1845: An Italian highwayman, as witnessed by Dickens 1302: Dante Alighieri condemned

1944: Emanuel Ringelblum, historian of the Warsaw Ghetto

March 9th, 2008 Headsman

It was not only the destroyers of the Warsaw ghetto who left their testimony.

Emanuel Ringelblum, a Polish-Jewish historian and social worker, was among the 450,000 trapped in the ghetto.*

Ringelblum organized a monumental project to document its life — the “Oyneg Shabbos”. Ringelblum’s ring cast a network throughout the ghetto, systematically collecting its written history: public proclamations, ration cards and identity papers, and most precious of all, personal diaries and memoirs of hundreds of inhabitants, testament to the gathering madness encircling Warsaw’s Jews. Ringelblum sat up nights, sifting and categorizing a stupendous trove — over 25,000 surviving sheets — that was still never equal to his vision:

“To our great regret, however, only part of the plan was carried out … We lacked the necessary tranquillity for a plan of such scope and volume.” (Source)

Shortly before the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, Ringelblum and his family were spirited out of the Jewish quarter and into the protection of friendly Poles. There, they outlived the ghetto by nearly a year.

But on March 7, tipped by a neighborhood teenager who would himself receive a death sentence after the war for the act, the Gestapo captured both Ringelblum’s family and that of his protectors. Around this date — just a few days after their arrest — they would be summarily shot with other fugitives in the ruins of the community he chronicled. Ringelblum reportedly spurned a rescue attempt, preferring to swallow the same draught as his wife and son.

A few years before, another writer living under another dictator scratched in his secret novel — still secret at the time of Ringelblum’s death — words that would become a signature of literary integrity in a totalitarian age:

Manuscripts don’t burn.

While Ringelblum himself fell victim at last, like most of Warsaw’s Jews, to the Holocaust, the burning — his manuscripts did not. Shortly before capture, the diligent historian had secreted them in buried coffee tins. Years after the war, many of those tins were recovered.

Their contents form the basis for Notes from the Warsaw Ghetto, one of the most moving and penetrating first-person Holocaust histories.

An interesting interview with Samuel Kassow, author of Who Will Write Our History?, is available from the New Books In History podcast.

This French-language page on an exhibition of Ringelblum’s archives covers some of its history, with a number of photographs. This site collects a number of Yiddish poems from the Ringelblum archive.

* This Time magazine article claims that Ringelblum was safe in Switzerland as of 1939, but voluntarily returned to Poland to witness and share his fellows’ fate. Noble if true, but I have been unable to find corroboration of this elsewhere.

Part of the Themed Set: The Written Word.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Artists,Arts and Literature,Disfavored Minorities,Germany,Intellectuals,Jews,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Poland,Shot,Summary Executions,Uncertain Dates,Wartime Executions

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