Whose account of the events of history becomes the official narrative? Whose stories are elevated to the level of “truth,” and whose do we ignore or even bury? What is real, and what is fake? These are top-of-mind questions in 2019. They also preoccupied a courageous group of resistance fighters imprisoned in the Warsaw Ghetto in World War II.
Created and led by Polish historian Emanuel Ringelblum, the group known as Oyneg Shabes — a code name, chosen because the executive committee of the archive met on Saturdays, meaning “the joys of the Sabbath” — was a clandestine organization of 60-plus members engaged in spiritual resistance against the Nazis, fighting hatred, lies and propaganda with pen and paper. They wrote diaries and commissioned essays on everything from underground schools to the hundreds of soup kitchens run by the Jewish Self-Help in the Ghetto. They interviewed refugees from the provinces about what happened when the Germans arrived in their towns. They collected jokes, poems and songs. They amassed artifacts such as photographs, German pronouncements, labels on ghetto goods, official and underground newspapers, and more — anything that would help future historians tell the story of the war from the Jewish point of view, rather than from the Nazi perspective.
They also carefully documented Nazi atrocities and smuggled painstakingly documented reports of mass murder out of the ghetto via the Polish underground, in hopes that those reports would prompt someone to come to their rescue. But rescue did not come.
In just eight weeks, starting in July of 1942, 300,000 people from the ghetto, the largest Jewish community in the world, were shipped off to their deaths at Treblinka. During that terrible time, when Jewish policemen brutally deported their fellow Jews under threat of the deportation of their own wives and children, members of the Oyneg Shabes not only continued to write eyewitness accounts of the unfolding disaster, but managed to bury the first cache of their archive in ten metal boxes. Later, another cache was buried in two milk cans, and on the eve of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, in April 1943, the very few Oyneg Shabes members who remained in the ghetto buried a third set.
Because of the need for extreme caution and secrecy — the Nazis did not look favorably upon any form of resistance — Ringelblum entrusted the location of the collection to only three other people. This way, if a member of the Oyneg Shabes were arrested and tortured, he or she could not divulge the location of the archive. In the end, only three members of the Oyneg Shabes survived the war. Emanuel Ringelblum was not one of them. Along with his wife and son and the 30-some people with whom they had been hiding for nine months in an underground bunker on the Aryan side of Warsaw, he was shot and killed when they were betrayed to the Nazis. Of the three members of the Oyneg Shabes who did survive, only Hersh Wasser, who had jumped off a train bound for Treblinka, knew where the archive was buried.
German bombardments had flattened the Ghetto, leaving only a heap of rubble. As Rachel Auerbach, another of the three survivors later wrote, it was difficult to tell where a street had been let alone find a certain building. Understanding that the buried archive was a national treasure, Auerbach and Wasser persisted. In 1946, navigating using a single standing church spire and pre-war aerial maps, Wasser led an interested group of rescuers to 68 Nowolipki Street, the site of what had once been a Jewish school where the archive had been buried. Digging down to the basement, as Auerbach described, “was like an archeological expedition.” She despaired, wondering if anything would be found.
But when they tunneled down to the basement, they found 10 metal boxes. And in 1950, Polish construction workers building new apartment buildings on the site accidentally found two milk cans stuffed with precious documents. These included Emanuel Ringelblum’s own daily diary and his essay explaining the goals, methods and spirit of Oyneg Shabes. The third cache, containing eyewitness accounts of the period leading up the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, has still not been found. It is believed by some scholars to be under what is now the Chinese Embassy in Warsaw, but an attempt to locate it was unsuccessful.
Meanwhile, the contents of the milk cans and boxes, by some estimates 60,000 pages of documents, have been housed and preserved at the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw since they were unearthed. Behind the Iron Curtain, mostly written in Yiddish and Polish, the Oyneg Shabes Archive remained essentially unknown for more than half a century. But after the fall of the Berlin Wall, resources and technology for preservation, translation and dissemination were available to the Jewish Historical Institute. Next, in a work of historical rescue, historian Samuel Kassow spent 12 years researching and writing a masterful and detailed account of Emanuel Ringelblum and the Oyneg Shabes archive. In 2010, I read the resulting book Who Will Write Our History? Rediscovering a Hidden Archive From the Warsaw Ghetto — and I was outraged. I had spent my life voraciously reading about the Holocaust. How was it possible that the equivalent of the Dead Sea Scrolls rising from the rubble of the Ghetto had remained largely unknown outside of academic circles? I decided to make a film based on Kassow’s book, in hopes that it would bring Ringelblum’s story to millions of people around the world.
Finally, the largest trove of eye-witness accounts to survive the Holocaust, the priceless record of a murdered civilization, is being brought fully into the light. In 1999, three document collections from Poland were included in UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register: the masterpieces of Chopin, the scientific works of Copernicus and the Oyneg Shabes archive. A permanent exhibit of the archive opened to visitors at the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw in November 2017. In January 2019, my film Who Will Write Our History had its theatrical premiere in New York City, and it will be screened in more than 40 countries on Sunday for International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
In a time when truth is under attack and intolerance is ascendant, perhaps we can all take inspiration from people who fought against what Ringelblum called the “enemies of humanity” with the ultimate weapon — the truth — and risked everything so that their archive would survive the war, even if they did not.
Correction, Jan. 30:
The original version of this story misstated which cache of documents was buried in milk cans; that was the second cache, not the third. It also misstated the name of the street where the archive had been buried; that was Nowolipki Street, not Nowpolipki Street. It also misstated the date the permanent exhibit of the archive opened to visitors; that was November 2017, not November 2018.