Wednesday, January 20, 2016

World War Wednesdays: Profile of a Hero: Emmanuel Ringelblum

     I've probably mentioned this on the blog a thousand times, but at the center of my history obsession is a deep passion for studying the Holocaust, which I've had since I was about eight years old. At that young age, I was introduced to Anne Frank's diary and a wide range of other books being published at the time to try and connect children with this difficult topic through the stories of real children. I've continued the reading and studying until now, and have just begun one of the most well-known history courses at uOttawa, The Holocaust with Dr. Jan Grabowski. I should warn you now that things may seem a bit darker now that I'll be dealing with this period more regularly, but they are stories that I think everyone can connect with in some way.

     On the very first day, Dr. Grabowski introduced us with the story of a man which has been in the back of my mind ever since, and I thought I would share it with readers today. It is of Emmanuel Ringelblum, a true hero both of history and for history.

Emanuel Ringelblum with his wife Yehudit and their son Uri
     Ringelblum was born into a Jewish family in Buczacz, Poland (present-day Ukraine) in 1900. In 1927, he earned a doctorate degree in history from the University of Warsaw, and was also active in public affairs. He belonged to the Po'alei Zion (a Marxist-Zionist Jewish workers' movement), taught high school for a brief period, and then worked for the Joint Distribution Committee in Poland.

     In November of 1938 the Committee sent him to the border town of Zbaszyn, where he was put in charge of 6,000 Jewish refugees who were forced out of Germany and not allowed into Poland. After five weeks in this role, his experiences had a great impact on him.

     Following Germany's invasion of Poland in September 1939, Ringelblum continued working for the JDC, running soup kitchens and welfare programs for the Jews of the Warsaw ghetto. He and his friend Menahem Linder also founded a society for the advancement of Yiddish culture in the ghetto.

     In 1923, several Jewish historians in Poland formed a historical society, of which Ringelblum was also a leader and prominent contributing scholar. He edited the society's publications, and by 1939 had himself published 126 scholarly articles.

     Seeing the ways in which Jewish culture was slowly being destroyed in the ghetto and across Poland prompted him to begin his greatest achievement only a few months into the war: the secret Oneg Shabbat Archive. The name means "Sabbath Pleasure," and reflected how its members met in secret on Saturday afternoons. In the beginning, the archive would collect reports and stories from Jews who had come to the ghetto seeking help from the self aid organizations.
Emanuel Ringelblum with the members of board of the International History Congress 1933
     Ringelblum spent his days collecting information, and wrote his notes at night. He knew that what was happening to the Jews was unprecedented, and was determined to make a complete record of time and place for historians in the future. As an historian himself, he knew exactly how to go about doing this. He and his colleagues would collect information and write about towns, villages, the ghetto, the resistance movement, and the deportation and extermination of the Jews in Poland. Towards the end of the Warsaw ghetto, the archivists were sending out every bit of information they had about the murders to the Polish underground, who in turn smuggled it out of the country. Ringelblum's archive thus helped to expose Nazi atrocities to the rest of the world.

     All of the Oneg Shabbat materials were preserved in three milk cans and buried beneath the Warsaw ghetto. In March 1943, Ringelblum and his family escaped from the ghetto and went into hiding in a non-Jewish part of Warsaw. He returned to the ghetto in the midst of its infamous uprising and was deported to the Trawniki labor camp, but escaped with the help of a Polish man and Jewish woman. He and his family went back into hiding, but their hideout was discovered in March 1944. Soon after, Ringelblum, his family, and the other Jews he had been hiding were taken to the ruins of the ghetto and murdered.

     One of the buried archival sites was discovered in 1946 and a second in 1950, and the other has yet to be found. The materials inside them and Ringelblum's own written chronicles constitute the most comprehensive and valuable source we have for information concerning the Jews in occupied Poland. It also speaks to a remarkable quality of human character that, when pushed to an extreme level of persecution and destruction of identity, showed resilience and resourcefulness in the face of the enemy and has endured long after the last blow has been struck.

     Ringelblum's archive is one of those stories that seems to speak directly from historian to historian, regardless of time and language. This penchant for collecting, writing, and publishing can have so much power and profound significance, and Emmanuel Ringelblum remains a true hero and inspiration for those who follow him in this field.

     Information courtesy of Yad Vashem and Dr. Jan Grabowski.

Thanks for reading,

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