Emanuel Ringelblum was in love with the Jewish people. Love? More than that, he had a crush on the Jewish people. In 1925, as a young man in Poland, decades before any college conceived of “Jewish Studies,” Ringelblum did his doctorate on Warsaw’s Jewish history — before 1527. He knew about the seductive Esterke, the Jewish mistress of Poland’s King Casimir who, in the 1300s, seduced the king into allowing Esterke’s people, the Jews, to live on the far side of once-forbidden rivers, travel through forests and settle in old Poland. He was to Jewish Warsaw what the Stage Manager was to “Our Town,” knowing every legend, every train whistle, all the poets, hustlers, radicals and rebbes.
He was shot to death by Nazis, at age 44, in the ruins of the Warsaw Ghetto. He was the leader of above-ground Aleynhilf, “self-help,” the ghetto’s primary assistance group, and the Oneg Shabbos underground, a secret society of 60 writers, meeting every Shabbos afternoon, whom he recruited, after the ghetto was walled, from the ranks of scholars and soup kitchen women, young and old, like a Noah’s Ark of ghetto experience. Oneg Shabbos wanted Jews — not their killers — to tell the story of Warsaw’s end, collecting, writing and burying evidence of everything — absolutely everything – about the ghetto. In 1946, 10 tin crates buried by Oneg Shabbos were found. In 1950, two large metal milk cans were found, altogether containing more than 30,000 documents, diaries, Nazi edicts, chasidic teachings, theater programs, candy wrappers, ghetto money, restaurant menus (yes, there were steaks and cognac for the ghetto’s wealthiest Jews, the smugglers, the bribed policemen, the over-the-wall entrepreneurs, all filmed for Nazi propaganda). It is known that perhaps one-third of the Oneg Shabbos archives still lies buried, unable to be salvaged, under what is now the Chinese embassy.
Within one of the milk cans, found in 1950 by construction workers, was a note from the Piacezno rebbe, affiliated with Oneg Shabbos: “When you find this… there may be no more Jews in Poland. There may be no more Jews in Europe. There may be no more Jews in the world. But in Jerusalem [there will always be a Jew], please, find that Jew and beg him to print this…”
The rebbe couldn’t have imagined that Oneg Shabbos is being made into a feature film, to be released later this year. Executive-producer Nancy Spielberg has received support from the Righteous Persons Foundation, established by her brother Steven Spielberg with profits from “Schindler’s List.” The film, based on Samuel Kassow’s book, “Who Will Write Our History?” (the tentative title of the film), is being directed by Roberta Grossman, who discovered the book after directing some of the most acclaimed Jewish documentaries in recent years: “Hava Nagila (The Movie)” in 2012; “Blessed Is the Match: The Life and Death of Hannah Senesh,” 2008, nominated for an Emmy; and “Above and Beyond” (2015), also produced by Nancy Spielberg, about American-Jewish WWII fighter pilots who volunteered to fly Israel’s newborn air force in 1948’s War of Independence.
Grossman, who called Oneg Shabbos the Shoah’s “most important untold story,” told us that she plans to focus not just on Ringelblum but on several of his Oneg Shabbos inner sanctum, particularly Ruchl (Rachel) Auerbach, one of only three members of Oneg Shabbos to survive the war. The film, she said, will feature actors in live action, as well as actors inserted, Zelig-like, via green-screens, into documentary footage. “Warsaw was pretty much destroyed in the war,” says Grossman, “so we filmed primarily in Lodz which wasn’t bombed, and had a similar architecture, with old apartment houses built around courtyards.”
“It’s not a fictionalized version, no liberties were taken,” says Grossman. “Rachel Auerbach was a fantastic writer, before, during and after the war, very committed to the legacy of Oneg Shabbos, so the film is told through her point of view.”
Auerbach was the pre-war lover of Itzik Manger, perhaps the greatest Jewish poet of the 20th century. David Roskies, of the Jewish Theological Seminary, wrote of Manger (pronounced “Mon-ger”), “He was our Bob Dylan and Dylan Thomas: a Yiddish troubadour and hard-drinking lyric poet,” with a Jewish twist: Many of his poems would populate the pre-war Eastern European landscape with Biblical characters, reminding even the most down-and-out Jew that his or her experiences were every bit as biblical, every bit as lonely, as Avishag the Shunamite, or Abraham’s son, Itzik (as Manger called his namesake, with a wink). When the poet was expelled from Poland to Rumania in 1938, he left a hefty pile of manuscripts with Auerbach, who buried his poems in the rubble with Oneg Shabbos.
“The Oneg Shabbos archives languished in obscurity,” says Kassow. “Only 2 to 3 percent has been translated into English. Even in the ghetto, Yiddish was already slipping as the dominant Jewish language. According to Kassow, 50 percent of the archives was compiled in Polish; 40 percent in Yiddish; and 10 percent in Hebrew or other languages.
Ringelblum began keeping his diary on Sept. 1, 1939, the day the Germans marched into Poland. He couldn’t write fast enough, or cover enough. One week after the sealing of the Ghetto, on Nov. 22, 1940, Ringelblum called the first meeting of Oneg Shabbos, to gather evidence of, well, everything. He wanted the writing to be sharp, objective; embellishments, he wrote, would “leave a bad taste and offend the senses.” The story “was so rich with tragedy that any addition would detract.”
Through talking to Jews arriving in the ghetto from hundreds of miles away, and Jews returning to Warsaw, hiding in empty boxcars, Ringelblum composed a report saying that at least 700,000 Jews were already dead. Through the Polish underground, the report was sent to the BBC and broadcast in June 1942.
“Oneg Shabbos has fulfilled a great historical mission … I do not know who of our group will survive,” Ringelblum wrote. One month later the ghetto began to “resettle” 42,000 Jews per week. Members of Oneg Shabbos were disappearing, or losing wives and children. Ringelblum ordered that everything be packed and buried.
After the war, the ghetto area was so heavily bombed that there were no streets, no addresses. Oneg Shabbos had only three survivors. Auerbach wrote, “Just finding a certain house in the rubble was difficult enough,” but to find what was buried beneath it all … it took months. Then the first cache was found, containing more than 25,000 pages.
On the fourth day of the ghetto uprising, Ringelblum was arrested by the Nazis and put on a boxcar to the Tawniki labor camp. He escaped, and made his way to a bunker in Warsaw where he reunited with his wife and son. He kept writing, saying that he wished he could purify himself like Torah scribes who went to mikvah before putting ink to parchment.
A Pole turned them in, and Ringelblum was sent to Warsaw’s Pawiak Prison. Other prisoners offered to hide him, but he wouldn’t leave his wife and son. Without them, he said, “I prefer to go the way of Kiddush HaShem (for the sanctification of God). When he was taken outdoors, into the old ghetto to be shot, he surely felt like Abraham’s sacrifice. It was the first day of Passover in Ringelblum’s Warsaw, like a verse from Itzik Manger:
“Giddy-up, Eliezer” — the whip rings out,
The road has a silvery look.
“Sad and lovely,” the poet says,
“Are the roads of the Holy Book.”