Samuel D. Kassow, Who Will WriteOur History? Emanuel Ringelblum, the Warsaw Ghetto, and the Oyneg Shabes Archive. Indiana University Press Bloomington, IN 2007. XV, 523 pp., illus, hardcover.

Klaus-Peter Friedrich


During the Nazi occupation of Poland, the historian Emanuel Ringelblum took notes on the unfolding events at irregular intervals. After 17 September  1939, he looked back at the relation between Poles and Jews in Warsaw during the final days before the outbreak of war, when he observed Warsaw residents digging ditches. In late September, he noted:[1]

The participation of Jews – large. In the city center (near the large train station [presumably the Dworzec Gdański]), where volunteers register, more than 50% Jews. At the registration point on Złota St. – the majority. A large number from the intelligentsia and middle class, aged between 25 and 45. many have bought their own shovels and other tools. […] The mood among the Poles – positive. Only a little casual: ‘look at that, the fat Jew with the shovel, will he be able at all to dig?’ ‘Oh, the Jews are pulling themselves together to do some work.’ ‘Not surprising, they’re scared of Hitler. He’ll give ‘em hell if they fall into his hands!’ A detachment of volunteers marches through the streets to their point – somewhere in the area of Kolejowa Street. They dig very energetically, if not even fanatically. The mood [is] friendly. A few guys try to make fun of the Jews. The Poles who’ve come to the ditch interrupt them: ‘What’s the difference between us and the Jew. If war breaks out, all are equal. If he does his job he’s as good as us.’ When darkness falls, certificates are issued on the work performed. The possession [of a certificate] is not obligatory, and so the Poles don’t wait for it, they leave; others don’t stop working. 99 % of the Jews line up for a certificate.


Ringelblum would have preferred if these volunteers had behaved differently – he considered their behavior worth criticizing: That makes a bad impression, and for good reason: ‘The Jews are greedy, they run after certificates’. ‘Just look, the old guy didn’t work at all, he didn’t have a shovel, he just went creeping around, and he was the first in line for a certificate!’ The fact that the Jews are eager to obtain certificates destroys any faith in the disinterested nature of their work, and stirs suspicions, not without reason, that for a low price they wish to obtain ‘a proof of having done something worthy of a citizen.’

As evident from this description, Ringelblum was an unerring observer of the difficult Polish-Jewish relations – even if the impression of one’s own ethnic group might not prove to be very flattering.[2]

Emanuel Ringelblum is at the center of Samuel Kassow´s study on the underground archive of the Warsaw ghetto. It is also known by its Hebrew code name‘Oneg Shabbat’ (Yiddish: Oyneg Shabes[‘Sabbath delight’]), which is derived from the weekly meetings of the group on Saturday afternoons. Ringelblum, whose life story is sketched by Kassow in the early chapters, was the co-founder and head of the archive. Born in Buczacz in eastern Galicia, his family fled at the beginning of World War I to Nowy Sącz. Ringelblum finally came to settle in Warsaw, where he studied history. In 1927, he obtained a doctorate with a path-breaking study, influenced by Marxist ideas, on Warsaw Jewry in the medieval period.[3] He later became active as a teacher in Yiddish-medium schools and in the Warsaw branch of the Yiddish Scientific Institute(that still exists today in New York as YIVO). In 1938/39, he was involved as a representative of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee in the border transition camp Zbąszyń, where thousands of Jews of Polish nationality who had been expelled from Nazi Germany in October 1938 were sheltered.He was politically active in the Zionist-socialist workers’ party Left Poale Zion. In August 1939, shortly before the war began, Ringelblum took part with party comrades in the 21st Zionist Congress in Geneva as an observer; he only managed to return to Poland via difficult circuitous paths (p. 104).

After the war erupted, he lived through the siege of Warsaw and the early destruction of the city. The German occupiers constantly tightened restrictions on the freedom of movement of Jews in Warsaw, where they formed approximately one-third of the population. From the fall of 1940 on, tens of thousands of ghetto residents fell victim to the intentional planned scarce provisioning of the ghetto with food and medication. Meanwhile, ever more Jews from metropolitan Warsaw and the surrounding area were being crowded together in a few streets in the ghetto, deprived of their livelihood and much of their possessions. In chap. 4, Kassow describes Ringelblum’s work for the initiative of the Jewish Social Self-Help (Żydowska Samopomoc Społeczna, Aleynhilf [Yidd.]), which was ordered by the occupying Germans to take responsibility for the entire burden of welfare for the Jewish population.

Immediately after the sealing of the Warsaw ghetto, a ‘band of comrades’ (chap. 5) began to form from the end of 1940 on, consisting of activists from the Jewish inteligencja. These activists wished to document various aspects of the everyday life of the Jewish population under Nazi occupation. The close circle around Ringelblum included the businessman Szmuel Winter from Włocławek, the rabbi Szymon Huberband from Piotrków, the teacher Israel Lichtensztajn, the economist Menachem Linder,the writer Rachel Auerbachand the secretary of the archive, Hersz Wasser. In a broad-ranging approach that encompassed various Jewish life worlds, scientific disciplines and political directions, they sought to capture the ‘different voices of Polish Jewry’(chap. 6). The associates working in Oneg Shabbat, whose number rose with time to include several dozen, made use in their work of methodology that had been developed at the Vilna Yiddish Scientific Institute. They not only collected archival materials but also initiated the writing of eyewitness reports; they interviewed eyewitnesses systematically about their experiences in order to preserve these reports in transcripts or in summary form. In part, they used these materials for treatises and essays that were very topical, and dealt with everyday history, economic history and the history of mentality. From the end of 1941, Oneg Shabbat also took on the function of a center for news and documentation, which collected reports on the systematic murder of the Jews, and distributed information on this in various ways. Kassow presents in detail in chap. 7 a selection of the texts which have survived. In 1939/40, the members of the Oneg Shabbat circle concentrated mainly on political and cultural work, and activity in social welfare, thus promoting the self-assertion of the persecuted. But from the summer of 1942 on, their orientation shifted, and they moved toward the position of the youth leagues, endorsing armed resistance.

In chap. 8, ‘The Tidings of Job,’ Kassow describes in an impressive way how Oneg Shabbt members reacted to the ‘bad news’ that reached the underground archive initially from Vilna, then from Chełmno/Kulmhof in the Warthegau, and in March 1942 also from the Generalgouvernement (Lublin). When the large-scale annihilation operation began in Warsaw in July 1942, Oneg Shabbat had to virtually cease operations. Part of their documents were buried. Not until the fall of 1942, after the German occupiers had transformed the ghetto into a huge slave labor camp, did the Oneg Shabbat members who were still alive resume their work of documentation.

Ringelblum worked on other projects aside from the already mentioned chronicle about persons and things of importance to him. Until his death, he was busy at work on a treatise in Polish examining Polish-Jewish relations under German occupation. In February 1943, he relocated to the ‘Aryan side’ of Warsaw, but at the beginning of the German killing operation, he was on a visit to the ghetto. He thus became an eyewitness to the first gun battles, when the insurgents moved against their attackers, forcing them into fire fights on the streets and in houses. Shortly after that he was arrested and deported to the labor camp Trawniki. After his escape from the camp three months later, organized from the outside and with Polish help, he lived with other comrades of fate in a narrow underground shelter in the southern part of Warsaw. After his hiding place was betrayed, he was shot by the Gestapo in March 1944, aged 43; his wife and son died with him.

Several months earlier, one of the persecuted, Manak Fohorlis,[4] wrote shortly before his death: ‘If you ever read about what happened here -- don’t think of it as some hallucination of an author, but as the one-hundredth or one-thousandth part of what happened here, because no one is capable of understanding the soul of a Jew. The Aryan author will only give you dry facts.’[5] If we recall the beginnings of the ‘research on the persecutors’ in West Germany, which developed due to the attempt to prosecute the violent crimes of the German occupiers, that suspicion voiced by Fohorlis would appear to be justified: this research showed scant empathy with the victims. More recent Israeli historiography concentrated, by contrast, and for evident reasons,on the reconstruction of developments in the Communities destroyed, and the search for paradigms and models, based on the contemporary needs of the Israeli state under threat. Kassow’s conscious and exclusive approach utilizing the history of experience of the persecuted now raises once again the question of how the plane of experience of the perpetrators and victims (as well as third parties) can be integrated in order to do justice to the complexity of events in the Nazi murder of the Jews. That question cannot be answered here, but the findings presented by Krassow should serve as a component in such a process of integration, through which it can become possible for the first time to render the Nazi crimes in Eastern Europe comprehensible.

Unlike the author, Ringelblum differentiated very precisely right from the start, and sought unswervingly for the slightest signs of difference in the patterns of behavior of the occupiers. But his associated hopes to uncover internal contradictions which might have put a stop to the unbridled anti-Semitism of the Nazis of course proved to be deceptive.

The remaining texts of the underground archive, which in the summer of 1942 and winter of 1943 were buried in at least two places, and after 1945 were possible to recover in large part, form today the most important component of the collections of the Jewish Historical Institute (ŻIH ) in Warsaw. Its scientists continued the work of Ringelblum and his co-workers during the period of the Polish People’s Republic, utilizing the collection for many research studies, evaluating numerous documents.[6] However, since they were published almost exclusively in Polish, they were given only scant attention by the international research on the Holocaust since the 1980s. Although aside from Rachel Auerbach and Hersh and Bluma Wasser, none of Ringelblum’s associates survived the Nazi occupation (p. 146), they nonetheless decided the controversy over historiography in their favor. In substantial measure, thanks to the materials they gathered and processed, the monstrous mechanisms of the National Socialist murder of the Jews in Poland were brought to light. They conveyed this knowledge to the Polish government in exile in London, and thus to its allies. As a consequence, at the end of 1942, the public in the Allied and neutral countries was informed about the ongoing genocide. Research has since established why the reports from the Oneg Shabbat circle even then were unable to put a stop to the Nazi mass murder of the Jews. But for a long time it neglected to provide knowledge about the actual persons who stood behind these efforts. With his biographical approach to Ringelblum, Samuel Kassow has succeeded in large part in closing this gap with his highly readable, well-grounded study on a fascinating secret undertaking under the boot of National Socialist occupation in Poland.


Translated from the German by Bill Templer

[1]Archiwum Żydowskiego Instytutu Historycznego, Warsaw, 599.Ring.I/91, set down ca. 18-27/28 September 1939, with the additional note that these were ‘my own observations.’ (original in Yiddish).

[2]The passage quoted is not contained in the Polish translation of the notes by Ringelblum in Yiddish: Kronika getta warszawskiego, wrzesień 1939 − styczeń 1943, ed. Artur Eisenbach, trans. from Yiddish by Adam Rutkowski, Warsaw: Czytelnik 1983. It is likewise not in the earlier English edition: Notes from the Warsaw Ghetto, ed. & trans. by Jacob Sloan. New York: McGraw-Hill 1958.  [this is not a translation but is based on earlier Yiddish editions; many passages are left out, others appear in imperfect translation]

[4]In Husiatyn he was known as Emanuel (Manek) Pohoryles (*1896), a farmer; when the Jews of Brzeżany were herded up on 12 June 1943, he first fired at the policemen and then killed his wife Róża, his daughter Hulda and himself with the last bullets; letter by Stanisław Czerwiński, Żagań, 16 July 1946, to Rubin Schwager in Tel Aviv; YVA, , O-3/3307, p. 13-14.

[5]From a letter by “Manak Fohorlis, August 1943”, Lemberg in: Last Letters from the Shoah. Ed. Toby Weissman,  Jerusalem: Devora Publishing 2004, p. 335.

[6]To date, five volumes have appeared in Warsaw (1997-2000, 2011), part of a planned complete edition of the collection: Archiwum Ringelbluma. Konspiracyjne archiwum getta Warszawy