Emanuel Ringelblum in the Warsaw Ghetto

Translated by Jessica Cohen

By Dr. Nathan Eck


Ringelblum achieved his success, as is known, with the lauded enterprise which he founded in the Warsaw Ghetto – the underground archives, of which he was the initiator and creator. These archives housed thousands of certificates and documents, descriptions and studies, written by dozens of people whom Ringelblum activated, guided and presided over their labor. In the midst of the days of destruction and the confiscation, the archives were buried and after the war some of them were found and raised from beneath the ashes, and they are now preserved in Warsaw. This historical material is now considered one of the main sources for the history of the period.

But during the war, Ringelblum did not view his scientific work as the primary endeavor, at least not during the first two years of the Nazi occupation. At that time, he valued above all his public, practical work, and fully believed that his name would be recalled in history thanks to this work, for the circumstances placed him in the center of public activism from the beginning of the war. Ringelblum would recall that first period occasionally during later conversations. He would tell proudly and enthusiastically of the important activity which he and his friends carried out in the besieged and bombed Warsaw in September, 1939, when they would provide aid to the casualties and the needy, and provide shelter for the refugees and the burn victims, while being bombarded with bullets and bombs. The aid committee which was established at that time, during the great bombardment, became over the course of time the main aid institution in the Warsaw Ghetto, known as “Yidische Sociale Aleinhilf” (Jewish Self Assistance).

We worked together in that institution, in the public works “sector” which Ringelblum directed. The sector's duty was to be in constant touch with the Jewish population and to help it organize self-assistance. For this purpose, we divided the city of Warsaw (later, the Ghetto) into a series of areas, and established a local bureau of our institution in each area, and in each house there was a committee of residents. The public sector recruited hundreds of activists from all over the town – later, the Ghetto – and would conduct meetings, gatherings and many consultations. The sector's headquarters – which were housed, for most of the time, in the community library building on Tlomeczka Street – quickly became a public gathering place and a sort of “stock exchange” of information and rumors. Whoever wanted to meet acquaintances, hear about the goings-on in the capital and the provincial towns, or pick up secret information about the situation on the fronts and in the world, would come to this place. Here, the mass gatherings could easily be justified to the Germans, because we could always claim that the crowds of people were there to seek assistance.

Word of this place reached the provincial towns too, and when a Jewish man from there happened to come to Warsaw (at that time only a few Jews would travel from one town to another), he would always remember to go to the “sector.” And if he brought important news from his hometown, they would immediately usher him into Ringelblum's room to impart the news. On such occasions, Ringelblum would convene the head workers of the sector in his room (L. L. Bloch, Y. Torkow, Starowinski, N. Ack and others), so that they could also hear the news. Let us not forget that there were no newspapers for Jews at that time – the only newspapers we could obtain (illegally) were from the Nazi press, Jews were forbidden to have radios at home, one could not leave the house in the evenings, the contact with the world outside the Ghetto was tenuous. It is no wonder, therefore, that there was much thirst for information – not only about the occurrences in the world at large, but also of what was happening in the Polish provincial towns and even in the Warsaw Ghetto itself.

The work in the “public sector” gave Ringelblum the opportunity to meet many Jews on a daily basis, both residents of Warsaw and of the provincial towns, and to listen to their stories and their descriptions. And when they learned that this man valued the information and sometimes even recorded what they told him, they would produce their news for him even more eagerly. Sometimes they would also bring interesting objects, as proof of the veracity of their stories. For example, a document attesting to a capricious order issued by one of the local officers; a bag made of Torah scroll parchment; a photograph of an unusual act of abuse, and so forth. Ringelblum's great merit was that he knew how to appreciate the special opportunity which fate had handed him, and to use it correctly. This public work, then, is what inspired and enabled him to establish the archives. However, as we have said, the archives were at first only a secondary activity after his public work. Only over the course of time, when it transpired that in fact there was no true benefit from all the activities, since any attempt at an act, any effort, would be shattered by the evil of the sabotaging oppressor, Ringelblum began to spend the better part of his time and energy on the historical work. For himself and his “followers” – for there were now enthusiastic followers of his work – this work became a comfort in times of trouble and became the content of life. It was clear that this labor over preparing historical material for the next generations had become, for him, an escape from the tragic vanity of the present reality. Often, as we sat depressed after an unsuccessful endeavor or a new decree, he would suddenly begin telling the story of some important document which he had obtained, or some other detail of his historical work. During those moments, his voice and the expression on his face were evidence that the man was attempting to find a pillar to lean on in the midst of his failure – the failure of us all, and he found it and was strengthened and encouraged by it.

Ringelblum loved conversations and jokes. He loved to listen and to talk. And above all – he loved to write. His hand never ceased writing notes. He wrote details of news, segments of ideas and plans, names, rumors and jokes. He wrote not only when he was alone in his room, but also during conversations with a friend, a clerk, an activist, during a meeting or a conference, even when he was the chairman. He would put the notes in his pocket, but would also leave many of them on the desk in his office, sometimes unwittingly and sometimes because he considered them unimportant.

Ringelblum's historical endeavor was known, at that time, by the code-name “Oneg Shabbat,” and indeed, the archival workers would normally convene on Shabbat and take pleasure in the progress of their work, whose details they would impart to one another as they met.

Over the two years during which we worked together in the “public sector,” we would meet almost every day, and through conversations with him I learned various facts about his private life. He told me of the days of his youth in Buczacz; he told me that in the youth movement, he was under the leadership of Dr. Zvi Heller; he told of his sister in the Soviet Union. I also visited him in his apartment, where I met his wife and small son. I sometimes saw him with his party comrades – Poalei Zion Smol [Left Zionist Labor]. Incidentally, they respected him very much and were proud of him, but were not always pleased with him. I once learned the reason from one of them: he is not enough of a party man, he is “innocent,” he is “too honest”…

Ringelblum used to sometimes mislead people who thought to judge him by the expression on his face and his manner of speaking. Those who did not know him well might have believed that this was a sedentary man, far from life's tumult, one who did not know how to manage life. But the truth was that Ringelblum was not only a quick learner, but also had practical sharpness; he knew not only how to meditate on the problems of life, but also how to suitably handle their solutions. During the two years we worked together, I saw how he grew, how his stature increased during trying times, in face of the difficult tasks he took upon himself.

His nature was such that he belonged to that group of people who are never corrupted. In the course of his work, he met with thousands of people from all walks of life and all types of characters. He saw and knew at that time perhaps more than any other man of the scum and filth of the Ghetto life, but he was made of the stuff that nothing of that filth and ugliness could stick to. In his purity of heart and his honest ways, he was one of the illuminating figures who brought light to the darkness of the Ghetto and constantly gave it honor and glory.

Dr. Nathan Eck

Emanuel Ringelblum

by Melech Rawitz

In the middle of 1944, a name emerged in the Jewish press around the world and rang out as a melody – Emanuel Ringelblum. The majority of the Jewish world, who had in any case been as deaf as an adder, remained steadfast in their deafness. These people could only be awakened by the sound of a blow in their ears: Heil Hitler! Or: during the transfer to Treblinka. In the ears of the more refined section of the Jewish people, and particularly among the educated Jews of Poland, the sounds of that name took root as they rang out and became louder until they were the norm.

In keeping with the pathos of Jewish history, two men lost their lives together during those years of the vast Jewish holocaust, although not at the same time and not in the same ghetto. They were the elder of Jewish history, Shimon Dubnov in Riga, and the youngest of Jewish historians, Dr. Emanuel Ringelblum in Warsaw. The latter was forty years younger than his teacher.

Soon after the First World War, when Galicia was united with Poland, the Jewish Galician youth flocked to Warsaw, Bialistok and even Wilna. Galicia had always had an excess of educated Jews. Before the war, they would migrate to Vienna and Berlin. Now Berlin and Vienna were cities of scarcity, while Warsaw offered great opportunities. And so the Galician doctors rushed to the “Asian” parts of Poland. With one sweep, they infiltrated the important positions. And when, in 1930, Y. M. Neiman wished to describe a series of leading figures in the Jewish institutions in Warsaw, he discovered that they had all come from Galicia. They were quiet and generous, but would conquer fortress after fortress.

Who can say what Emanuel Ringelblum thought to himself when he came to Warsaw in 1922 as a young, shy student. He was not yet even a doctor. I happened to make note of his first entrance to our authors club. It must have been in 1928. The crisis, which culminated in the year of the abyss, 1939, had already began. And here came a tall, upright young man, wearing an artists' beret, his hair curly and his face the colors of blood and milk, with dimples. He was constantly becoming embarrassed and blushing, and had a slight stammer. He wished to join the authors organization. We began talking and I recalled that I had some acquaintances in his town of Buczacz. I advised him not to stay in Warsaw. In general, I advised young people to leave Poland, especially Zionists such as Ringelblum. I almost quarreled with him. I had shaken his innocent faith, and had seen in him my own faith of a decade prior. Faith that was proven false. He defended his enthusiasm and faith in the future of Poland Jewry. He knows better than me; he is a historian. He is not a man of moods, a poet. We did not fight: Galicians do not fight. But we made some stinging remarks to each other and bid each other farewell. And from that time onwards, I sensed an eternal sadness every time I saw Ringelblum. I had already planted my vineyard and had found that only thistles could grow here. And here comes this man and once again plants his tender years. He became a member of the association. He once presented to me, victoriously, the essay “The Young Historian” – and after all, 'the young historian' and Ringelblum became synonymous until the day he died a martyr's death.

And who could have foreseen that Jewish history, of all things, would place the thorny crown of the Warsaw Ghetto historian on his young head with the innocent face and dimples – and in the ghetto itself? Not only did he himself write, he also organized writing and collection of documents. His name is signed on the last call to the declining Jewish culture in Poland and the entire Jewish cultural world. And in that final call he recalls that Oswiecim – one of the greatest sites of murder – was called in the vernacular: Oshpitsin. And thus he did not forget, even in his final words moments before his death, to call the town by its name.

December 1934. I left Poland for ever. A hasty meeting. It might have been near the “Paviak,” nine steps and nine years away from that same place and time, when the halo of the youngest tormented-historian hovered above his head. He berated me for leaving Poland. I replied that I knew better than him… He answered boldly that he knew sevenfold better than me. He knew.

Melech Rawitz