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Witness to the horrors of the Nazis

Artifacts from Warsaw provide a glimpse into the life of a society marked for death.

July 05, 2006|Adam Gorlick | Associated Press

AMHERST, Mass. — Some of the images seem almost mundane: a photograph of hunched women picking cabbage; essays scrawled in the handwriting of schoolchildren; 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" helps illuminate life in that walled enclave before most of its residents were shipped to concentration camps or killed during an uprising that was crushed by Nazi bombs in 1943.

The exhibit, on display at the National Yiddish Book Center in Amherst through Oct. 6, chronicles the work done by Ringelblum and his band of archivists. The things that were saved -- letters, diary entries, pictures -- show glimmers of normality 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" show, 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."

While the Ringelblum archives survived the destruction of the ghetto, most of the chroniclers did not.

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

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