Voices from the Ghetto – BBC World Service

The BBC World Service recently broadcast a radio programme called Voices from the Ghetto. It is available to listen to from this link. It is shown as being available for over a year and I do not think that there are any geographic restrictions on listening to radio programmes from the BBC website.

It tells the story of an archive of documents that was buried under the Warsaw Ghetto during World War II by an organisation called Oneg Shabbat (Joy of the Sabbath). The original idea came from Emanuel Ringelblum, a teacher and left wing political activist, who wanted to record what was happening to the 500,000 Jews in the Ghetto.

The OS collected diaries, poems, songs, reports, surveys, posters, paintings, sketches, maps, tram tickets and even sweet wrappings. It was intended to be both a chronicle and a warning.

The programme was narrated by Monica Whitlock and used the OS archive to tell the story of the Ghetto. Modern actors and singers read from its documents and sang songs collected by OS. One of the few survivors of the Ghetto, Janina Davidowicz, described her experiences. She now lives in Britain and writes under the name Janina David.  A previous BBC World Service radio programme in its Witness series gave a longer account of her experiences in the Ghetto.

Ringelblum built up a network of reporters and typists from his political connections and trusted friends. Everything was recorded in triplicate. For security reasons, nobody knew everything; there was what the programme said would now be called an information firewall.

There was believed to be a need to record events as they happened. The hope was to record every facet of Jewish life in the Ghetto. The situation of Warsaw’s Jews was dire from the start, even though nobody could predict how it would end; in 1940-41 most expected to survive the war.

Warsaw was bombed in the first month of the war, September 1939. More civilians were killed in Poland that month than have died in 8 years of war in 21st century Iraq.

Warsaw was called the Paris of the east; a third of its population were Jews. The Germans divided it into three parts; German, Polish and Jewish. Many Poles and Jews therefore had to re-locate. Jews from other parts of Poland were sent to Warsaw, meaning that the already over-crowded Ghetto contained 50% more Jews than had lived in the city before the war.

Disease and starvation were rife in the Ghetto, which survived only thanks to smuggling; you could not exist on the official rations. Children were good smugglers because they could get through small gaps, but were in great danger. Large numbers were shot by the Germans, but the smuggling continued.

Many people tried to survive by selling goods. Some ended up clad only in blankets in the style of Ghandi. Beggars were stripped of their clothes after they died. Janina Davidowicz said that people had to learn to step over the corpses.

There were some telephones in the Ghetto. OS recorded Wladyslaw Szlengel’s poem Telephone, which was about an inhabitant of the Ghetto who had a telephone, but nobody to ring except the Speaking Clock.

The Germans allowed Poles only primary schools and completely banned education for Jews. The penalty for educating Jewish children was death for the teachers, parents and children. Despite this, secret schools were established; there was believed to be a need to educate children for after the war.

There were restaurants, night clubs and orchestras for those who had money. Some events were held at the Femina Theatre; the Femina Cinema in modern Warsaw is on the same site.  Janina Davidowicz related that she attended a charity performance to raise funds for the orphanage run by Janusz Korczak.

OS received reports of the slaughter of Jews elsewhere, which it sent to London and New York via the Polish Underground. Its funds were tiny and it was left with a dilemma. Should it save the most talented? Or buy guns? What was point in collecting pieces of paper if everybody was to die? Some consoled themselves with the thought that the Germans could kill thousands, perhaps even tens of thousands but surely not 500,000?

The Jewish Symphony Orchestra rehearsed Beethoven’s ninth symphony with The Ode to Joy translated to Hebrew. It had no French horns, oboes or bassoons, so used saxophones. There was no paper for scores, so the musicians played from memory. The Germans suspended it in April 1942 because it had played Aryan music, but it continued to rehearse.

OS regarded 26 June 1942 as a great day because the BBC broadcast its reports of the fate of Polish Jewry, showing that its work not had not been in vain.

However, the deportations to the Treblinka death camp began on 22 July. At first people packed bags believing/hoping that they were going to a better life in work camps. OS documents for this period read out in the programme recorded the weather and the numbers deported in a matter of fact manner.

By the end of the deportations on 24 September there had been a depopulation unknown even in plagues. OS recorded that 253,742 Jews had been deported in 46 days. Others had earlier died of disease or starvation or had been killed by the Germans.

Those left in the Ghetto measured their life expectancy in weeks rather than months. Weapons were smuggled in and holes were knocked in walls and cellars, giving the Jews the ability to move between houses without going into the street. The month long Ghetto Uprising ended in mid-May 1943; the Ghetto was then destroyed.

In order to preserve OS’s record, Ringelblum had thousands of documents packed into 10 tin boxes and buried in August 1942. Other caches were buried later. He still looked for writers to record the end of European Jewry. Scraps of notebooks thrown from trains and reports from escapees from Treblinka were gathered and sent to London and New York by the Polish Underground.

Ringelblum, his wife and son were caught and shot in March 1944. Janina Davidowicz was smuggled to out of the Ghetto. Her father died in Majdanek. He was offered the chance to escape but too said he was too weak to do so. He asked one of the escapees to take a message to Janina, which he did after the war.

Most of the menbers of OS died at Treblinka.  There were three survivors; the journalist Rachel Auerbach, Bluma Wasser, a typist, and her husband Hersch, who had jumped from a train to Treblinka.

In 1946 they found 10 grimy metal boxes, containing part of the archive. In 1950 workmen building a housing estate discovered 2 milk churns full of documents. The two finds totalled 35,000 documents and artifacts. The third and largest cache has never been discovered. It is thought to have been buried near where the Chinese Embassy now stands. In 2003 a team dug down into its  garden, but they found only burnt scraps of a diary.

See also:

Kassow, Samuel, Who will Write our History?: Emanuel Ringelblum and the Oyneg Shabes Archive (London: Penguin, 2009. Originally published by Indiana University Press, 2007).

Note that the name of the body that gathered these documents is given as Oneg Shabbat, Oyneg Shabbes, Oyneg Shabes and Oyneg Shabbos by the various sources used in this post. The archive is often now called the Ringelblum Archive. The originals belong to the Jewish Historical Institute of Warsaw; the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum has digital copies.

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6 Comments

Filed under Political History, Reviews, War History

6 responses to “Voices from the Ghetto – BBC World Service

  1. Good day! Would you mind if I share your blog with my twitter group?
    There’s a lot of people that I think would really appreciate your content.

    Please let me know. Many thanks

  2. Great post. Thank you!

    Do you have any further information on the 2003 archaeological expedition you mentioned took place under the Chinese Embassy in Warsaw?
    We are making a film about the secret archive and are hoping to find out more about this 3rd cache.

  3. hugo cavendish

    Am Yisroel Chai!

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