A history lesson from the Warsaw Ghetto: we need to keep evidence of our everyday lives





In the Warsaw Ghetto in 1940, an historian named Emanuel Ringelblum organised and carried out an act of resistance without parallel, a feat of historical heroism that has only come fully to light recently: he set about preserving the present, for the benefit of the future.

Ringelblum was one of 450,000 Jews herded into the ghetto by the Nazis. Over the next three years many died of disease or starvation. Most of the remainder were rounded up and murdered in Treblinka. Those who survived until April 1943 were almost all killed in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. The ghetto was razed.

Yet, Ringelblum's great idea survived the war. Hidden beneath the ghetto buildings were a number of sealed tin boxes and milk churns, containing some 35,000 documents: essays, letters, poems, bus tickets, posters, milk coupons, photographs, personal testimonies, official papers, menus, souvenirs, sketches, sweet papers and songs. Here was the detailed story of daily life in a man-made hell. This was Ringelblum's legacy - a triumph of preservation.

The vast collection lay deep beneath the rubble of the ghetto for years, but was finally exhumed after the war when a survivor led the way to the secret cellar. It has taken another half-century for the story to be told in full by Samuel Kassow, in an extraordinary book, Who Will Write Our History?.

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