Hersh and Bluma Wasser, surviving members of Oyneg Shabes, with a portion of the secret archive buried in tin containers for safekeeping and recovered soon after the war in the ruins of the Warsaw ghetto. (The Ghetto Fighters’ Museum/Israel)

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Ringelblum, Emanuel

(1900–1944), Polish Jewish historian, relief worker, political activist, and organizer of the underground Oyneg Shabes Archive in the Warsaw ghetto. Born in Buczacz, Emanuel Ringelblum moved to Nowy Sącz in 1914. Under the influence of two friends, Raphael Mahler and Artur Eisenbach (also to become noted historians) Ringelblum joined Po‘ale Tsiyon, moving to the Left Po‘ale Tsiyon after the party’s split in 1920. He played a major role in the organization’s cultural work, where his passionate devotion to Yiddish, dedication to the Jewish masses, and fascination with Jewish history all began.

Jewish writers and scholars, Poland, ca. 1930s. (Left to right) Emanuel Ringelblum, Itsik Manger, Rokhl Oyerbakh; Yankev Shatzky, Ber Horovits, Raphael Mahler, and M. Weinberg. (YIVO)

In 1920, Ringelblum moved to Warsaw, entering the history faculty of Warsaw University. In 1927, he completed his doctoral dissertation on “The Jews of Warsaw until 1527,” which was published in 1932. In the 1930s, Ringelblum published widely in Polish and Yiddish on topics related to Polish Jewish history: Polish perceptions of Jews in the eighteenth century, the history of the Jewish book trade, the role of Jews in the Kościuszko uprising of 1794, and the history of Jewish physicians. He completed a second volume of his history of Warsaw Jewry, parts of which appeared as articles. During this time, Ringelblum supported himself as a history teacher at Yehudiya, a private secondary school for girls.

In 1923, Ringelblum helped found the Young Historians Circle, a group that eventually included some 40 Jewish history students. The group published two journals, Yunger historiker (1926) and Bleter far geshikhte (1929). Led by Ringelblum and Mahler, it gathered a generation of Jewish historians in interwar Poland who had no hope for academic careers but who sought to serve their fellow Jews. These historians believed they could defend Jewish honor by demonstrating that Jews lived in Poland by right and not on sufferance. They also fostered the development of secular culture in Yiddish and involved Jewish masses in the study of their own past.

A firm believer in “history of the people and by the people,” Ringelblum joined YIVO in 1925 and became a mainstay of its Historical Section. He also was active in the Landkentenish movement, which encouraged “engaged tourism” to stress Jews’ age-old link to Eastern Europe.

In 1932, Ringelblum began to work for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC). There he learned how “self-help” could provide both economic assistance and moral support to Polish Jews fighting discrimination and pogroms. In October 1938, JDC director Yitsḥak Giterman sent him to direct relief for stranded refugees at Zbąszyń, where he witnessed the direct results of Nazi brutality.

When World War II broke out, Ringelblum organized relief for Warsaw’s Jews. He became a major leader of the Aleynhilf, the key relief organization in the Warsaw ghetto, as well as the Yidishe Kultur Organizatsiye (IKOR), a Yiddish culture organization. Ringelblum used the Aleynhilf to employ and support the Jewish intelligentsia and cultural elite.

Page from Emanuel Ringelblum's manuscript of Chronicle of the Warsaw Ghetto, 1941–1942, part of Oyneg Shabes, the secret ghetto archive. (YIVO)

The Aleynhilf served as an essential base for Oyneg Shabes, the secret ghetto archive that Ringelblum founded in November 1940. Record gathering continued at least until late February 1943. Oyneg Shabes collected all available artifacts of ghetto life, from refugee accounts and literary essays to tram tickets and candy wrappers. Until 1942, Ringelblum believed that the work of this archives would encourage new cultural values in postwar Polish Jewry and improve postwar Polish–Jewish relations. After the beginning of mass extermination, however, this hope was replaced by his grim determination to document the destruction of Polish Jewry and send the material abroad.

Ringelblum was caught by the Germans in April 1943 and sent to the Trawniki labor camp. Escaping in August 1943, he hid in an underground bunker in Warsaw with his wife Yehudis, son Uri, and 34 others. Ringelblum worked nonstop in the bunker, writing a history of Polish–Jewish relations during World War II and essays on key members of the Jewish intelligentsia. These writings survived.

On 7 March 1944, the Germans discovered the bunker and a few days later murdered all its inhabitants. Searchers found one cache of the Oyneg Shabes archive in 1946; a second was discovered in 1950. A third cache is still missing. Only three members of the Oyneg Shabes survived the war: Hersh and Bluma Wasser and Rokhl Oyerbakh (Rachel Auerbach).

Suggested Reading

Raya Cohen, “Emanuel Ringelblum: Between Historiographical Tradition and Unprecedented History,” Gal-Ed 15–16 (1997): 105–117; Samuel Kassow, “A Stone under History’s Wheel,” Pakntreger (Fall 2003): 14–23; Samuel Kassow, “Politics and History: Emanuel Ringelblum and the Oneg Shabes Archive,” Michael 16 (2004): 51–80; Joseph Kermish, ed., To Live with Honor and Die with Honor! Selected Documents from the WarsawGhetto Underground Archives “O.S.” (Jerusalem, 1986); Emanuel Ringelblum, Polish–Jewish Relations during the Second World War (Evanston, Ill., 1992); Emanuel Ringelblum, Yoman u-reshimot mi-tekufat ha-milḥamah: Geto Varshah, september 1939–detsember 1942 (Jerusalem, 1992); Emanuel Ringelblum, Ketavim aḥaronim yaḥase Polanim-Yehudim, yanu’ar 1943–april 1944 (Jerusalem, 1994); David Roskies, The Jewish Search for a Usable Past (Bloomington, Ind., 1999); Ruta Sakowska, “Two Forms of Jewish Resistance: Two Functions of Ringelblum’s Oyneg Shabes Archive,” in Holocaust Chronicles: Individualizing the Holocaust through Diaries and Other Contemporaneous Personal Accounts, ed. Robert Moses Shapiro (Hoboken, N.J., 1999).

YIVO Archival Resources

RG 1.1, YIVO (Vilna): Administration, Records, 1925-1941; RG 107, Letters, Collection, 1800-1970s; RG 108, Manuscripts, Collection, ; RG 1133, Rudolf Glanz, Papers, 1930s-1970s; RG 116, Territorial Collection: Poland 2, 1939-1945 (finding aid); RG 1204, Leon Kilbert, Collection, ca. 1941-1945; RG 225, Hersch Wasser, Collection, 1939-1946; RG 356, Jacob Shatzky, Papers, 1912-ca. 1960 (finding aid); RG 493, Michael Zylberberg, Collection, 1939-1945; RG 634, Lucjan Dobroszycki, Papers, 1939-1947.