The Incredible True Story of the Warsaw Ghetto Archives
Once describing the optimistic nature of the Jews, Golda Meir said:
“you know, if G-d said that he was bringing another flood to cover the Earth, all the other
nations would begin to wail, tear out their hair, and prepare for the destruction that was sure
to follow. But not the Jews” she said. “The Jews would begin to wonder just how hard life will
be living under water?”
Golda was, of course, right about us. This optimism, that is part of our DNA, is never more
apparent than in a new documentary about the Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto called, “Who Will
Write Our History.” On the eve of the destruction of European Jewry and the liquidation of the
Warsaw ghetto, many Jews in the ghetto although facing extermination, worked feverishly to
write down their history, sure that a future generation would be around to read it.
Most anyone who has studied even a little about the holocaust has heard about the Warsaw
Ghetto uprising. About 40,000 Jews, who avoided the daily deportations that claimed the lives
of 400,000 of their fellow Jews, decided to revolt. We know that this heroic uprising lasted 33
days, 3 weeks longer than the resistance by the entire Polish army to the German invaders.
The Germans, proud of their handling of the “Jewish Question” brought film crews to document
the Jews living in Warsaw. They too wanted historical evidence showing the Jews as dirty, lice-
riddled and depraved sub-humans. For their own reasons they too were interested in writing
history. Had they won and exterminated the Jews, what would future generations know?
What really happened in the ghetto on a day- to-day basis? What was life like under the
domination of the German Nazis? The burning down of the synagogues, the humiliations of
Jews by shaving off their beards, forcing well-dressed Jewish women to remove their
undergarments to scrub the sidewalks and forcing them to put the dirty garments on again. The
food lines, the homeless sleeping in the streets, the hungry foraging among the garbage. These
scenes were filmed by the Nazis.
Emmanuel Ringelblum, a well-known scholar and leading Jewish historian living in Warsaw, was
just as determined to document the Nazi treatment of his fellow Jews. He realized that he was
on the threshold of history and that history needed to be documented. He was determined not
to allow the Nazi’s to write the history of the Jews of Warsaw. Ringelblum began to write daily
accounts of life under the Germans into his diary. He too was documenting, but from the Jewish
perspective. Ringelblum expanded his activities to include over 60 writers who were chronicling
the daily events.
Now, a new documentary film called Who will write our History? answers the question its title
raises about the monumental effort by Ringelblum and his fellow collaborators to preserve
their history for us, in the future generations.
It was 1940, the Germans occupied Poland and immediately sealed over 450,000 Jews
into the Warsaw Ghetto. Kept behind a tall wall and surrounded by Germans patrolling with
dogs and machine guns, the Jews were stripped of most of their possessions including food and
clothing and were living a destitute existence. Because their own children were starving at
home, they turned a blind eye when they passed starving children, dying in the street.
Previously affluent, they were now barefoot and begging on the street. Their plight was
reminiscent to the one described by Jeremiah after the destruction of the Temple. As the
Germans delighted in filming the Jews at their worst, Ringelblum sprang into action.
He gathered together over 60 writers, journalists, and economists, representing a cross section
of Jews living in Warsaw. They all shared a deep commitment to resist the Nazi lies and
propaganda by documenting the real, daily conditions. Not knowing if they would survive, their
commitment was to preserve the truth about the Holocaust even if there would be no
survivors. They wrote to us in the future generation. Knowing that death awaited them if
caught, they operated in secret. As most of their meetings occurred on Sabbath afternoons, the
group adopted the code name “Oyneg Shabbes” (A delight for the Sabbath).
“Who will write our History?” shows original footage shot by the Nazis, while we hear the
words of the “Oyneg Shabbes” writers.
Ringelblum encouraged them to write diaries, essays, poems, jokes and songs depicting life
under Nazi rule. Some Interviewed eye witnesses and documented their tales of Nazi atrocities,
and mass murder. As the months ticked by, with fewer and fewer Jews remaining alive, the
Oyneg Shabbes group realized that documentation was no longer enough. They developed
contacts with the Polish underground and smuggled their reports of Nazi atrocities out, under
the walls of the ghetto. They were determined to get their story into the hands of the allies.
And it was due to their heroic efforts that the allies first learned of the reality of the Final
By 1943, only about 40,000 Jews were left; deportation for all seemed inevitable. Members of
Oyneg Shabbes also were dwindling. Mordechai Anielewicz, the commander of the
underground army, led the remaining, desperate Jews in a revolt. Using pistols and homemade
grenades, they attacked the Germans, disrupting momentarily, the deportation process. The
Nazi’s, desperate to suppress the first large-scale resistance to their reign of terror, retaliated
with full force. Crack troops of the Wehrmacht supported by tanks with flame throwers
attacked the ghetto. The battle raged on for 33 days, until the ghetto was burned down and
reduced to rubble.
With the ghetto burning and the walls crumbling all around, Ringelblum and his Oyneg Shabbes
comrades buried hundreds of thousands of pages of documentation, in steel canisters under
the burning buildings. Their optimistic hope was that their writings survive, even if they do not.
They did not survive. Ringelblum managed to escape from the burning ghetto and was hiding
for 9 months, all the time writing and shaping up the archives. Ultimately, his hiding place was
betrayed by a Pole and he, his wife and child were shot to death by the Germans. Out of the
more than 60 members of Oyneg Shabbes, only three survived the war!
1946, with the war over, Rachel Auerbach, one of the survivors of the original group (whose
narrative we hear throughout the documentary) used aerial photographs of the pre-war ghetto
to find the location of the buildings under which the metal cannisters were buried. After much
digging, 10 original cannisters were unearthed. Several years later additional boxes of Oyneg
Shabbes documentation was found, creating a large archive. A third set of cannisters was never
discovered. In all, 60,000 pages of the original Oyneg Shabbes documents were found.
“Who will Write our History” is a powerful film, based on the critically acclaimed book by the
same title, written by historian Samuel Kassow. Kassow collated the original archives and
brought them alive in his excellent book. The documentary uses actual World War II footage,
shot by the Nazis and recovered by the Allies. Academy Award winner Adrian Brody reads the
words of Emanuel Ringelblum, describing his fears and hopes written 75 years ago, directed to
us, today. It almost feels like we too are in Warsaw in 1942 as we hear the wrods. We share the
terror of discovery, as the Oyneg Shabbes members and their families hide in their bunkers.
Their haunting words reveal their hopes and fears, that we, in a future generation may
someday hear them. With the daily deportations’, members of Oyneg Shabbes are also caught
in the dragnet. As the actors read the words of Oyneg Shabbes contributors, we listen to their
fears that perhaps the pages will be destroyed, and no one will ever know their suffering and
The Oyneg Shabbes archives refutes all who deny the Holocaust and the capacity of man to
inflict such horrors on another. Their testimony brings us face to face with a powerful truth
about the German hatred for Jews. Physical extermination was not sufficient for them. They
raced to invent greater and better methods of torture and humiliation, before the murder.
The Nazis attempted to show the Jews as a depraved, filthy and lice riddled race while the
Oyneg Shabbes chronicles explain the step-by-step methods used by the Nazis to create these
conditions. Emmanuel Ringelblum and his Oyneg Shabbes collaborators point an accusing finger
from their fiery graves, as they shout their eye-witness testimony for everyone to hear.
The archives capture their humor, longing, hunger, and determination to retain their humanity
in the face of unspeakable hardships. Ultimately, through their voices, actions, and real-time
experiences, Who Will Write Our History defeats those who wish to decrease the culpability of
the perpetrators of one of Humanities gravest sins in favor of those who chose to stand up,
fight back and, as one Oyneg Shabes member writes, “scream the truth to the world.”
“Who Will Write Our History” was produced by a range of great talents, including Nancy
Spielberg and Roberta Grossman. Featuring the voices of three-time Academy Award nominee
Joan Allen and Academy Award winner Brody, the documentary is slated for world wide
screening on January 27, the UN designated International Holocaust Remembrance Day. It’s a
must see for anyone who wants to know the real truth about the heroes of the Warsaw Ghetto.
Emanuel Ringelblum was born on 21 November 1900 in Buchach in East Galicia. His family
escaped to Nowy Sacz where he graduated from gymnazium (HS). In 1920, he applied to
study medicine but was rejected due to the prevailing numerus clausus rule, meant to reduce
the numbers of Jews studying certain professions. In 1927 he received his PhD in Jewish history,
focusing on the history of Jews in Poland. One year later, he began to teach in a Jewish
gymnasium for girls. In 1938, he left his teaching post and decided to dedicate himself to social
A prolific writer, he wrote numerous articles for the “Encyclopedia Judaica” in German
as well as many journals in Poland.
In 1939, he participated in the 21 st Zionist Congress in Geneva, and as the war broke out decided
to return to occupied Poland. Immediately upon arriving back in Warsaw, Emanuel Ringelblum
began to collect accounts of the events he witnessed and which – of what he was aware from
the start – had no precedent in history. He wrote his observations down in a diary -like form.
Realizing that the monumental task was beyond the scope of one man, he collected additional
chroniclers from various social backgrounds. Each one in the secret endeavor was assigned a
task to write from a specific perspective.
Ringelblum, his wife and son Uri, were discovered hiding in a bunker and shot by the Germans,
but not before he managed to smuggle out many more of his writings.
Israel Gutman, Jewish historian, a resistance activist in the Warsaw Ghetto, wrote
that “Ringelblum for his whole life had been an optimist who believed in the human
being”. He was affected by the suffering of others and tried to help them, even if he was
in a hopeless situation himself.
“His greatest dream, and his greatest fear is: whether his life’s work, the Archive, a common
achievement of people he lived among, will reach the free world.”
Milk cans and cannisters used to hide the archives
Among the first metal cannisters found with the Ringelblum Archives 1946
Unearthing the archives among the rubble of the former Warsaw Ghetto
The streets of the Warsaw ghetto burning with Jews being rounded up by the Germans
Jewish writers and historians with Ringelblum (far left) in 1930