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The Ringelblum Archive

Written by Anthony Silkoff, the Interfaith and Social Action Officer at the Board of Deputies of British Jews

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It is often said that history is written by the victors, and that was certainly the plan of the Nazis.

Emanuel Ringelblum

They attempted to exterminate the memory of the Jewish people, burning their books as they cremated their bodies. 

So, when a group of Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto embarked on a clandestine mission to document their lives for future generations, it was the ultimate act of defiance.

Led by a historian, Emanuel Ringelblum, they created arguably the most important time capsule ever.

As a descendent of Polish Jews myself – some of whom were murdered by the Nazis – reading about Ringelblum’s bravery leaves me profoundly humbled. 

Ringelblum and his colleagues set about documenting every aspect of life, and death, in the ghetto. They handed out notebooks to the ghetto population, and encouraged them to record their everyday life. 

To maintain complete secrecy the archive had a codename – “Oneg Shabbat” – meaning joy of the sabbath.

Along with written documents, the archive also preserved artefacts, like newspapers, ration tickets, letters and postcards, invitations to events in the ghetto, theatre posters, school assignments, tram tickets and even sweet wrappers. 

The archive had to be kept in complete secrecy, and so it had a codename – “Oneg Shabbat” – meaning joy of the sabbath.

As the Holocaust intensified, and more Jews were being sent to their deaths, so did the mission to preserve this history, and it was buried underground, in metal boxes and milk churns. 

Within months of the archive’s burial, most of the ghetto’s 400,000 residents were murdered at the death camp Treblinka.

Since it was recovered after the war, the archive has shed light on the horrors of the Holocaust. We know from the archived ration cards that inhabitants were limited to 189 calories a day, and a quarter of the ghetto population starved to death. And we know about the corpse of a young boy, left to rot on the street for days.

But some of the material is inspiring rather than horrifying. For example, the moving collection of paintings, created in the midst of so much suffering, by artists such as Gela Seksztajn. 

In 1942, 19-year-old David Graber added his own note to the archive, writing: “I would love to see the moment in which the great treasure will be dug up and scream the truth at the world… May history be our witness.”

The heroes of Oneg Shabbat made sure their stories lived on. Today, when antisemitism still festers, it is up to each of us to scream the truth, and act as a witness.

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