Indeed, the secular and life-long leftist Ringelblum describes his project, near the end of his life as he hides from the Nazis in the Aryan sector of Warsaw following the destruction of the Ghetto and the mass deportations to the death camps, in terms that are so movingly religious as to imbue his work with an almost sacred quality: “When a Jewish [scribe] sets out to copy the Torah, he must…take a ritual bath in order to purify himself from all uncleanliness and impurity. The scribe takes up his pen with a trembling heart, because the smallest mistake in transcription means the destruction of the whole work. It is with this feeling of fearfulness that I have begun…”11

Manuscript of Szlamek’s testimony about Chelmno in the Oyneg Shabes, Ringelblum Archive.

Manuscript of Szlamek’s testimony about Chelmno in the Oyneg Shabes, Ringelblum Archive, courtesy Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw. Reproduced in Samuel D. Kassow, Who Will Write Our History? Rediscovering A Hidden Archive from the Warsaw Ghetto (New York: Random/Vintage, 2007), Illustration between pages 283 and 285.

Ringelblum and his associates had not set out to transcribe a given text, but rather to inscribe a record of unfolding and contingent events. And although they never theorize the construction of the archive in just this way, the intense and meticulous discussions among the principal participants that Kassow records and analyses make it quite clear that they were deeply involved in all the myriad issues surrounding the desire to produce a “true” and “comprehensive” picture of their situation. This picture would, as they believed according to the optimism or the pessimism of the day, eventually be called upon to render one of two services. It would either provide a template for the recovery of a viable Jewish culture after the War (and indeed the outlines of that culture were also and not surprisingly much disputed within their circle), or it would provide a fitting testimony to the obliteration of a people whose absence would leave an irremediable lacuna in the structure of the cosmos. For, as the Ghetto poet Yitzhak Katzenelson suggested in one of his most poignant verses: “Without Jews, who would be left to comfort God?”12

What makes this episode exceptionally resonant for our present purposes (aside from the extraordinary affirmation of life in the face of abyssal darkness presented by the Oyneg Shabes archivists and their collaborators) is the fact that, even as their own time and their own narrative was drawing toward its inexorable close, the Nazis for their part were apparently intent on the production of a counter-narrative, an archival documentary cast in a quasi-verité style, which began filming in May 1942. Rather like the Oyneg Shabes Archive, which was buried for safe keeping, then entombed under the rubble of the Ghetto, and only (partially) unearthed in 1946, the Nazis’ raw footage was never cut and edited into a complete film, remained without a soundtrack, and was simply shelved—I suspect because the obliteration of the Ghetto made the project almost immediately redundant.

Recovered after the end of the War, the Nazi footage came to be accepted as an authentic source of information concerning conditions inside the Ghetto, its fragmentary state seeming precisely to have testified to its supposed authenticity. Although clearly produced in response to a fairly obvious, propagandistic motive to show that wealthy Ghetto Jews were content to lead lives of thoughtless self-indulgence while less fortunate Jews literally sickened and died on the streets, its conspicuous lack of narrative and soundtrack gave much of it a look of “raw” objectivity. Yet the Nazi footage in and of itself is difficult to evaluate; and the picture of Ghetto life that it presents, though obviously “false,” is arguably more complex than the original film’s planners may have intended. Some of it is clearly staged, crude (almost) to the point of caricature; but at other times it is poignant and finely nuanced, and at others, for example, when we watch the naked bodies of dead Jews sliding arms and legs akimbo down a wooden ramp into a common grave, undeniably and brutally powerful.


  1. Ibid., 379.
  2. Ibid., 329.
Further Reading