The Missing Milkcan of Warsaw Ghetto

Inside the Warsaw Ghetto, Dr. Emanuel Ringelblum knew that it was only a matter of time until his Jewish community was completely wiped out. But, refusing to let the Nazis destroy all evidence of Polish Jewish life, Ringelblum began archiving his entire community… with the help of a Shabbat afternoon club and a small collection of milkcans.

Mia Amran
Emanuel Ringelblum, Koperczak, Kronika getta warszawskiego, Wikimedia Commons

If you knew that you only had a few months in which to document every single shred of evidence pertaining to your entire community, what would you collect? For Dr. Emanuel Ringelblum, this question was not a hypothetical one. As conditions worsened in the Warsaw Ghetto, Ringelblum knew that it was only a matter of time until his entire community ceased to exist. But this phenomenal character in Jewish history refused to let the Nazis take away everything that the ghetto community had fought so hard to preserve… and he did this with the help of a Shabbat afternoon club and a small collection of milkcans.

Born on November 21st, 1900, in a small religious shtetl in Buchach, Ukraine, life for little Emanuel Ringelblum revolved around his family, Judaism, lively political discussions with the other men in the shtetl, and a strict regimen of religious and secular schooling. Emanuel excelled in his studies which were conducted in his mother tongue of Yiddish, and he was encouraged to apply for university, something of a rarity for young shtetl boys.

In 1920, Emanuel was offered a place at the University of Warsaw to study the History of Warsaw Jewry. He bid farewell to his parents, packed up his possessions, and set off for university. It was here that he met his sweetheart Yehudis Herman, and before long he had proposed marriage. In 1927, Emanuel graduated with a doctorate degree, after presenting a thesis on the history of Jews in Warsaw during the Middle Ages. With this achievement under his belt, Emanuel took a job at a Jewish high school teaching history, and Yehudis gave birth to a son who they named Uri.

Emanuel Ringelblum, Koperczak, Kronika getta warszawskiego, Wikimedia Commons

Life was good for the young family, and as Emanuel became more entrenched in Warsaw society, he started taking on different community social projects. In 1925 he joined YIVO, an organization that preserves and teaches Eastern European Jewish history and regulated the Yiddish language. He also formed a historical society called the “Young Historians Circle” and wrote for their two journals. By the late 1930s, Emanuel had published 126 of his own scholarly articles and was traveling all around Poland with the Joint Distribution Committee, an organization that provided relief and aid to Jews in need.

A staunch member of the Zionist political party Po’alei Zion Left, Ringelblum was elected as their delegate to the 21st Zionist congress in Geneva, Switzerland, in 1939. By this point, war was on the horizon and life for Jews in Poland was increasingly bleak. During the conference, Emanuel was offered an attractive opportunity to leave Europe and the prospect of war behind, and immigrate to pre-state Israel with his family. However, Ringelblum chose to remain in Poland, stating in his diary that he had not yet fulfilled his “obligation” to the Eastern European Jewish people. He knew that this decision could potentially cost him his life.

World War II broke out just as Emanuel was returning home from a trip, later that year. He had been helping the JDC organize legal and welfare-based aid for Jewish refugees who had ended up in Poland after escaping Nazi Germany, in a Polish-German border town called Zbaszyn. Emanuel had known that it was only a matter of time before war broke out, and when the Jews were forced into the Warsaw Ghetto, Emanuel and his family yet again faced a choice. Influential and wealthy community leaders were occasionally granted papers to flee Poland, and Emanuel knew that he could have secured these precious documents for himself, but he refused to leave behind the less fortunate members of his community, and resigned himself to living alongside them in 1940 when the ghetto was established.

Jewish life in Warsaw, Voyage en Pologne de l’Union Nationale des Combattants (UNC) 1933, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

A good man through and through, Emanuel’s community efforts didn’t stop within the walls of the ghetto. He would volunteer for guard duty regularly, and assist medical teams as they tended to injured Jews. He remained a member of The Joint Distribution Committee and offered aid where he could and he even created a movement for the continuation of Yiddish culture inside the ghetto walls.

But the most significant of his activities was yet to come. Ringelblum was among the leaders of the Aleynhilf, the largest Jewish aid organization within the Warsaw Ghetto, helping to distribute goods and food to those in need and providing solutions to housing issues. Leading this organization would have been impressive in and of itself, but this is not why we are interested in his involvement with the Aleynhilf.

Emanuel sensed an opportunity here, and began approaching other members of the Aleynhilf almost immediately. He would find historians like himself, or writers, educators, professors and the like, and see if he could trust them. He would befriend those he had marked out and learn about their level of commitment to the Jewish community. If he deemed them suitable, he would tentatively ask them to meet with him on the next Saturday afternoon in a secret storage house within the ghetto walls.

Ringelblum’s growing clandestine group of recruits would thereafter meet in secret once a week in their hideout, each Saturday afternoon. They called themselves the “Oneg Shabbat” group, meaning the group of Sabbath Joy. This was because they would only dare to meet on Shabbat, when larger gatherings of Jews were commonplace, in case they happened to be caught and questioned. Each member of the Oneg Shabbat underground group had an important job to perform.

Emanuel feared that with the liquidation of the ghetto which would eventually take place in April 1943, all the archives, details of Jewish life, and holy artifacts of his community would be lost forever, and he simply couldn’t stand to see the history of the Warsaw Jews be burned to the ground by the Nazis. With incredible foresight, he knew that if he wanted anything to survive, it would have to be kept secret.

So, Ringelblum orchestrated his plan: each member of the Oneg Shabbat group would spend the week collecting materials, prayer books, holy literature, ephemera, and more. On top of that, they would document their life in the ghetto and write about Jewish customs, community practices, family stories and the like. Anything worth keeping or recording could be collected. But it all had to be done surreptitiously. The success of Ringelblum’s budding archive depended on the group’s ability to hide it not only from the Nazis but also from any Jews within the ghetto who could foil their plans, even accidentally. This, they did superbly. There is no mention of the Oneg Shabbat group in any other Warsaw documents or notes from the time, and it truly seems that they were able to keep their mission private.

Bible from the Warsaw Ghetto, archived by Ringelblum, Moses Dal Castellazzo, CJA Hebrew Illuminated Manuscripts, Center for Jewish Art at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the National Library of Israel
Memorial stone from the Warsaw Ghetto, archived by Ringelblum, CJA Hebrew Illuminated Manuscripts, Center for Jewish Art at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the National Library of Israel

Emanuel would spend his nights looking through the materials and deciding what to keep. He also wrote diaries detailing every aspect of Jewish daily life inside the ghetto. Emanuel’s final collection contained over 25,000 sheets of writing, Torah covers, an Esther scroll, memorial stones, a bible published in Warsaw, his own diary, Yiddish songs and scripts, and so much more. With over 25 members of the secret Oneg Shabbat group dedicated to the cause, they managed to work fast and undetected.

Esther Scroll from the Warsaw Ghetto, archived by Ringelblum, CJA Hebrew Illuminated Manuscripts, Center for Jewish Art at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the National Library of Israel
 Torah Ark curtain from the Warsaw Ghetto, archived by Ringelblum, CJA Hebrew Illuminated Manuscripts, Center for Jewish Art at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the National Library of Israel

As stories began pouring in of Jews being deported and carted away to concentration camps, Emanuel knew that the time had come. He packed up the materials from the Oneg Shabbat group and hid them in three large milkcans and at least ten tin boxes. He knew that there was a possibility that they could be discovered no matter how well they were hidden, so he sought out three different covert locations and spread the archives between them. Therefore, if one of them was found, the rest of the materials would still be safe.

With a heavy heart, he closed up the archives and hid them deep underground. Saying a final farewell to his collaborators, he disbanded the Oneg Shabbat group, unsure of whether they would ever meet again. They had done everything they could to preserve Jewish history in Warsaw, and they knew that the rest was out of their hands. Only Emanuel knew the location of the archives, as he didn’t want to endanger any of the other group members with this knowledge. The group met one final time to say their goodbyes and dispose of any materials that didn’t make it into the archive. The members left their hideout one by one, each walking off in separate directions. Never again did they speak of their clandestine activities.

One of the milk cans used to hide documents, from the Ringelblum Oneg Shabbat Archive, Wikimedia Commons

Not long before the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in April 1943, Emanuel managed to escape the ghetto with his family, and find a secure hiding place in a safer part of Warsaw. In a dark and unknown cellar at 81 Grójecka Street, Emanuel hid with his family and 35 other Jews, with the help of Mieczysław Wolski and Janusz Wysocki, two Polish non-Jews who bravely came to their aid. Emanuel kept one diary with him in hiding and continued documenting his experience of Jewish life in Poland. In this small hideout, the Ringelblum family nearly made it to the end of the war. However, on March 7, 1944, the Gestapo stormed their hiding place and deported Ringelblum’s entire family, the other 35 Jews, and also the Polish couple who had helped them hide, taking them all to Pawiak Prison Camp, where every single one of them was murdered.

In total, only three members of the Oneg Shabbat group survived the Holocaust. The rest were killed.

One of these surviving members was a writer and historian named Rokhl Auerbach. Shortly after the war’s conclusion, she returned to Warsaw and the site of the ghetto, to lead a search for Ringelblum’s buried artifacts. On September 18, 1946, she found the first of the burial sites. Inside it were ten tin boxes, sealed with clay. They had become damp and most of the papers within the boxes were starting to mold, but special restorers were brought in to save the contents, and almost everything from these boxes was eventually recovered.

Rokhl knew that there were two other locations, but it took a team of archeologists another four years to find the second site. With this discovery, the first two milkcans were located, in a cellar at 68 Nowolipki Street. They were difficult to retrieve as the home had been destroyed in the war and rubble covered the entranceway, but upon removing the milkcans from the wreckage, the team found that they had held up much better than the boxes from the previous discovery. The contents of the milkcans were perfectly preserved and held a wider assortment of items than the documents found four years earlier.

Two milkcans and three tins buried by Emanuel Ringelblum, 1939–1945, Wikimedia Commons

The contents of these two findings are still to this very day the most in-depth and informative archives of Warsaw’s Jewish history, and the most accurate testimony of life within the ghetto. But you may be wondering what happened to the third burial site. The truth is that we don’t know. Ringelblum wrote that he buried the archives in three different locations and notes that he filled three milkcans with contents, only two of which have been found. We know therefore that there is still more to uncover. It is commonly thought that this third burial location is under the site of what is now the Chinese Embassy in Warsaw, but a group of archeologists who set out to find the milkcan in 2005 came back empty-handed.

Even without the third and final milkcan, Ringelblum’s archives are some of the most precious Holocaust documents ever revealed, telling us all about life under the most extreme form of Nazi occupation and ensuring that Jewish life in Poland before the war would never be forgotten. It was only due to the amazing foresight of Ringelblum that we have these materials at all. Though he was offered the chance to leave Europe before the Holocaust, Ringelblum chose to remain, knowing that he had work to do telling the story of the Jewish people. Ringelblum is a shining example of Rabbi Hillel’s famous quote “If not I, then who? If not now, then when?” We still hope to find the missing milkcan of Warsaw Ghetto, and learn even more about Polish Jewry in the early 1900s. But in the meantime, we can thank Ringelblum – for his sacrifice, for his intelligence to know what needed to be done, and for deciding that he would be the one to do it.

If you want to contribute to keeping your own Jewish community’s culture alive, the National Library of Israel has an ephemera collection which you can submit items to! Learn more here.


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