hid in a bunker called Krysia at the back of a house at 81 Grójecka Street in the non-Jewish area of Warsaw.

Ringelblum memorial stamp, issued by the Israeli Postal Authority on February 24, 2004.

During Passover 1944, he made one of his returns to the Ghetto to bring in money and to try to arrange additional hideouts for Jews across the walls on the Aryan side, but he was caught, arrested, and deported to the Trawniki forced labor camp. After managing to escape with the assistance of the Home Army and the Council to Aid Jews, he returned to hiding in the Krysia bunker with his wife, son, and some 30 refugees. During that time, he worked virtually nonstop on writing a history of Polish-Jewish relations during World War II and essays on key members of the Jewish intelligentsia, which survived the Holocaust but, unfortunately, his extensive essay on the Trawniki labor camp was lost.

Several people urged Ringelblum to leave his hiding place and join the active resistance, arguing that his Aryan appearance would permit him to move freely through Warsaw, but he refused to leave his ailing wife and his family and he could not abandon his historian’s work – even after receiving an offer to escape abroad. Finally, on March 7, 1944, the Gestapo found the hideout and the entire family – and all those who helped to hide them – were packed into trucks and taken to the Pawiak prison. According to the written record of Jechiel Hirschaut, who shared a jail cell with Ringelblum and his son, Ringelblum was tortured by the Gestapo, who sought information about the Jewish resistance. They were all murdered by the Nazis at Pawiak, and the exact date of their murders is unknown, as are their burial places.

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The 35,000 recovered documents from the Archive are preserved in the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw, which was the building of the Main Judaic Library next to the Great Synagogue where the Jewish Self-Help Services was located. Recognizing that the full potential of the Archive was not possible absent a catalog that methodically and systematically organized and described its contents, the Jewish Historical Institute and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum joined forces to prepare and publish such a catalog. A comprehensive digitization project, first on microfilm and then in digital copy form, has also been completed, and The Warsaw Ghetto Oyneg Shabes–Ringelblum Archive: Catalog and Guide may be consulted in the archives of the Holocaust Museum and in Warsaw.

An outstanding source for further information on the Ringelblum Archives is the excellent Who Will Write Our History? Rediscovering a Hidden Archive From the Warsaw Ghetto, by Samuel D. Kassow, an American historian of the history of Ashkenazi Jewry. The book was adapted into a documentary film of the same title, released in 2018, that was produced by Nancy Spielberg (Steven’s sister).


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Saul Jay Singer serves as senior legal ethics counsel with the District of Columbia Bar and is a collector of extraordinary original Judaica documents and letters. He welcomes comments at at [email protected].