Today, 28 July 2021, amongst bikini clad sunbathers, families kicking soccer balls, stylish and tattooed young Polish women with their yoga mats, a multitude of dog walkers, and a few tourists, we searched for one of the most important archives left undiscovered in human history. And most bizarrely, we had an address of where to look, and where many others had searched for 75 years, 34 Świętojerska Street in downtown Warsaw, Poland.
Long before World War II began, Emanuel Ringelblum was already a noted historian who had written his PhD thesis on the history of the Jews in Warsaw through the medieval period. In 1938, before the outbreak of World War II, Ringelblum spent five weeks on the Polish border with Germany, where he was responsible for 6,800 Polish Jews expelled from Germany but not allowed to enter Poland. Undoubtedly he heard the stories and saw a bit of the future.
Within a few months of the Nazi invasion of Poland on 1 September 1939, and continuing after the Warsaw Ghetto was sealed with its 450,000 Jewish prisoners, Ringelblum began the assembling of what would become a massive archive of thousands of documents and artifacts. Ringelblum created a secret research organization of 60 other Jews who assembled a vast collection of materials including diaries, poems, photographs, movie posters, newspapers, ration tickets, letters, school assignments, and any other material that served as an artifact of Jewish life in the Warsaw Ghetto as well as in city ghettos and shtetls beyond Warsaw. The activities were secret, multiple copies of many documents were made, and a human firewall was created where each member of the clandestine organization had very limited knowledge of other members and other activities beyond their own. The secret code name and password of the group was Oyneg Shabes, or Yiddish for the Joy of the Sabbath.
Initially, Ringelblum’s motivation was to gather contemporary material in preparation for a book to be written after the war. By early 1942, it was clear that the Nazis were carrying out the mass murder of Jews. In spring 1942, the Oyneg Shabes interviewed a Polish-Jewish escapee from the first Nazi extermination camp of Chelmno where the Nazis were gassing Jews in mobile vans. The Grojanowski Report was smuggled out of the Warsaw Ghetto by the Polish underground and delivered to Winston Churchill. As deportations of Jews to the Treblinka extermination camp accelerated, it was clear to Ringelblum that the only objective of the Archive would be to provide the first person account of the history of the Holocaust from a people who would soon no longer exist.
On 3 August 1942, the first archive of 10 metal boxes was hidden at 68 Nowolipki Street inside the Warsaw Ghetto. 6,458 Jews were transported by train to the Treblinka death camp that same day. In February 1943, a second cache was buried in the basement of the same building at 68 Nowolipki Street in three milk cans. The third and largest archive was hidden shortly before the Warsaw Ghetto uprising in April 1943 inside a brick wall at 34 Świętojerska Street.
By the end of the war, Warsaw was destroyed and the Warsaw Ghetto was buried under three to five meters of brick rubble. Only three of the 60 members of the Oyneg Shabes group had survived. The location of the hidden Krysia bunker of Ringelblum, his family, forty other Jews, and two Polish guardians was reported by a Polish informer; Ringelblum was shot on 10 March 1944.
The first archive of ten metal boxes 15 cm X 30 cm X 50 cm were rediscovered on 18 September 1946 by the Oyneg Shabes survivors Rachel Auerbach and Hersh Wasser. The second archive of two milk cans was discovered by chance during construction activities at what had become 28 and 30 Nowolipki Street in the post-war urban street reconstruction and reconfiguration. Together, the first two caches contained more than 6,000 documents and 35,000 pages. The third and largest archive, despite major efforts over the decades (including an Israeli geophysical survey in the garden of the Chinese Embassy), has never been found.
Today, 28 July, after reviewing the pre-War configuration of 34 Świętojerska Street which ran in front of the brushmaker’s shop in the Ghetto, we carried out three different geophysical surveys in what is now the very lively and scenic Krasinski Park. Electrical resistivity tomography mapped a number of walls and voids, and showed that there is about 1.5 meters of brick rubble under the soil. The EM61 high resolution metal detector mapped a metal feature about 1 meter wide, 6 meters long, at a depth of a few meters, and in alignment with a wall likely underneath what would have been the ghetto tenement building containing the Jewish slave labour run brushmaker’s factory. We do not know if this is the third Ringelblum Archive. We do believe, though, that what we have mapped is exactly the type of feature that we were looking for. Historians and archaeologists will apply for an excavation permit, and of course only then will we know for sure what underlies Krasinski Garden.
So, despite its storied history, are the poems, diaries, and last will and testaments of the Ringelblum archive just another historical sleeper? Hersh Wasser, one of the three Oneg Shabes survivors and also an escapee from a concentration camp transport perhaps said it best: “Few texts live a life as intense as these, written by the deaths of thousands.”