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More Important than Life

The Underground Archive of the Warsaw Ghetto

The exhibition offers a glimpse inside the Warsaw Ghetto from a Jewish perspective. Impressive eye-witness testimonies tell the story of the lives and deaths of the people inside the ghetto.

June 29, 2023 to January 7, 2024 | Munich Documentation Center for the History of National Socialism, Max-Mannheimer-Platz 1, 80333 Munich |

An exhibition by the Munich Documentation Center for the History of National Socialism and the Emanuel Ringelblum Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw in cooperation with the Association of the Jewish Historical Institute of Poland

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The Warsaw Ghetto

September 1939: World War II began with the invasion of Poland by the German Wehrmacht. Nazi Germany extended its anti-Jewish policy to the occupied territories, and the Jewish population was imprisoned in ghettos. The largest of these was the Warsaw Ghetto.

Before World War II, Poland was home to 3.3 million Jews, and Warsaw was the cultural, religious, and political center of this diverse community. After the German occupation some 375,000 Warsaw Jews were subjected to intense persecution by the Nazis: forced labor, increasing restriction of freedom of movement, expropriation, and violence.

__ Outline of the Warsaw Ghetto

In the fall of 1940 the Jewish population was forced to move into a special district in the northern part of the city: the Warsaw Ghetto.

It was sealed off by walls from the rest of the city in November that year. Almost one third of Warsaw’s total population was now concentrated in only 2.4 percent of the city’s area.

__ Ghetto wall on Bonifraterska street


__ Excerpt from a diary entry by ghetto resident Marek Stok, summer 1940

___ The footage shows the Warsaw Ghetto’s outer wall across from the Hala Mirowska market hall, most likely in May/June 1941. The camera records children as they smuggle rhubarb and other food through a drain passing through the wall into the ghetto. A Polish policeman consults with members of the German “Ordnungspolizei”, (police force in Nazi Germany) and then grabs one of the young smugglers. He beats the boy with his truncheon who, bleeding from his injuries, manages to get away.

The footage was taken by the Polish amateur filmmaker Alfons Ziółkowski.

By 1941 the ghetto population had increased to 460,000 people as Jews fled there or were deported there from other occupied regions and even from Germany. Housing and food supplies were completely inadequate and the hygiene situation was catastrophic. Epidemics were rampant and people died of debilitation.

__ Obituaries in the ghetto

Born in 1935 in the Polish town of Żychlin, Senek Rosenblum lived in the ghetto there before fleeing to the Warsaw Ghetto together with his parents in 1942. His mother died while fleeing. His father was able to smuggle himself and his son out of the Warsaw Ghetto and hide. Senek survived, on his own for the most part, in various hiding places and under an assumed identity. After the war, he made his way to Munich before emigrating to the USA. He finally settled for good in Munich in 1960, where he died in 2022.

Senek Rosenblum was among the few hundred children to survive the Warsaw Ghetto.

__ Interview with Senek Rosenblum on his arrival in the Warsaw Ghetto in the winter of 1942, recorded 2018

Oneg Shabbat and the archive

Writing One’s Own History

In order to document the plight of the Jewish community, the Jewish historian Emanuel Ringelblum set up a clandestine project: the underground archive of the Warsaw Ghetto. He enlisted around sixty people to form a research group operating under the code name Oneg Shabbat (Joy of the Sabbath).

We still do not know all the names of the Oneg Shabbat members. Through painstaking research, 36 biographies could be reconstructed. Photos have not been preserved of all of them.

The members of Oneg Shabbat met on Saturdays and discussed their research on sociological and demographic changes in the ghetto community. Among them were journalists, economists, teachers, rabbis, and writers—some of them also leading members of the civil resistance in the Warsaw Ghetto.

Over more than two years they gathered together and produced tens of thousands of documents: the so-called Ringelblum Archive.

___ “List of prints”, list of archival material collected by Oneg Shabbat, first of several pages with an overall number of 707 items, after December 1941


___ Excerpt from Abraham Lewin's diary entry from June 6, 1942

The so-called Ringelblum Archive is a unique legacy of Polish Jewry—an unprecedented act of resistance and self-empowerment as well as an attempt to document the Shoah as it was happening.

___ Benjamin Rozenfeld, Funeral Fund, drawing, 1941


___ Excerpt from Stanisław Różycki [Benjamin Rozenfeld], Zbiór relacji pt. "Obrazki uliczne getta" [The Collection of Testimonies ‘Street Scenes of the Ghetto’], March 1942

Documenting Ghetto Life

The ghetto inhabitants made every effort to cope with the extreme situation in a bid to survive. They frantically tried to make a living out of nothing and to keep up a social and cultural life. Schooling was provided for the children, and welfare organizations attempted to care for the poorest.

___ Fragment of a school timetable and the invitation to a “Grand Children’s Show” on the occasion of “Children’s Day—30/5/1942,”

They celebrated weddings and mourned their dead, who soon became omnipresent. Cut off from the outside world they produced underground magazines and tried to stay informed as much as possible. Their existence oscillated between hope and despair.

___ Cover of the underground magazine „Słowo Młodych. Pismo Młodzieży Gordonistycznej“ [Word of the Young. Newspaper of Gordonist Youth], no. 5 (19), July 1941

The members of Oneg Shabbat were aware of the extraordinary circumstances Polish Jews were facing. They therefore aimed to document ghetto life as comprehensively and objectively as possible.

___ Food ration card and coupon issued to Eliasz Gutkowski on May 21, 1942 with which to obtain a pair of shoes or leather for a pair of shoes.

Between 1940 and 1943, Emanuel Ringelblum and his coworkers secretly gathered and produced tens of thousands of documents in Polish, Yiddish, Hebrew, and German. Among the materials were diaries and theater tickets, advertisements and statistics, accounts from Jewish communities all over occupied Poland, school essays, research on specific aspects of ghetto life, personal letters, and official German documents such as posters, identity cards, and food ration cards.

Some seventy photographs and more than 300 drawings and paintings also became part of the archive.

___ Wiktoria Sweets Factories candy wrapper


___ Excerpt from Natan [Nusn] Koninski, Oblicze dziecka żydowskiego [The Face of the Jewish Child], Study on the situation of children in the Warsaw Ghetto November 1941

Spreading Knowledge of the Shoah

With the invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, Nazi Germany’s policy toward Jews became even more radical. Mass murders of Soviet Jews were followed by the German officials’ decision to systematically annihilate all European Jews.

For their killing program the German SS established six extermination camps in occupied Poland: Chełmno, Bełżec, Sobibór, Treblinka, Majdanek, and Auschwitz-Birkenau.

__ Letter from Fela Mazierska to her loved ones in the Warsaw Ghetto in which she writes about relatives who had been deported to the extermination camp at Chełmno, January 23, 1942

When the systematic murder of the Jewish population of Poland began, the members of Oneg Shabbat became chroniclers of the Shoah, and the archive’s tasks changed. From the autumn of 1941 they received information about orchestrated mass murders in Poland’s eastern territories.

News about mass killings in the extermination camps of Chełmno and Bełżec first reached them in early 1942.

___ „My dear ones! We are passing through Czestochowa with the entire family. We do not know where we are going. I bid you farewell. Kisses, G.F.”, Czestochowa, 17/12/1942 (Postmark) | Postcard from Guta Fuks from Płońsk to the Rotblat family in the Warsaw Ghetto, thrown out of the train during transport to Auschwitz


___ Excerpt from the underground periodical “Wiadomości“, edited by Oneg Shabbat members, January 9-15, 1943

On July 22, 1942, the Nazis began deporting Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto to the extermination camp at Treblinka, euphemistically referring to the operation as “resettlement.” Day after day, for nearly two months, thousands of women, children and men had to report for deportation. Only those employed and able to work were spared temporarily.

___ Announcement on behalf of the German authorities on the “Resettlement to the East” of Warsaw’s Jews, July 22, 1942

These developments prompted the group to produce current press bulletins and reports on the ongoing extermination, which were forwarded to the Polish resistance outside the ghetto. They, in turn, passed the information on to the Polish government-in-exile in London in a bid to alert the Allied forces.

These reports were among the first attempts to describe the Shoah while it was still taking place.

___ Diary entry of Abraham Lewin describing the first liquidation action in the Warsaw Ghetto, August 1942


___ Excerpt of the diary entry of Abraham Lewin, Dziennik, August 24, 1942

___ Plan of the Treblinka extermination camp from a report entitled “The Extinction of Jewish Warsaw," November 15, 1942


___ Abram Jakub Krzepicki, Testimony “A Man has scaped from Treblinka... Conversations with the Returnee”, after December 26, 1942

Das Archiv bewahren und kämpfen

Faced with deportation in the summer of 1942, the Oneg Shabbat group decided to hide the material they had gathered so far.

By the time the mass deportations came to an end in September 1942, some 300,000 inhabitants of the Warsaw Ghetto had been deported and killed. Only about 60,000 people remained in what was by then an even smaller area, the so-called residual ghetto. They knew that they too would soon be murdered. But they did not want to go to their deaths without putting up a fight.

___ Blechkiste, in der ein Teil des Oneg Schabbat-Archivs aufbewahrt wurde.

One part of the archive was placed in ten metal boxes and buried in the cellar of a school by Izrael Lichtensztejn and two of his students, Nachum Grzywacz and Dawid Graber. A second part of the archive was hidden in two milk cans at the same address at the beginning of February 1943. Other parts are said to have been hidden in April 1943.

__ While burying the Oneg Shabbat Archive Dawid Graber and Nachum Grzywacz wrote down their impressions and memories of the events before and during the mass deportations from the Warsaw Ghetto in the summer of 1942, accompanied by their testaments and biographies, August 3, 1942

Tunnels and bunkers were built under the houses. The underground fighters secretly organized and distributed weapons. In April 1943, when the Germans entered the ghetto in order to liquidate it, they fought back. For nearly a month they fended off the German troops, before the ghetto was eventually razed to the ground.

The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising was the most important uprising by Jews during World War II.

___ “Prepare for action! Stay alert!!!,” proclamation by a Jewish underground organization calling on Jews to fight the German occupier, January 1943

Most of the members of Oneg Shabbat died during the deportations or were murdered in the extermination camps. Some did not survive the ghetto uprising.

Emanuel Ringelblum himself had managed to leave the ghetto to take his family to safety in February 1943, but in March 1944, their hiding place on the outskirts of Warsaw was denounced to the Gestapo, which raided it. Ringelblum, his wife, son, and all those hiding there as well as the Polish family providing the shelter were subsequently shot in the ruins of the ghetto.

Only three Oneg Shabbat members survived the war.

__ Emanuel Ringelblum and his son Uri


As early as February 1945, surviving ghetto activists began petitioning the international Jewish community to search for the archive. Hersz Wasser, the archive’s secretary, was the only one alive who knew the hiding place. However, with very limited resources at hand the search was difficult.

With the ghetto razed, unearthing the hidden documents was a major undertaking that necessitated securing appropriate permits, pinpointing the exact spot among the ghetto ruins, and determining the right method of excavating the archive. Only in February 1946 did the Polish Jewish Community receive substantial help from abroad that permitted the excavation to finally begin.

___ Shortly after the end of World War II, Shoah survivor Natan Gross filmed among the ruins of the Warsaw Ghetto. He documented the destruction, but also how the first part of the hidden Oneg Shabbat archive was recovered.

On September 18, 1946, the first part of the archive was retrieved, but much of the material had been damaged by water. The second part of the archive in the sealed milk cans was found by chance during construction work on the very same site in December 1950. It was considerably better preserved than the first part.

The documents gathered in the archive formed a source base for the first academic research articles on the Shoah in occupied Poland. They also served as evidence in the trials of Nazi perpetrators.

I wish my wife should be remembered, Gela Seksztajn, talented artist, whose numerous works could not be exhibited, could not appear in the bright light […]. At present, together with me, – both of us get ready to meet and receive death. I wish my little daughter to be remembered. Margalit is 20 months old today. She has fully mastered the Yiddish language [...]. I don’t lament my own life nor that of my wife. I pity only the so little, nice and talented girl. She too deserves to be remembered. Izrael Lichtensztejn, “My Testament”, July 31, 1942

__ Drawings by Gela Seksztajn, Portrait of a Sleeping Child (Margolit), Self-portrait, Portrait of her husband Izrael Lichtensztejn

Today the Ringelblum Archive remains the property of the Association of the Jewish Historical Institute of Poland, which was founded in 1950. It is preserved in this very institute in Warsaw, located on the edge of the former ghetto district. Selected documents are presented in the Institute’s permanent exhibition. Since 1999 the archive has been listed in the UNESCO Memory of the World register.

More Important than Life

The Underground Archive of the Warsaw Ghetto

June 29, 2023 to January 7, 2024 | Munich Documentation Center for the History of National Socialism, Max-Mannheimer-Platz 1, 80333 Munich |



All pictures: © Emanuel Ringelblum Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw

ARG I 683 50, ARG I 683 29, ARG I 3 8, ARG I 581, ARG I 681 2, ARG I 314_4, ARG I 1333 2, ARG II 490 6, ARG II 487 11, ARG I 395, ARG I 831 5, ARG II 339, ARG II 52 2, ARG II 252, ARG II 300, MŻIH B-650/III, ARG I 415 36, ARG I 416 39, ARG II 426 7, MŻIH A-891, MŻIH A-947 11

Audio recordings

All audio recordings: © Emanuel Ringelblum Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw

Recorded and produced by actors from the Münchner Kammerspiele

Marek Stok, Pamiętnik [The Journal], summer of 1940 | Jewish Historical Institute Archive, nr. 302/144

Abraham Lewin, Diary, Entry of June 6, 1942 | As cited in: Samuel D. Kassow, Ringelblums Vermächtnis. Das geheime Archiv des Warschauer Ghettos, Reinbek / Hamburg 2010, p. 478

Stanisław Różycki [Benjamin Rozenfeld], Zbiór relacji pt. “Obrazki uliczne getta” [The Collection of Testimonies ‘Street Scenes of the Ghetto’], March 1942 | In: Archiwum Ringelbluma, vol. 5: Getto warszawskie. Życie codzienne, ed. by Katarzyna Person, Warszawa 2010, p. 19

Natan [Nusn] Koninski, Oblicze dziecka żydowskiego [The Face of the Jewish Child], Study on the situation of children in the Warsaw Ghetto, November 1941 | In: The Ringelblum Archive. Underground Archive of the Warsaw Ghetto, vol. 4: Children. Clandestine education in the Warsaw Ghetto, ed. by Ruta Sakowska, Warszawa 2021, p. 260

Wiadomości, No. 6, January 9-15, 1943 | In: The Ringelblum Archive. Underground Archive of the Warsaw Ghetto, vol. 3: Oyneg Shabes. People and Works, ed. by Aleksandra Bańkowska and Tadeusz Epsztein, Warszawa 2020, p. 310-311

Abraham Lewin, Dziennik [The Journal], August 24, 1942 | The Ringelblum Archive

Abram Jakub Krzepicki, Testimony ‘A Man has scaped from Treblinka... Conversations with the Returnee’, after December 26, 1942 | In: The Ringelblum Archive. Underground Archive of the Warsaw Ghetto, vol. 5: The Last Stage of Resettlement is Death. Pomiechówek, Chełmno on the Ner, Treblinka, ed. by Barbara Engelking, Alina Skibińska, and Ewa Wiatr, Warszawa 2021, p. 213

Izrael Lichtensztejn, “My Testament”, Warsaw, July 31, 1942 | In: To Live with Honor and Die with Honor! ... Selected documents from the Warsaw Ghetto Underground Archives “O. S.” (“Oneg Shabbath”), ed. by Joseph Kermish, Jerusalem 1986, pp. 58-59

Film recordings

Amateur film footage by Alfons Ziółkowski, 1941 | Courtesy of Eric Bednarski

“Senek Rosenblum - Ein Kind auf der Flucht“ from the portrait series “Zeuge der Zeit“ | © Bayerischer Rundfunk 2018

Natan Gross, Mir lebn Geblibene, Poland 1946-48 | © National Center for Jewish Film at Brandeis University, Waltham, Massachusetts, USA

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