Digging for the Ghetto's Terrible History

A unique search got under way on Monday of this week in Warsaw, Poland: an historic attempt to find the lost third section of the Warsaw Ghetto Archive. The location of the effort is also strikingly unusual: the digging is taking place in the garden of the Chinese embassy at 34 Swietojerska Street in the Polish capital. According to testimonies, it was here that the documentary treasure was buried on April 18, 1943, a day before the outbreak of the revolt against the Nazis in the ghetto.

The two other sections were found at a different location, 68 Nowolipki Street, some distance from the embassy. The first part was unearthed in 1946 and the second four years later. The third part contains documents that were collected in the last three months of the ghetto's existence, the period that immediately preceded the uprising. In the course of its preparation, there was an emphasis on collecting material related to the underground organizations that were active in the ghetto (in addition to the general underground, there was also a Betar underground of the Revisionist movement, which operated separately). If the third section is found, its contents are expected to constitute a significant contribution to the study of the ghetto revolt.

The original plan was to begin the dig at a ceremony to be held on April 29, Holocaust Remembrance Day, on which the 60th anniversary of the revolt will also be marked in Poland. However, the officials involved in the search, in both Poland and Israel, were apprehensive that to launch the dig with a highly publicized ceremony on Holocaust Remembrance Day would generate high expectations, when in fact the prospects of finding the remaining part of the archive are poor. The final decision, then, was to move up the search by a few weeks, in an attempt to complete it shortly before Holocaust Remembrance Day. The initiators of the dig, a young Israeli named Uri Mintzker and the geologist Ya'akov Karch (who resided in Warsaw during the Holocaust), declined to be interviewed for this article, as they wanted the report to be published in conjunction with Holocaust Remembrance Day.

A first attempt was made to find the missing third section as early as the autumn of 1949. The address where it had been buried was already known, and the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw received more than a million zloty from the Joint Distribution Organization (the international Jewish welfare organization, popularly known as the Joint) for the effort, but nothing was found. According to Simha Rotem, who was a leading activist in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, and has been in contact with the organizers of the current search, "The approach to this site was apparently more complicated than the approach to the second site, especially in the light of the removal of tens of thousands of tons of rubble that had accumulated over the years, with the means that were available at that time."

In the view of Prof. Yisrael Gutman, the editor in chief of the Encylopedia of the Holocaust, who fought in the revolt, "It's possible that not enough basic work was done back then." Be that as it may, in the decades since, the searchers despaired of ever finding the archive, and most of those who were in the ghetto in 1943 and survived, and those who had worked on the archive, immigrated to Israel. By now, the majority of them have died, so there seemed to be no one left to revive the search effort.

Enter Uri Mintzker, a sabra (native-born Israeli), who is today 27 years old. Two years ago he took part in a course for guides at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial institution in Jerusalem, heard the story of the archive for the first time, and became excited. Mintzker believed that the modern instruments that have been developed since 1949 would make it potentially possible to located the lost section of the documents. He recruited a friend of the family, Ya'akov Karch, a native of Poland, who had resided in the Warsaw Ghetto in the period of the Holocaust. Another friend of Mintzker, Nir Arieli, who is a historian at the archives of the Joint in Jerusalem, coordinated the historical research involved.

To locate the exact conjectured site of the treasure, Mintzker and Karch met with Marek Edelman, who was the commander of one of the three sectors of the ghetto revolt; Swietojerska Street was in his sector. Edelman, who was then a member of the anti-Zionist Bund, still lives in Poland. The details of his testimony were fed into a computer model in order to try to find the precise location. The final conclusion was that the documents were buried on the grounds of what is now the Chinese embassy in Warsaw.

At this stage, it became necessary to bring Polish officials into the picture. Lena Bergman, the deputy director of the Jewish Historical Institute (known as ZIH, after the Polish acronym) told Haaretz this week that the efforts to persuade the Chinese to allow the dig extended as far as the president of Poland, Aleksander Kwasniewski.

To fund the project, the ZIH received a special grant of $146,000 from the Claims Commission, the international Jewish body that has coordinated the negotiations between world Jewry and the German government over reparations since the agreement on compensation was signed in 1952. The Institute for the History of the Bund and the Jewish Labor Movement at the University of Haifa also helped finance the project.

`Oneg Shabbat' archive

The story of the Warsaw Ghetto Archive is basically the story of one person: Dr. Emmanuel Ringelblum, whose scope of work and the circumstances under which he labored made him one of the most important historians in the annals of the Jewish people. Ringelblum was born in 1900 in the town of Buczacz, in eastern Galicia (which was also the birthplace of the writer S.Y. Agnon). In 1919 he moved to Warsaw and studied history at the local university. He received his doctoral degree in 1927 for a thesis on the Jewish community in Warsaw during the Middle Ages. Ringelblum was a member of Left Poalei Zion, a Zionist labor organization, taught in Jewish high schools and worked for the Joint.

The watershed event in Ringelblum's life occurred before the war, Prof. Gutman notes. In November, 1938, he was sent by the Joint to the Zbaszyn concentration camp, on the German-Polish border, to where 6,000 Jews who were Polish citizens but until then had been living in Germany were sent. The five weeks Ringelblum spent with the refugees left a lasting impression on him, Gutman says, "and at that early stage he wrote to his friend, the historian Raphael Mahler, in the United States, that there was no precedent for what the Nazis were liable to foment."

Ringelblum decided to devote himself to the cause, and even though when the war broke out he was attending the Zionist Congress in Switzerland and could have remained there, he chose to return to Warsaw.

During the war, Ringelblum was in charge of the "public sector" for the Joint. He ran a chain of soup kitchens for those who were unable to obtain hot meals and set up an organization that dealt with the multiple forms of distress the Jewish population was facing on an individual basis. However, his most important enterprise was undoubtedly the establishment of the monumental archive. He conceived the idea in October, 1939, the month after the war erupted, following the Nazis' conquest of Warsaw. He was driven by the feeling that the gravity of the unfolding events and those that loomed in the future must be recorded for future generations.

Initially he made do with the reports that reached him directly within the framework of the various tasks of which he was in charge. By May, 1940, he was already organizing a staff to work with, which became a full-fledged underground organization that November, when the ghetto was ringed with a wall and isolated from the rest of Warsaw. Although he was a member of a political movement and espoused clear-cut views, he placed members of all the political groups in the ghetto on the executive of the archive. Funding for the project came largely from the Joint. In time, the archive came to be known as "Oneg Shabbat" ("Shabbat joy," referring to social gatherings on the Sabbath), because the staff used to hold their meetings on Shabbat.

The archive staff endeavored to collect every scrap of relevant material they could get their hands on: the secret newspapers published by the different parties and youth movements in the ghetto; the minutes of the meetings held by the movements; testimonies from refugees who arrived from other ghettos or had escaped from labor and concentration camps. The archive also initiated papers on various aspects of life in the ghetto (mutual help, cultural and religious life, relations between Poles and Jews and between Germans and Jews, and other subjects), thus becoming a research institute and not only a compiler of documentary material.

Ringelblum himself did even more, recording in his journal all the information that reached him personally and writing dozens of biographical portraits of individuals in the ghetto whose life he thought might be of interest - such as the commander of the underground, Mordechai Anielewicz and the writer Janos Korczak.

Gutman notes that Ringelblum was so devoted to his work that his massive output barely refers to his own personal fate or the fate of his wife, Yehudit, and of his small son, Uri: "When he mentions his son, it is only in order to relate what he heard from him about things his friends said."

In the spring of 1942, as information began to accumulate about the mass deportations and the murder of Jewish communities across Poland, Ringelblum decided to devote the archive to the documentation of these horrific acts. The archive staff collected every testimony and document they could about the Nazis' systematic annihilation of the Jews. The material was written up in the form of a monthly bulletin that was distributed secretly in the ghetto, and the reports about the extermination campaign were transmitted to London via members of the Polish underground who made their way to the British capital. It was in this way that the first testimonies about the death camp at Chelmno (based on the testimony of a Jewish refugee who escaped from the camp) and a report about the deportation of about 270,000 Jews from Warsaw to Treblinka in July, 1942, reached London.

Apprehensive, in the wake of the massive deportations in July, 1942, that the entire ghetto would soon be destroyed, Ringelblum felt the need to hide the material he and his staff had compiled. On August 2, as the deportations continued, the first part of the archive was hidden in ten tin boxes in the cellar of the house at 68 Nowolipki Street. Nahum Gzhuatz, a youngster who was among those who helped bury the material, added his last will. "There is one thing I am proud of," he wrote, "that at this most awful fateful period I was among those who hid the treasure, so that the world will know the crimes and murders [committed by] the Hitlerite tyranny." Gzhuatz perished, but the will was found, along with the remnants of the archive, after the war.

The second part was hidden in January, 1943, again in the cellar of the same building. This time the documents were placed in two aluminum milk cans, and thus were better preserved. The third and last section of the archive apparently contains much information about the "Fighting Jewish Organization" (the archive of the underground itself, which was kept separate, was burned during the uprising). On the eve of Pesach, 1943, the date set by the Germans for the final deportation of the ghetto's residents, the archive staff hid the third section, this time at 34 Swietojerska Street. Apparently, as tension rose in the ghetto, it became increasingly difficult to reach various places, and this was the most accessible location.

Ringelblum himself had escaped from the ghetto a month earlier, with his wife and son, taking refuge on the free side of Warsaw, among the Poles. But on the day before the start of the uprising he returned to the ghetto alone. Why he did so is not clear, nor is it known whether the reason was to hide the archive. Gutman conjectures that he may have known about the expected revolt and wanted to help, "or perhaps he simply wanted to celebrate Pesach among Jews."

We do not know what happened to him during the fighting and the torching of the ghetto by the Germans, but in July, 1943, his friends learned that he was being held at the Trawniki labor camp. Two members of the underground, a Jewish woman and a Polish man, succeeded in getting him out of the camp and returning him to Warsaw disguised as a railway worker. He hid there with his family and another 30 Jews in a small bunker, continuing his writing. The refuge was discovered on March 7, 1944, and all its occupants were taken to the German prison and murdered.

Everyone involved in the current search project are skeptical about finding the third part of the archive. According to Rotem, "After so much time, not only will it be difficult to find anything under all the layers of earth, but even if something is found it will probably be impossible to read it." Karch, too, is under no illusions, but he, like Rotem and Gutman, believe that the historical importance of the archive justifies this last, desperate effort.