Emanuel Ringelblum before World War II
Ringelblum was born in Buczacz, Poland (now part of Ukraine) on November 21, 1900. He received his doctorate in history at the University of Warsaw in 1927. In Warsaw, he met his wife, Yehudis Herman. They had a son named Uri in 1930.
From a young age, Emanuel Ringelblum belonged to the socialist-Zionist political party, Po’alei Zion Left, and took an active role in Jewish public life, working as a high school teacher and as an employee of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) in Poland.
Ringelblum also began to develop a reputation as a serious historian of Polish-Jewish life. He formed a historical society with a group of other Polish-Jewish historians. He became one of the group’s leading scholars and an editor of the society’s publications. By 1939, he had published 126 scholarly articles on his own. This scholarly productivity foreshadowed his prolific work in the Warsaw ghetto.
In November 1938, as part of his work for the JDC, Ringelblum traveled to the Polish border town of Zbaszyn. There, 6,000 Jewish refugees from Germany, hungry and cold, were stranded on the border, denied admission into Poland after having been expelled from Germany. Ringelblum spent five weeks in Zbaszyn. He organized assistance for the refugees trapped on the border, creating a welfare office, legal section, and migration department. He also organized cultural activities.
Ringelblum’s experiences in Zbaszyn had a great impact on him and would prepare him for his work in Warsaw during the war.
The Outbreak of World War II and the Creation of the Archive
Upon the German invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, Ringelblum had just returned to Warsaw from Switzerland, where he had been a Po’alei Zion Left delegate to the 21st Zionist Congress in Geneva. Although many key Jewish leaders fled the Polish capital, Ringelblum refused to leave. During the siege of Warsaw, he participated in civil defense watches under heavy fire and assisted those injured in air raids. He continued his work for the JDC, helping to organize emergency relief and refugee aid.
During the war, Ringelblum’s two major prewar endeavors—history and social welfare —came together. He became a major leader of the Jewish mutual aid organization in Warsaw, the Aleynhilf (self-help). He helped coordinate aid to refugees and soup kitchens. He also helped organize an extensive network of House Committees and tried to make them into the social base of the Aleynhilf.
Ringelblum helped found a society for the advancement of Yiddish culture (Yidishe Kultur Organizatsye; YIKOR) in the ghetto. His most important initiative, however, was the creation of the Oneg Shabbat underground archive—the secret archive of the Warsaw ghetto. The term Oneg Shabbat, which refers to the traditional Sabbath gathering of members of the community, was applied to the underground archive because its organizers held their regular, clandestine meetings on the Sabbath. Begun as an individual chronicle by Ringelblum in October 1939, the archive grew into an organized underground operation with several dozen contributors after the sealing of the ghetto in November 1940.
The Fate of Ringelblum and the Archive
In March 1943, Ringelblum and his family escaped the ghetto and went into hiding in the non-Jewish area of Warsaw. During Passover of that year, he returned to the ghetto, which was in the midst of an uprising. He was deported to the Trawniki labor camp, but escaped with the help of a Polish man and Jewish woman. He went back into hiding with his family, however, in March 1944 their hideout was discovered. Soon after, Ringelblum, his family, and the other Jews he had been hiding with were taken to the ruins of the ghetto and murdered.
Tragically, only the first two parts of the archive were found after the war. They are preserved in the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw, and constitute one of the most important collections of documentation about the fate of Polish Jewry in the Holocaust.
Critical Thinking Questions
- What aims may have influenced Ringelblum in his decision to create an archive of life in the Warsaw ghetto?
- What may have motivated Ringelblum and the other workers of the Oneg Shabbat archive to continue to collect materials, despite the constant risk of danger?
- Investigate what types of materials were preserved in the Oneg Shabbat archive. What can these materials teach us about Jewish life in the ghetto?
Gutman, Yisrael. The Jews of Warsaw, 1939-1943: Ghetto, Underground, Revolt. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1982.
Kassow, Samuel. Who Will Write Our History: Emanuel Ringelblum, the Warsaw Ghetto, and the Oyneg Shabbat Archive . Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2007.
Kermish, Joseph. To Live with Honor and Die with Honor!...: Selected Documents from the Warsaw Ghetto Underground Archives “O.S.” [“Oneg Shabbath”] . Jerusalem: Yad Vashem, 1986.
Ringelblum, Emanuel. Notes from the Warsaw Ghetto, edited and translated by Jacob Sloan. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1958.