When Memory Comes Alive: The Diary of a Yiddishe Woman

In 1743, Glückel of Hameln, wife, mother, and businesswoman, wrote a detailed memoir in Yiddish to enlighten her descendants about her life as a 17th century Jewish woman in Germany, describing experiences as dramatic as murders, pirates, and even a false messiah!

Memory, The European Days of Jewish Culture exhibition, the National Library of Israel

“My dear children, I write you this in case today or tomorrow your children or grandchildren do not know about their family. I have put it down briefly so that you may know from what kind of people you are descended.”

In the days before cloud backups and social media memories, if someone wanted to preserve their family history, it had to be done using paper and pen, or parchment and ink, as in the case of the story we are about to tell. Usually in the 1600s, these memoirs would be written exclusively by men, primarily because most women did not know how to write, presenting a bit of an obstacle. But a notable exception were the seven books composed by Glückel of Hameln, one of the first women to write a book in Yiddish, let alone seven of them!

Chronicles: an excerpt from the memoirs of Glückel of Hameln in Yiddish, “Ktiv” Project, the National Library of Israel

Not wishing for her memoirs to deify her name, she notes early on that they should not be considered a book of morals or guides for her children, as the Torah already contains all the necessary steps for living an ethically perfect and exemplary life, but her memoirs did serve as a living legacy for Glückel, her beliefs, hopes, fears and ethical code, as well of course, as her life story.

In her memoirs, which begin with her birth – a somewhat obvious starting point – Glückel documents that she was born into a life of privilege in Hamburg in 1646. Her father was a diamond trader and a leading member of the Jewish community, who had amassed not only great wealth but also respect amongst both Jews and non-Jews alike. In fact, he was so well-regarded in Hamburg that when the government allowed the entry of Jews into the city, Glückel’s father was the first one permitted to live there!

Glückel had one brother and five sisters, but straying from convention, her father ensured that all of his children no matter their gender were educated at cheder, learned to read Hebrew, and knew all about the rules and rituals of Judaism. His wish was to have pious and educated children, and in this he succeeded, at least to the best of his abilities in a society without any higher education or gender equality. Glückel also spent many pages documenting the memorable events from her youth, such as the bubonic plague which claimed the life of her grandmother, or her sister Hendele’s betrothal to the son of a prominent rabbi, in which her dowry of 1,800 Reichsthalers shocked the community by being the highest sum ever paid for a wife!

At the ripe old age of twelve, Glückel’s father decided that she was mature enough to run her own household, and he arranged a marriage for her with young Chayim of Hameln. Chayim came from another wealthy and well-known family, constituting a perfect match, and two years later the couple were married and all set to move in with Chayim’s parents – after all, they were only 14! Glückel felt afraid and alone as a new wife in a far-off place, and described Hameln as being “a dull shabby hole” and a “back-country place”, so it is safe to assume that she didn’t much like the town. However, her parents-in-law were extremely kind and caring towards her and she developed an unexpectedly nice kinship with her father-in-law Joseph.

Glückel the bride, from The Memoirs of Glückel of Hameln, Image: Bride and Bridesmaids, Johann Alexander Boener, Fürdt, 1706, Schocken Books, the National Library of Israel

More settled now in her new home, and enamored by her loving husband, Glückel wrote happily of her days as a newly-wed. She gave birth to three daughters but not content with being a housewife, she soon became interested in her husband’s business. An educated woman, she quickly learned the ropes of entrepreneurship and became Chayim’s right-hand lady! She would give him financial advice and she even wrote that he listened to no one else but her in matters of business. Although his name was on the company (you know, with women not being able to own property or money and all that), Glückel was really the brains behind the operation, and often carried out Chayim’s duties and signed professional contracts in his name.

But it wasn’t all fun and games. Soon Chayim fell ill and despite seeing many doctors, nothing fully cured his ailments. This may have been because the “doctors” he saw were mainly barber surgeons with no medical training, but who can say for sure? Glückel’s two oldest daughters also fell ill, and her middle child, Mata, died aged three. Her oldest, Tzipporah, did recover however, lending her a mysterious charm as a miracle child.

Glückel also wrote about the rise and fall of the false messiah Shabbtai Tzvi and the upheaval he caused within her community, as well as the continuing development of the plague. She described how the trade and mail services were affected by inter-city runners who were particularly susceptible to the disease and often had the misfortune of expiring before they could complete the transfer of goods or letters. Pretty inconvenient.

Artist interpretation of Glückel with her children, from The Memoirs of Glückel of Hameln, Image: Hameln, Glückel of, 1646-1724, Rosamond Fisher Weiss, Schocken Books, the National Library of Israel

At this point, it’s surprising that Glückel had time for anything other than bedrest, as she was giving birth every two years on the dot. She describes this as difficult which was perhaps an understatement, yet she carried on regardless, eventually birthing a mighty grand total of 16 kids, 12 of whom survived past infancy! But it seems that between all of the babies, she still had time for housework and business – supermum or what?! She mentions firing her servant “Clumsy Sam”, no awards for guessing why he was fired, and instead she hired a new servant called “Elegant Sam”, naturally a much better choice. She also documents the steady downturn of her husband’s company, as he steadily lost most of the family wealth in bad deals.

In the meantime, her children were growing up fast! Her oldest daughter got engaged at the age of 12, taking after her mother, and a large and lavish wedding took place, enthusiastically documented in detail by the excited Glückel. Her oldest son Nathan also started helping out with the family business, but it seems that he didn’t manage to turn around their bad financial luck either. And to top off all the excitement, Glückel casually mentions that pirates are now rife off the coast of Hamburg, wreaking havoc on their society in ways that only a pirate can!

The town of Hameln, from Glikl, Memoirs, 1691-1719, image by Eric M. Brooks, Brandeis University Press, the Tauber Institute series for the Study of European Jewry HBI series on Jewish women, the National Library of Israel

But even if pirates and poverty sound pretty bad, the real struggles were still yet to come. Glückel’s father, and both of her parents-in-law, died in fairly quick succession, leaving her distraught. Despite the men in her life technically now being heirs to all of her inherited fortunes, Glückel’s progressive family left the money to grieving Glückel herself, as her loving children gathered around to take care of her. But in 1689 a tragedy struck which she could not overcome: the death of her beloved husband. Left alone with eight unmarried children and a failing business, Glückel fell into a deep depression.

It was during this depression that she had the idea to write down her memoirs, which provide all the contents for the tale that you are currently reading. The idea was to comfort herself with writing – a common therapeutic practice throughout history and to this day. Thankfully she stuck with it, for now we have a wonderful insight into the life of a 17th century Jewish woman.

Jewish community leaders of Hamln, Synagogen-Gemeinde: Häuserangelegenheit, 1797, Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People, the National Library of Israel

Glückel documents her husband’s traumatic decline and death in detail. Wanting privacy, Chayim decided not to consult a doctor after falling on a sharp stone, and when he was finally convinced to seek help, he decided once again to put his life in the hands of a chirurgeon-barber, the old-timey untrained ‘doctors’ who you hear about in horror stories, cutting off limbs willy-nilly and replacing patients’ blood with milk or leaches, or something else plainly unhelpful. Of course, the barber in a doctor’s coat did not heal Chayim. In his dying days, Glückel tried to comfort her husband with sexual acts, but a holy man, he refused her body, for she was still a niddah (spiritually impure), and had not yet gone to the mikve (cleansing bath). Chayim recited the traditional Shema prayer as he passed away the following Shabbat, and the family went into a deep mourning period.

Despite leaving Glückel in 20,000 Reichsthalers of debt, Glückel cleared her husband’s name using her inheritance within just one year, and slowly she started to recover from her loss. Only one chapter later she is again consumed with documenting the ups and downs of regular life: the little disagreements with her children, the state of affairs in her hometown, and the lifecycle events which were so important to the Jewish mothers of the 17th century, and of course those of the 21st century too!

Bertha Pappenheim, a descendant of Glückel’s, poses as Glückel two centuries later for this commemorative portrait painted by the artist Leopold Pilichowski, Wikiwand

Enter Cerf Levy into the picture, a man from out of town who was hailed as a wealthy businessman who had also recently lost his wife. I’m sure you can see where this is going! In June 1699, Glückel received a proposal of marriage from Mr. Levy, but she was hesitant, for not long had passed since the death of her beloved Chayim. Eventually she agreed to the marriage but from day one, she realized her mistake. She felt that she had betrayed Chayim and her promise to G-d to only love one man, and she saw the hardships of this second marriage as punishment for breaking her first wedding vows.

Cerf Levy came with baggage. He had rude children and “lackey” staff, and it turned out that he was neither rich nor bright. Twelve years later, dissatisfied and deprived, Cerf died on July 24.  Poor Glückel was left with nothing. She never wanted to burden her children with an old and incapable mother, but after repeated offers, she finally moved in to her daughter Esther’s family home three years later in 1715, the exact end to her life that Glückel had “sought to avoid”.

Copy of Glückel of Hameln’s memoirs, copied out by her brother-in-law in 1743, E. Roth & L. Prijs, Hebraeische Handschriften, Universitatsbibliothek J.C Senckenberg Frankfurt am Main, “Ktiv” Project, the National Library of Israel

As her days drew to their inevitable culmination, it seems that Glückel did not know what an astounding, bright, and good woman she truly was. She describes her life as “containing both pleasures and pains, as does the world itself.” Her seventh and final book closes with a foresight of her own death: “In the month of Nisan, 5479, a woman was kneeling by the bank of the Moselle River, washing her dishes. It was ten o’clock at night, and all of a sudden it became as light as day, and the woman looked up to the Heavens, and the Heavens were opened and sparks flew therefrom; and then the Heavens closed, as one closes a curtain, and all was dark again. G-d grant that it be for good!”

Glückel was a singular woman, so very bright, and so very holy. But more important than that was the fact that she is able, nearly 400 years later, to teach people today about ordinary German Jewish life during her era, while providing us with an extremely rare female perspective. She is not praised because of how distinct she is, but in fact because of how normal she is. How she loved a good wedding. How she hired and fired her staff. How she felt joy, loss, guilt – all the human emotions. How she struggled with her morals and how she longed to follow her dreams. How she coped with hardship. How she lived, as we all do, day to day, with “pleasures and pains, as the world itself.” We today are not so different to the Yiddishe Jews of old. After all, we’re all human.

The European Days of Jewish Culture exhibition on the topic of Memory deals with preserving and documenting the memories of individuals and communities across eight European countries in a visually suggestive way, evocative of postcards or windows into days long past. The exhibition will be shown in cities around Europe this September, and has a digital component available here on our website.

Prisoner 4859: The Hero Who Volunteered for Auschwitz

There are stories of people who escaped the trains traveling to Auschwitz. There are also testimonies of successful and failed escapes from the camp itself. But this is the story of a man who volunteered to be imprisoned at Auschwitz, and lived to tell of what he saw.

"Tomasz Serafiński” - the alias of Witold Pilecki, in an Auschwitz prisoner’s uniform

“Summer 1945

So, I am to write the driest of facts, which is what my friends want me to do.

They have told me: ‘The more you stick to the bare facts without any kind of commentary, the more valuable it will be.’

Well, here I go…

but we were not made of wood, let alone stone, though it sometimes seemed as if even a stone would have broken out in a sweat.”

So began the report describing daily life in the concentration and death camp at Auschwitz, with chilling detail and precision. The author, Prisoner 4859, had voluntarily gone to that “other planet” in order to document events at the camp and organize an underground resistance movement there. He aimed to bring about a prisoner’s revolt and mass flight.

As a soldier in the Tajna Armia Polska (“Secret Polish Army”) underground, he volunteered to be captured by the Nazis so he could be sent to the camp. The camp’s records identified Prisoner 4859 as “Tomasz Serafiński”, the name written in his forged documents. His real name was Witold Pilecki, and this was not the first time he’d fought the Nazis.

Witold was born on May 13, 1901 in the region of Karelia in the Russian Empire, where his family had been exiled after the repression of the Polish revolt of 1863-1864, known as the January Uprising. His grandfather Józef spent seven years in exile in Siberia for his role in the rebellion. Witold would himself revolt against the Russians during the Soviet occupation, but more on that later.

Witold arrived at Auschwitz with considerable military experience. Following the First World War, he joined the Polish self-defense units and fought to defend Vilna against the Soviet Red Army. In the Polish-Soviet War (1919-1921), he joined the Polish Army, participated in a number of battles and was twice given medals for his bravery.

After the war, Witold was released from the army. He married Maria and worked the family farm. The couple had two children, Andrzej and Zofia, and it seemed that life was getting back to normal.

By August 1939, the spectre of war again loomed over Europe. Witold re-enlisted, and was put in charge of a cavalry unit. His force fought bravely and suffered serious losses with the outbreak of World War II. There were also successes – during the September 1939 campaign, Witold and his men destroyed seven German tanks and brought down two planes. Later that month, the Soviet Union invaded eastern Poland, in accordance with a previously signed agreement with Nazi Germany, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. In the wake of this Soviet attack, the Polish division Pilecki fought for was dismantled and he returned to Warsaw.

In November 1939, Pilecki and his commander founded the Tajna Armia Polska in Warsaw, one of the first underground forces to fight the Nazis in the country. They recruited men, stocked up on weapons, and expanded their activity to other cities in Poland. By 1940, the underground numbered more than 8,000 fighters.

“Tomasz Serafiński”, alias of Witold Pilecki, in an Auschwitz prisoner’s uniform. From Witold Pilecki Fotobiografia Photobiography

The camp at Auschwitz was established in April 1940 as a prison camp for opponents of the Nazi regime gathered from occupied European countries, especially Poland. It was filled with Soviet prisoners of war and political prisoners, Jewish slave laborers, and others. Only later would it become the Nazis’ largest concentration and extermination camp.

In 1940, when it was still an “ordinary” prison camp, Pilecki volunteered to be caught by the Nazis so that he could enter the facility as a a prisoner. He was tasked with sending back reports about life inside the camp, in addition to organizing the prisoners into an anti-Nazi underground. He received forged papers and set out on his mission.


“The 19th of September 1940 – the second street round-up in Warsaw.

There are a few people still alive who saw me go alone at 6:00 AM to the corner of Aleja Wojska and Felinskiego Street and join the ‘fives’ of captured men drawn up by the SS.”

(p. 11)


“Tomasz Serafiński” arrived at the camp and immediately began organizing the prisoners into an underground that promoted cooperation and mutual aid among the inmates, while sending reports to the “outside”. At first, its members only shared notes with the names of prisoners who died or were murdered. Soon, they provided more detailed reports, including descriptions of the camp’s staff abusing the prisoners.

The underground smuggled food, clothing and medicine into the camp, and tried to plan a prisoner’s revolt with the assistance of the Polish underground – which was supposed to overpower the Nazi guards and free the prisoners. In August 1941, “Serafiński” reported the killing of Soviet prisoners of war by gas, apparently one of the Nazis’ first efforts using this method of killing.

“The first Bolshevik prisoners, for the time being just officers, were brought in and after seven hundred of them were locked into one room on Block 13 (Block 11 in the new numbering system) and packed in so tightly that none of them could sit, the room was sealed […]

That same evening a group of German soldiers led by an officer arrived.

The German team entered the room and, after donning gas masks, threw in a few gas canisters and observed the effects.

This was the first effort there at gassing using Prussic acid.”

(p. 131)


Prussic acid was another term for hydrogen cyanide.

Witold notes the names of the prisoners who reported this to him, including the horrific descriptions of the medical staff that had to clear out the bodies.

Pilecki later reported the building of the gas chambers and the crematoria, as well as the increasingly large shipments of prisoners brought into the camp for extermination.

The reports were sent to England with the help of the Polish underground – and weren’t believed. The British claimed that Pilecki was making things up and “inflating” the numbers to convince them to act. When Witold understood help would not come from the outside and that the planned uprising would not come to fruition, he decided to flee.

Late on the night of April 26, 1943, after 945 days as an Auschwitz prisoner, Pilecki fled with two of his comrades. They had been assigned to the night shift at the bakery outside the camp. Pilecki and his comrades were able to overpower the local guard and make their escape – with documents they’d stolen from the Germans. They also possessed cyanide, which they intended to swallow if captured. With the aid of local residents, they were able to quickly distance themselves from the camp and ultimately reached Warsaw.

Pilecki joined the Chrobry II Battalion of the Polish Home Army, the central Polish underground during the war, and took part in the Warsaw Uprising (not to be confused with the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising). The unit he commanded dealt the Germans heavy losses. With the uprising’s defeat, Pilecki was captured by the Nazis and spent the rest of the war in POW camps.

The war ended with Poland under Soviet occupation. Witold Pilecki collected information on the abuses of Polish citizens by Soviet forces and delivered them to the West. He also spent 1945 compiling his Auschwitz memories into an organized report.

On May 8, 1947, Witold Pilecki was arrested by the Polish-Soviet secret service. He was interrogated and brutally tortured, to the point that his suffering was worse than anything he’d undergone at Auschwitz (the graphic novel Episodes from Auschwitz: Witold’s Report opens with images of Pilecki’s interrogation and torture).

Cover of Episodes from Auschwitz: Witold’s Report

On March 3, 1948, a show trial was held in which Pilecki and three of his friends were charged with espionage for the West and the Polish government in exile. In mid-May, he was sentenced to death and executed in Mokotów Prison in Warsaw on the 25th of that same month. His body was probably tossed into a mass grave in Warsaw’s Powązki Military Cemetery.

The communist government forbade mention of his name and actions in the decades that followed. It was only on October 1, 1990, after the fall of the Polish communist government, that Pilecki and his comrades were exonerated, and books were published about him and his heroism.

At the National Library of Israel, you can find books on Pilecki in English, Polish, and German, including books for young adults, a graphic novel, and a photographic biography.

I first heard of Witold Pilecki when the Swedish metal band Sabaton came out with their “Heroes” album – he is the subject of their song “Inmate 4859.”


Despite the best efforts of the Soviet Union, Pilecki’s story has now come to the fore. In the end, true heroism is a difficult thing to cover up and suppress.


Pilecki’s quotes are taken from The Auschwitz Volunteer: Beyond Bravery, by Captain Witold Pilecki, available here.


Translated by Avi Woolf


Further Reading:

The Auschwitz Volunteer: Beyond Bravery, by Captain Witold Pilecki

Episodes from Auschwitz: Witold’s Report, written by Michal Galek, art by Arkadiusz Limek

Witold Pilecki Fotobiografia Photobiography, by Maciej Sadowski

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.

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.

Austria’s Dreyfus? The Story of Philippe Halsman, the Man Who Didn’t Murder His Father

Philippe Halsman took some of the most famous photos in the world – hundreds of images of iconic celebrities and pictures adorning the cover of Life magazine and museum walls. But before all this, Halsman was tried in Austria for the unimaginable crime of murdering his own father. Was he truly a cold-blooded killer, or was he an Austrian Dreyfus, persecuted solely for being Jewish?


British soldier at rest. Photo taken by Philippe Halsman while on a visit to Mandatory Palestine during the 1936 Arab Revolt, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

Philippe Halsman was one of the 20th century’s most famous photographers. He created iconic photographs of many famous figures of the era, including Albert Einstein, Marylin Monroe, Marc Chagal, Humphrey Bogart, Frank Sinatra, Ingrid Bergman, Betty Davis, Winston Churchill, Henry Matisse, Jean-Paul Sartre, Brigitte Bardot, and Audrey Hepburn. His work has graced no fewer than 101 covers of Life magazine, more than any other photographer. He even collaborated with Salvador Dali for 37 years to create unforgettable images.

Halsman was primarily known for his penchant for photographing people while jumping: “Starting in the early 1950s I asked every famous or important person I photographed to jump for me.  I was motivated by a genuine curiosity.  After all, life has taught us to control and disguise our facial expressions, but it has not taught us to control our jumps.  I wanted to see famous people reveal in a jump their ambition or their lack of it, their self-importance or their insecurity, and many other traits.”

One of Halsman’s most famous photos with Salvador Dali. From: Wikicommons

But Halsman’s past also included a darker, less well-known chapter. In 1928, he was accused of nothing less than murdering his own father. Tried, convicted twice, and imprisoned, he was ultimately forced to leave Austria altogether. But what actually happened? And how did this affair develop into what some have called “The Austrian Dreyfus Trial?

First, some background: the Halsman family of Riga, Latvia was wealthy and well-educated. It spent its summers on family outings throughout Europe, and 1928 was no exception. That year, the family – father and successful dentist Max, mother Ita, 22-year-old son Philippe and 18-year-old daughter Liouba – set out on a trip through the French, Italian, and Swiss Alps.

At one of the Italian hotels they visited, an acquaintance told them of the beauty of the Tyrol mountains, sparking the father’s interest and imagination. After Liouba returned to Paris for her studies, Max insisted that before Philippe left them to continue his studies in electronics at the University of Dresden, the three would go on to the Tyrol. This decision decided the family’s fate.

Before we continue, some historical context is necessary. In 1928, the Tyrol region of Austria was fertile ground for Nazi ideology, and antisemitism was rampant. Although the number of Jews in the region had been minuscule since the Middle Ages, hair-raising tales of Jewish blood rituals were part of the local folklore.

The Tyrol mountains, late 19th century. From a photo album depicting Austrian landscapes, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

On the fateful morning of September 8, 1928, Mrs. Halsman decided to take leave of her son and husband, who then set out on a hike meant to last a few days. Two days later, Father and son ascended to the peak of a mountain with the aid of a local guide, who recalled how they were in good shape and often stopped to photograph one another.

What happened next can be reconstructed from witness accounts given during the investigation and trial, including Philippe’s own version of events. Shortly after two o’clock in the afternoon, they passed by an inn at the mountain’s peak, at a height of some 5,900 feet, and began to descend back down the mountain. An hour later, Philippe reached a small village along the way, out of breath, telling of how his father had slipped and fallen from a height of 26 feet into the local brook, and that he was wounded and in need of medical attention.

A young shepherd named Alois Riederer offered to help Philippe and a young girl was sent to get the local doctor. The shepherd reached Max first, finding him dead, with his lower body immersed in water and his head showing many wounds. He tried to prevent Philippe from seeing his father, but the son insisted on approaching and even attempted to lift the body out of the water with the shepherd’s help – to no avail.

Philippe stayed with his father while the shepherd went out to get help, but when Alois climbed up, he accidentally knocked down some stones, something which would have fateful consequences. The traces of blood seemed to show the body had been dragged, but no-one bothered to ensure the crime scene was untouched, since everyone was still operating under the assumption it was an accident. Philippe ran to the nearby city to call his mother; he didn’t want her to hear of her husband’s death from strangers.

A young Yemenite immigrant to the Land of Israel. Photo taken by Philippe Halsman while on a visit to Mandatory Palestine in the 1930s, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

On his way there, Philippe encountered a rescue team and returned with them to the scene, not knowing the doctor leading the team was a known antisemite. When they arrived there, the owner of the nearby inn who also reached the location immediately theorized that the son had murdered the father, and despite Philippe’s insistent denials, the doctor believed the story. They then decided to escort Philippe to a nearby town. A German police officer who was nearby volunteered to search the young man; his clothes contained no blood stains, there were no signs of a struggle, and no money was found on his person.

The local coroner arrived at the scene the next day in the afternoon, and Philippe, who had gone through quite a night in lockup, had to be there as well. The scene had been contaminated in the meantime. Testimony was collected without documentation, a stone with blood stains and hairs, identified as the murder weapon, was passed around and mysteriously disappeared. The body had since been moved to the nearby town and the rain that had fallen since the murder entirely transformed the area.

After all this, the suspect was finally asked to give his own version of events. But Philippe, who according to one of the passing tourists said that he was ahead of his father when he heard a yell, now added another detail – that he saw his father fall. The investigator didn’t dwell on this point at the time, but he did make a note of the discrepancy and insisted on asking Philippe where he was exactly when his father fell. Here Philippe erred: he thought the stones Alois accidentally knocked down the day before marked the spot where the fall occurred. In fact, he mistakenly placed himself precisely where his father had fallen. On September 13, the body was subject to an autopsy, and the pathologist determined that Max was murdered by blows from a sharp object. The fact that no blood or weapons were found on Philippe made no difference, and Philippe was arrested that day.

A female pioneer milks a cow. Photo taken by Philippe Halsman while on a visit to Mandatory Palestine in the 1930s, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

The local media was quick to plant the idea of the murder in the minds of the locals, and even before the trial began, the press had concluded that the son murdered his father in cold blood with repeated blows to his head. The police themselves only began to question witnesses two weeks after the murder, after all the locals were already convinced Philippe was guilty.

Every detail took on a life of its own: the fact that Max carried his son’s knapsack supposedly showed the son’s lack of respect for his father. The fact that they had ordered two separate bedrooms was an indication that their relationship was rocky. This was all compounded by rampaging conspiracy theories: the son murdered his father to spare his mother from an abusive marriage; the son fell in love with a woman his father objected to; the father had a life insurance policy with his son as the sole beneficiary; and so on – as far as imagination would take them. Worse, the family’s request to leave the father’s body untouched and deliver it to them to be buried as quickly as possible – as Jewish law requires – was seen as a family conspiracy to conceal the murder they all knew occurred. The desire to bury the father in shrouds rather than a coffin was taken as proof that the family did not respect the memory of their father.

The police went along with a public convinced of Philippe’s guilt and treachery. Nothing that hinted at his innocence was looked into. When tracks were found in the ground that fit neither Philippe nor anyone on the rescue team – no effort was made to identify who made them. Max’s head contained injuries from a sharp object that was never found, Philippe’s light clothes had no blood on them, yet still – nothing was investigated.

Two weeks after the murder, blood-stained Austrian money bills were found at the scene, hidden under a pile of rocks. Pictures taken from the scene of the crime proved that this pile was not there when the body was found – but once again, there was no follow up by the police. The similarity of this case to a number of other murders in the area at the time also suggested Philippe was innocent. It didn’t matter.

Tel Aviv Port. Photo: Photo taken by Philippe Halsman while on a visit to Mandatory Palestine in the 1930s, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

The first trial of Philippe Halsman began on December 13, 1928, and lasted just four days. Standing before a biased jury, head prosecutor Dr. Siegfried Hohenleitner laid out his theory of Philippe’s guilt. The fact that Philippe was aided by one of the best lawyers in Vienna, Richard Pressburger, only worked against him. The locals didn’t care for the liberal atmosphere of the Austrian capital, and the defense attorney’s Jewishness didn’t help, either.

During the first two weeks following his arrest, Philippe wasn’t even allowed to speak with Pressburger. For its part, the police didn’t cooperate with the defense or provide it with information. This forced the defense to take the line that Max fell to his death and was hit by a stone along the way. Pressburger argued that Philippe did not push his father since relations between them were good, and family and friends were put on the witness stand to attest to this.

But Philippe’s behavior at trial worked against him. He appeared too confident, condescending, and self-righteous. It was his own testimony that really got him in trouble. On the witness stand, he told of how his father went to the side of the path to urinate while he kept going. Then, he heard a yell and saw his father lean strangely and fall off. He claimed it took him two minutes to get to the scene, but the prosecution then presented the details he’d given at the time of the incident: the place Philippe said he was standing was just two steps from where his father fell, which meant Philippe must have been lying. The defense tried to argue that Philippe had been in a state of shock, and made an honest mistake in placing his location, but the jury had heard enough.

Thus, without evidence proving his guilt, without any motive for premeditation, and without heeding exculpatory evidence such as Philippe’s clean clothes, and in a general atmosphere that automatically condemned a Jew as a murderer, the jury convened to make a decision. It came very quickly.

By a majority of nine to three, the jury declared his guilt, and the court sentenced Philippe Halsman to ten years of hard labor and one fast day a year on the anniversary of his father’s murder.

“A judicial crime is being committed against me”, The Sentinel, December 28, 1928, the Historical Jewish Press Collection at the National Library of Israel

In prison, Philippe tried to take his own life with a blade from a pencil sharpener he’d managed to dismantle. In the meantime, his lawyer tried to have a mistrial declared, arguing that the conviction was based on insufficient evidence, and that certain other evidence was hidden from the defense. The Supreme Court accepted the appeal, but decided the retrial would take place in Innsbruck in the Tyrol rather than in Vienna, a serious blow for the defense.

While the Vienna press began writing in support of Philippe’s case and against the biased trial he was subject to in the Tyrol, the attitude was the opposite in the region itself. The local press was entirely swept up by the populist spirit opposing the “socialist-Jewish” winds blowing from Vienna.

The retrial started almost a year later, in September 1929. This time, the defense took the line that Max was apparently murdered by another person, but the defense found itself constantly refuting lies from the prosecution and fighting a war of attrition against local public opinion that was clearly opposed to Halsman. For instance, it was claimed that Philippe witnessed the autopsy of his father with complete calm from the window of the inn where he was detained. The defense was forced to prove that no window in the inn provided a view from which the autopsy could be seen. Many expert opinions the defense tried to submit were rejected for baseless reasons, but slides of the wounds to Max’s head and his father’s severed head were allowed to be shown in court, despite the request of the family not to do so.

For various reasons, the trial had to take a break for a month. During this period, the Halsman affair became a battleground between liberal Vienna, which increasingly supported the defendant, and the conservative periphery. Scandal after scandal began to emerge. In the middle of the second trial, for instance, a witness appeared who claimed that on the day of the murder he was approached by a man covered in blood. He said he provided the man with clothes before helping him cross the border into Italy. A few days later, the same witness claimed he’d made the whole thing up and had received money from Halsman supporters to give this false testimony. In the end, Philippe Halsman was convicted a second time. This time, just seven of the twelve jurors decided that he’d murdered his father, but nine agreed to the manslaughter charge. He was sent to four years of hard labor, an annual fast day, and was required to cover the costs of his trial and imprisonment.

“He is said to have gone mountaineering with his father, and when the two of them reached a precipice he threw his father down and killed him” – The Palestine Bulletin, October 20, 1929, the Historical Jewish Press Collection at the National Library of Israel

Philippe started a hunger strike, and this time the defense decided to appeal to the Supreme Court. In a detailed, 100-page document, the defense explained why the verdict should be set aside. The court deliberated on the request for three days, after which it announced that there was no reasonable ground for intervening in the verdict, although this did not mean the court took a stand on Philippe Halsman’s guilt or innocence.

All Philippe had left was worldwide public opinion. Even before the court decision, Jewish author Jacob Wasserman published an open letter to the President of Austria to intervene on Halsman’s behalf and pardon him, a letter which reminded many of Emile Zola’s letter in defense of Alfred Dreyfus. Halsman’s family asked that he be released on humanitarian grounds due to his contracting pneumonia and his poor physical state. Within weeks, the Austrian Justice Minister was bombarded with petitions from within Austria and around the world, calling for his pardon. The minister eventually decided to simply avoid the question of the pardon altogether, instead allowing Philippe to stand before the parole board after having served half his sentence.

Jacob Wasserman’s letter drew comparisons to that of Emile Zola, J. The Jewish News of Northern California, December 13, 1929, the Historical Jewish Press Collection at the National Library of Israel

Efforts to free Halsman continued, and in September 1930, he was finally released from prison, but this was not the end of his travails. As a former convict and foreign citizen, he was immediately expelled from Austria. He could no longer return to his studies and therefore decided to rest and recuperate in Czechoslovakia and then in Paris, where his sister Liouba resided.

The public crusade for Halsman did not end there, as his supporters tried to get him acquitted entirely. To that end, they even recruited Sigmund Freud to come to the defense of a convicted criminal for the first time. Freud dismissed the prosecution’s claim that Philippe acted out of an Oedipal complex and lent support to the argument that trauma was what led Philippe to believe his own testimony. But the prosecution did not stand idly by and worked to prevent the acquittal. The Justice Ministry ultimately stayed out of it and the case remained closed. Philippe remained a convicted felon.

Meantime, Halsman flourished professionally in France. He worked as a freelance photographer and even arrived in British Mandatory Palestine on assignment for a French magazine in 1936, taking pictures which can now be viewed via the National Library of Israel website. He opened a studio in Paris and fell in love with Yvonee Moser, a young female photographer. The couple soon married and had a daughter. As the Nazis were approached Paris, Halsman sought a visa to America for his family. Just before the Germans entered the French capital, Yvonee and their daughter left for New York, along with Philippe’s mother and sister. He was only able to secure a visa for himself later, thanks in no small part to the personal intervention of Albert Einstein.

A report on the death of Philippe Halsman, Maariv, June 29, 1979, the Historical Jewish Press Collection at the National Library of Israel

While everyone knew him in Paris, no-one knew him in New York. Still, Halsman slowly made a name for himself in photography circles in the Big Apple. He met the artist Salvador Dali and together they worked on some fascinating collaborations. His first cover photo for Life magazine soon followed. But the stain of the trial and murder conviction didn’t disappear so quickly. In 1943, his criminal record was discovered and he faced expulsion from the United States, his newfound asylum. Fortunately for him, noted author Thomas Mann came to his aid and Halsman managed to prevent his own deportation.

After this, Halsman focused on leaving his past behind him and building a new future. History and the collective memory of this famous photographer suggests he succeeded. Halsman would live to see his criminal record expunged in Austria in 1973. On July 25, 1979, he died in New York, leaving behind thousands of famous images – as well as a familiar story about a Jew subjected to an unfair trial.