The Jews of Warsaw Buried the Truth So It Would Survive Them
A boy’s voice calls out from an unimaginable darkness.
“What we were unable to cry and shriek out to the world, we buried in the ground. I would love to see the moment in which the great treasure will be dug up and scream the truth at the world. So the world may know all. […] But no, we shall certainly not live to see it, and therefore I write my last will.”
David Graber was a Polish Jew. His words were written months before the Warsaw Ghetto, together with those in it, was destroyed.
The so-called “Final Solution” became the official policy of the Third Reich in January 1942. The Jews of Warsaw knew what was coming. Faced with the relentless attempt to erase their very existence, some became obsessed with ensuring the story of their lives, thoughts, persecution and destruction by the Nazis was preserved.
Their efforts produced the largest cache of documentation by a Jewish community about to be exterminated by the Nazis.
“Documents and a cry of pain, objectivity and passion do not fit together […] And yet in the past the word meant human dignity,” wrote Polish author Gustawa Jarecka in an essay describing life in the Warsaw ghetto shortly after the first wave of mass deportations to the Treblinka killing center in the summer of 1942. In less than two months, the Germans deported more than 265,000 Jews from Warsaw and killed an additional 35,000 inside the ghetto itself.
Acknowledging the inadequacy of words to describe the indescribable, Jarecka nonetheless wrote of the possibility that her essay might one day hold perpetrators to account for their crimes, or help historians to make some sense of the past: “We are noting the evidence of the crime. […] From suffering, unparalleled in history, from bloody tears and bloody sweat, a chronicle of days of hell is being composed which will help explain the historical reasons for why people came to think as they did.”
“Objectivity was our guiding principle.”
The composer of this multi-voiced “chronicle of days of hell” was historian Emanuel Ringelblum. As early as the second month of World War II — after Warsaw’s fall — he began collecting material and writing daily reports on what was happening to Jews in the city and surrounding towns. An active participant in Jewish mutual assistance efforts, he had a large network of contributors to his rapidly expanding archive.
His goal was a comprehensive social history of the Warsaw ghetto, and he spared no details — even those that revealed conflict within the Jewish community. “Objectivity was our guiding principle. We aspired to reveal the whole truth, as bitter as it may be,” he wrote.
Many of the materials gathered for the archive reveal the relative normalcy of daily life and the Jewish community’s attempts to preserve its vibrancy and dignity: ID cards, work permits, ration cards, postcards, schoolbooks, lecture and concert announcements, poems, and drawings. Others indicate the diligence of a historian seeking a thorough, impartial record of all aspects of the ghetto. Under Ringelblum’s leadership, the archive conducted surveys and commissioned studies on subjects including prewar Jewish life, the role of Jewish women in the war, and the plight of children in the ghetto.
For the latter, researchers collected first-person accounts from children in daycare or refugee centers, many of whom were orphans. They were asked to write what war meant to them, or how their lives had changed during the war.
“Well, there are two kinds of war,” wrote fourteen-year-old Israel Lederman, “the war against hunger and the war with bullets. The hunger war is worse because then everybody suffers; a bullet will kill you quickly.”
“I wish my wife to be remembered.”
Despite the Nazis’ euphemistic announcements of “resettlement in the East” for Warsaw’s Jews, Ringelblum and his fellow archivists knew those deported were ultimately killed. Among the documents included in the archive were interviews with people who arrived in the ghetto after escaping the Chelmno and Treblinka death camps. The archive also included reports of mass killings of Jews in other parts of Poland and took on the task of actively informing ghetto residents of the danger, as well as trying to get news of the killings to Western Allies.
Knowing their fate, contributors to the archive struggled to shape their legacy.
“I wish my wife to be remembered, Gele Sekstein. She has worked during the war years with children as an educator and teacher…,” the director of a ghetto school, Israel Lichtenstein, wrote. “Both of us get ready to meet and receive death. I wish my little daughter to be remembered. Margalit is 20 months old today. In intelligence she equals children of three or four years. I don’t boast.”
For nearly three years, Ringelblum managed to keep the existence of the archive a secret. But as conditions in the ghetto became increasingly tenuous, he acted to preserve the vast amount of evidence he had amassed. He asked Lichtenstein to bury part of the archive within the ghetto itself. Enlisting the help of two students, including the 19-year-old David Graber, Lichtenstein filled ten metal boxes with papers and buried them under the school.
“We fulfilled our mission.”
In February 1943, a second stash of archive materials was placed in two milk cans and buried near the boxes. Two months later, the remaining ghetto inhabitants launched the largest armed uprising of the Holocaust. It ended only when the Nazis burned the ghetto to the ground.
Ringelblum’s comprehensive recording of life in the Warsaw ghetto survived the Holocaust even though its creator did not. In September 1946, the Jewish Historical Institute in Poland, with the help of survivors from the ghetto, unearthed the cache of ten metal boxes. Four years later, construction workers stumbled across the two milk cans.
It is thanks to the archive that we can learn about what was once Poland’s largest Jewish community from those who comprised it, in their own words. For once the victim, not the victor, gets the last word.
“May the treasure fall into good hands, may it last into better times, may it alarm and alert the world to what happened… in the twentieth century… ” Graber wrote. “We may now die in peace. We fulfilled our mission. May history attest for us.”
Anne Merrill is Associate Creative Director at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum