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Exhibit documents life, struggle in ghetto

Adam Gorlick,

July 6, 2006
The Associated Press

AMHERST, Mass. - Some of the images seem almost mundane. A photograph of hunched women picking cabbage. Essays scrawled in the handwriting of school children. Posters advertising a summertime performance of the Jewish Symphony Orchestra.

But their everyday appearance is undercut by stories of exceptional horror.

The fertile cabbage field became a mass grave site. The words written by a 14-year-old describe the desperate cries for food he hears on the street. The 80 musicians who performed in that August 1941 concert were murdered at a concentration camp.

The artifacts are the remains of the Warsaw Ghetto, fragments of a Jewish society marked for extermination by the Nazis during the Holocaust but saved by a small group who had the foresight and determination to record their history rather than allow it to perish with them.

"Scream the Truth at the World: Emanuel Ringelblum and the Hidden Archive of the Warsaw Ghetto" opens a window into life in that walled ghetto before most of its residents were shipped to concentration camps or killed during an uprising that was crushed by Nazi bombs in 1943.

On display at the National Yiddish Book Center through Oct. 6, the exhibit chronicles the work done by Ringelblum and his band of archivists. The things that were saved - letters, diary entries, pictures - show glimmers of normalcy and a struggle for survival in a world that became a tomb.

There are accounts of soup kitchens that helped distribute and ration what limited food was made available in the ghetto. Underground schools and religious services managed to flourish. And music and plays offered cultural refuge during Nazi occupation.

"This wasn't a militant community by nature," said Nancy Sherman, the National Yiddish Book Center's executive vice president. "The people in the ghetto really hoped to survive. But they had the foresight to know
AMHERST, Mass. - Some of the images seem almost mundane. A photograph of hunched women picking cabbage. Essays scrawled in the handwriting of school children. Posters advertising a summertime performance of the Jewish Symphony Orchestra.

But their everyday appearance is undercut by stories of exceptional horror.

The fertile cabbage field became a mass grave site. The words written by a 14-year-old describe the desperate cries for food he hears on the street. The 80 musicians who performed in that August 1941 concert were murdered at a concentration camp.

The artifacts are the remains of the Warsaw Ghetto, fragments of a Jewish society marked for extermination by the Nazis during the Holocaust but saved by a small group who had the foresight and determination to record their history rather than allow it to perish with them.

"Scream the Truth at the World: Emanuel Ringelblum and the Hidden Archive of the Warsaw Ghetto" opens a window into life in that walled ghetto before most of its residents were shipped to concentration camps or killed during an uprising that was crushed by Nazi bombs in 1943.

On display at the National Yiddish Book Center through Oct. 6, the exhibit chronicles the work done by Ringelblum and his band of archivists. The things that were saved - letters, diary entries, pictures - show glimmers of normalcy and a struggle for survival in a world that became a tomb.

There are accounts of soup kitchens that helped distribute and ration what limited food was made available in the ghetto. Underground schools and religious services managed to flourish. And music and plays offered cultural refuge during Nazi occupation.

"This wasn't a militant community by nature," said Nancy Sherman, the National Yiddish Book Center's executive vice president. "The people in the ghetto really hoped to survive. But they had the foresight to know that their record would be the only record."

 

In expectation of their own deaths, Ringelblum and his 60-member group stored more than 20,000 documents they collected in large metal milk containers and buried them under the foundations of houses.

After World War II, two of the three caches were unearthed. One was found by one of the few survivors of the ghetto who led people to it. Another was found when the rubble in the area was being cleared. The third was never found. Duplicates of some of the documents make up the "Scream the Truth" exhibit, which is produced by the Museum of Jewish Heritage. The original archive is housed at the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw.

Ringelblum's idea to chronicle life in the ghetto came shortly after Warsaw's Jews were segregated in 1939. A Polish academic, Ringelblum began by organizing relief efforts in the ghetto, setting up soup kitchens and social service programs.

But his humanitarian works also had a scholarly edge. He began creating an archive of ghetto life, hoping it would tell the story of Nazi occupation in Warsaw.

"When the war started, most of the academic leaders ran away," said Samuel Kassow, a Trinity College history professor who has been studying Ringelblum's work for about eight years. "But Ringelblum didn't run. He was organizing ways to ease the problems and record the history. He knew that if we don't gather material for our own history, then our history will be written by others."
As hardships increased in the ghetto, the materials became darker. Photos and descriptions of diseases overshadowed the advertisements for cultural events. The lists of mortality rates grew along with the lists of people being forced to live together in single-room apartments.

Ringelblum's group also circulated surveys throughout the ghetto, questioning people about how they saw their lives changing under the occupation.

"I hear voices crying out for bread," 14-year-old Yaffa Bergman wrote in an essay. "A very small boy, trembling all over, stretches out his thin arm and begs. ... I turn my face away."

By 1942, when it became clear that the intent of the Nazis was to exterminate Jews, and some concentration camp escapees were returning to the ghetto to tell their stories, Ringelblum's group began trying to alert Jewish organizations throughout Europe about what was happening in Poland.

"We found ourselves surrounded on all sides by barbed wire," Abram Krzepicki told Ringelblum's group after escaping the Treblinka concentration camp and returning to the Warsaw Ghetto. "We were seized by terror. The foreboding of death was hanging in the air. Nobody, however, found the strength to act. We were paralyzed by fear, exhausted by hunger."

While the Ringelblum archives survived the destruction of the ghetto, most of the chroniclers did not. Ringelblum was deported to a concentration camp. He managed to escape, and made his way back to Warsaw where he went into hiding with his wife and family.

But in 1944, the Ringelblums were caught by Nazis and shot. The work he spearheaded, however, defied destruction.

"What we were unable to cry and shriek out to the world we buried in the ground," Dawid Graber, a member of Ringelblum's group who helped bury the archives, wrote in his will. "I would love to live to see the moment in which the great treasure will be dug up and scream the truth at the world. So the world may know all. So the ones who did not live through it may be glad, and we may feel like veterans with medals on our chests."