The ‘Oneg Shabbat’ became the code name for the secret archive in the Warsaw Ghetto. Oneg Shabbat (Joy of the Shabbat in Hebrew), is a celebratory gathering held after Sabbath services, often with food, singing, study, discussion and socialising. The name was selected by a group of Jewish community leaders who usually met secretly on Saturdays to discuss the progress of their collection and documentation efforts. The Oneg Shabbat Archive is also known as the Ringelblum Archive, after its founder and director Emanuel Ringelblum — historian, teacher, social activist and visionary.
The Oneg Shabbat Archive is the most significant collection in the world, of sources documenting the Holocaust. The documents were created, gathered, and written by the victims themselves, at the time when they were experiencing the horrors.
Ringelblum established the Oneg Shabbat archive as early as 1939. He foresaw that unprecedented historical experiences were in store for the Jews and that as a historian it was his task to document the unfolding of events for future generations.
Initially Ringelblum only collected information that came to his attention. However, in November 1940 when the Warsaw Ghetto was sealed, he engaged several other dedicated helpers and decided to transform the archive into an organised underground operation with several dozen contributors including writers, teachers and other historians.
Their main objectives were to:
(i) document, by means of an ongoing record, the events taking place in the Warsaw Ghetto and all over Nazi occupied Poland;
(ii) collect relevant items of historical value such as underground newspapers published by various political parties and youth movements and letters received in the ghetto that were of public interest or minutes of meetings; and
(iii) record the testimony of released Jewish prisoner-of-war and labour camp inmates or refugees from Polish ghettos who were forced into the Warsaw ghetto.
Ringelblum and his colleagues believed their principal mission was to record Jewish life within the ghetto. Therefore, they were careful to gather testimonials that expressed the diversity of Jewish life, mainly in the Warsaw ghetto. There were texts written on a wide variety of subjects by men and women, children, orthodox Jews and free thinkers, philosophers and ordinary people on such topics as Jewish women in the war; children and youth in the ghetto; problems of health; welfare and self-help; relations between Poles and Jews; education and cultural life; religious affairs; theatre in the ghetto, activities of political organisations and movements in the underground; smuggling of food and everyday life, including the games children played.
In due course, reports reached Warsaw of the mass murders that had been taking place in different locations occupied by the Germans. This information spurred the archive staff to concentrate on gathering documents dealing with deportation and extermination. A tremendous effort was made to transmit this knowledge to the free world, by way of the Polish underground. Ringleblum also attached great importance to documents on the Jewish resistance organisations and on the fighting in the ghetto. The group’s work did not cease even when thousands of Jews, including several members of the group itself, were deported from the Warsaw ghetto to Treblinka in 1942.
From September 1942 until the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in April 1943 the documentation gathered to that date was sealed inside three milk cans and buried underground in various hiding places in the ghetto. Tragically, after the war, only the first two parts of the archive were discovered. They are preserved in the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw.
The collection of documents gathered by the archive staff is of inestimable value to historians in documenting the life, the creativity, the struggle and the murder of Polish Jewry. The documents are also a testament to the indomitable spirit of the archive staff who made tremendous efforts to ensure that future generations would have an accurate picture of Jewish life and death during the Holocaust.