The Underground Archive of the Warsaw Ghetto

05/08/2020

Did you know that most of the information we have about Polish Jewry during the Holocaust comes from a secret archive hidden underground of the Warsaw Ghetto?

The unearthing of the first part of the Ringelblum Archive from under the rubble of the Warsaw Ghetto on 18th September 1946, photo: Emanuel Ringelblum Jewish Historical Institute

Buried somewhere under the streets of Warsaw, there is a cache of documents that was hidden on 19 April 1943, the night before the outbreak of the uprising in the ghetto.

This was only part of the Underground Archive of the Warsaw Ghetto, the so-called Ringelblum Archive, a unique collection of documents considered one of the world's most significant testimonies about the extermination of Polish Jewry.

The Ringelblum Archive was collected and preserved by a group of Jews living in the ghetto, consisting of people of various beliefs and political affiliations, from orthodox Jews to Zionists and communists.

The organization was established by historian Emanuel Ringelblum, who first began by recording himself the events of each day at the start of the war. With the establishment of the Warsaw ghetto in November 1940, he gradually invited more and more trusted contacts to join in order to document everything that happened to the Jews under the Nazi occupation.

This underground organisation of around 50 to 60 people, known by the codename Oyneg Shabes (Oneg Shabbat in Hebrew, meaning Joy of the Sabbath - because of their Saturday meetings), was extremely secret. The inhabitants of the ghetto did not know about it and many of its collaborators did not even know about each other. Commissioning, writing and collecting was structured tightly. Secretaries made copies in triplicate, in case the project was uncovered. No single person knew the whereabouts of all the documents, in order to create a security firewall.

In an attempt to collect as many diverse materials as possible on Jewish life during the occupation, Ringelblum and his collaborators reached out to ordinary people. They handed out notebooks to Jews in the Ghetto and encouraged them to record their everyday life.

The majority of the information collected consists of written materials in Yiddish, Polish and other European languages, like personal journals and diaries, correspondence flowing into the ghetto, interviews, testimonies, reports, recipes, original poetry and literary pieces, as well as studies of different aspects of life in the ghetto. But the archive also preserved a selection of artifacts, like newspapers, maps, food stamps, postcards, Nazi German orders, records of official institutions, invitations to events organized in the ghetto, leaflets, theatre posters, works of art, school assignments - even tram tickets and candy wrappers. The concert programs preserved give a glimpse of names once famous in what had been a sophisticated European capital. There are performances by world-class musicians from the Warsaw Radio Orchestra and the Philharmonic. There are also in the archive dozens of photographs secretly developed in the ghetto, and more than 300 drawings and watercolors (some of them made before the war). All these artifacts are the material evidence of life in the ghetto which otherwise would not have survived.

Ringelblum hoped that by gathering all of the important information about the fate of the Polish Jews, the truth about the Holocaust would be revealed one day. Therefore, the group took care to show a complete and objective picture of reality, with all the facts and details.

Though based in Warsaw, the members of Oyneg Shabes reached out to other cities and towns around Poland, secretly sending envoys and soliciting materials from as many places as possible. Their work effectively covered the whole of occupied Poland. But when the first news of the mass murder of Jews reached Warsaw at the beginning of 1942, the activity of Oyneg Shabes changed. Instead of collecting materials for a broad monography on the lives of Jewish people on Polish soil, the group started documenting the destruction of Jewish communities and trying to pass this information onto the public. The organization maintained contact with the Polish resistance movement and provided it with copies of gathered documents. One of the earliest reports about the Nazi extermination of the Jews to reach London and the West, the so-called Grojanowski Report about the Chełmno extermination camp, came from Oyneg Shabes. It was smuggled out of the ghetto through the channels of the Polish underground and was published in June 1942.

The materials from the Ringelblum Archive were buried in 10 metal boxes and 2 milk cans for future generations to find. The first cache was hidden in August 1942, at the height of the Great Deportation, and the other in February 1943, not long before the Ghetto Uprising broke out. The third part of the Archive was hidden on 19 April 1943, the night before the outbreak of the uprising.

Emanuel Ringelblum and most of the Oyneg Shabes group were murdered before the end of the war. We do not know all the names of the co-creators of the Archive or have photos of them. But three members of the group's inner circle did survive and made an effort to find the archives. In September 1946, after weeks of planning and calculation, they estimated where the hiding place must have been and dug beneath the rubble, unearthing the first cache. Then in 1950, labourers at one of the new post-war housing estates in what was now communist Warsaw stumbled upon two metal milk churns filled with more documents. But all efforts to find the last and biggest cache have failed so far, so the rest of the archive will remain underground for the time being.

In total around 6,000 documents (some 35,000 pages) were recovered, completely intact and legible apart from some water damage. The archive is currently stored at the Emanuel Ringelblum Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw, and is listed on the Memory of the World Register by UNESCO.

The Ringelblum Archive represents one of the most astonishing research projects in human history, preserving a record of a world doomed to destruction.