Spending days working on a single word

The project of translating more than 35,000 pages of documents from the Underground Archive of the Warsaw Ghetto has involved several dozen people over the course of years. Their efforts resulted in the 38-volume edition, available in printed and digital versions. On the International Translation Day, we have asked translators, editors and coordinators of the complete edition of the Ringelblum Archive to tell us about their work.
The Polish Juliusz Żuławski PEN Club Prize in 2016

It has to be emphasised that translating the entire Ringelblum Archive from Yiddish, Hebrew, German and other languages is an unprecedented enterprise. Its scale and level of complexity (in terms of content as well as basic organization) makes the translation and edition a unique effort on a global scale.

The work was appreciated by respectable institutions: in 2016, the translation team was awarded with the Polish Juliusz Żuławski PEN Club Prize, in 2017 dr Eleonora Bergman and prof. Tadeusz Epsztein received the Jan Karski and Pola Nireńska award, and one year later, dr Monika Polit received the Clio award for the edition of the 31st volume – The Works of Perec Opoczyński. The choice seems obvious. Thanks to their work, readers – not only academics – have received access to one of the most important sources for the history of the Holocaust in general, with a special focus on the history of the Holocaust in Poland. [1]

From the translators’ point of view, the work was very difficult, for various reasons. The documents were preserved mostly as manuscripts, written by many people, not only Emanuel Ringelblum’s regular associates. Reading them is a challenge due to handwriting (often rushed, on bad quality paper, with a pencil) and damage which affected the first part of the Archive. These documents span a large variety of subjects [2], written in many languages (mainly in Yiddish, but also in Polish, Hebrew, German and others), often intertwining, written also in various styles (from common speech to advanced religious writings). Their translation requires linking many competences, not only linguistic; it also requires extensive consultation and source research. When we add the necessity of identifying people, locations, events, decoding abbreviations, ciphers – we can imagine the scope of the challenge which the authors faced.

This is only an overview. We have to add convergence of terminology and annonations, necessary in the case of a multi-volume publication released over the course of several decades, as well as the pace of the project – the first volume was published in 1997, but after 2012, when the project received the grant of the National Humanities Development Program, several volumes were released every year.

It is difficult to convey all the obstacles and difficulties which emerged during translating and publishing subsequent volumes. This is why I decided to ask translators, editors and coordinators about their daily work, particular challenges they had to face, problems they encountered, and eventually – what was the biggest source of satisfaction.

We also have to remember that people who worked with particular documents were not professional translators, but academics, scholars, writers, archivists, employees of the Emanuel Ringelblum Jewish Historical Institute – who often dedicated their weekends, days and nights to this project.

When we listen to their words, even though they’re focused mainly on the practical side of translator’s work, the thought about the Editorial Staff as continuators of the will of the Archive founders comes to mind. Let me refer to the words of Prof. Jacek Leociak, who said in his eulogy during the PEN Club Prize ceremony: In my opinion, this award is being given to the entire great group of people, who had been working for years, and whom I would like to call, after Emanuel Ringelblum: ’Oneg Shabbat was a brotherhood, a company of brothers, who carried a banner of willingness to sacrifice and to remain true to the service to society’ (…) They committed to fulfilling the testament, buried in a basement of the 68 Nowolipki house, and spent days and nights over the documents, so that the letters could begin to speak. And they spoke. We give them our thanks.

The staff consists of 58 people – coordinators (dr Eleonora Bergman, dr Katarzyna Person, prof. Tadeusz Epsztein – scientific editor), translators involved in the works to various extent: some had translated vast amounts of text, while others took the challenge of translating particular, sometimes single, thematic pieces. [3] It took also a great amount of editorial work, because the complete edition has relied often on older translations.

I’m giving this work to you in a polyphonic form, one which conveys the nuances of this difficult, arduous work – yet it is work which everyone I am speaking to talks about with an enthusiastic blink in their eye. As you can see, there is no contradiction between these stances.

The conversations revealed several thematic areas, and this publication followed this division. It is dedicated to the Polish translation of the Ringelblum Archive, but let’s not forget that the English translation is pending – two volumes have already been published, followed by more of them soon. I have decided that this should be the subject of another story.

I would like to thank everybody who agreed to dedicate their time and attention. These meetings were informative and very heartfelt. I wish I could talk to everyone – unfortunately, time and circumstances didn’t allow for that. I have no doubt that despite the inquisitiveness and the vast array of subjects raised by my conversation partners, the topic hasn’t been exhausted yet.

Anna Majchrowska


Since the recovery of the first part of the Archive, nobody had any doubts that the documents should be published as soon as possible. Nachman Blumental, head of the Central Jewish Historical Committee, was writing about it already in 1946. In a report published by the same committee on 27 September 1947, we can read: ’we have to begin the publishing of documents from the Ringelblum Archive, because of their importance as documentary evidence’. The first printed versions of Emanuel Ringelblum’s notes were published as early as the following year. In the subsequent decades, editorial works continued, mainly in the JHI periodicals — ’Bleter far Geszichte’ and ’Biuletyn ŻIH’, as well as in several books. Altogether, only a small percent of the preserved documents appeared in print in the first three decades after the war. No comprehensive effort was taken practically until the late 1970s. In terms of research on the Ringelblum Archive, Ruta Sakowska had initiated intensive works in the 1960s. [4]

Katarzyna Person The first translations were made after the war. There were only few of them, but good quality, made by people embedded in their times. They knew it from their own experience, but also added a lot of their own. Sometimes we cannot tell why certain words had been deciphered the way they were. When we were publishing the writings of Emanuel Ringelblum, we have based on Adam Rutkowski’s translation from the 1960s (eventually published in 1983).

Joanna Nalewajko – Kulikov When it comes to translating Ringelblum, most of the work was done by dr Agata Kondrat, who compared the original with the Yiddish-language edition from the 1960s [2] and with Rutkowski’s version. The Yiddish-language edition proved to be very helpful, mostly due to the extent of preserved original and Ringelblum’s handwriting, which was difficult to decode.

Monika Polit The pioneering translators were Adam Rutkowski and Ruta Sakowska. They knew the context, didn’t have to consult anybody or find out about many things which for us are, and perhaps will always remain unclear.

Katarzyna Person A great example of complexity is Abraham Lewin’s Diary. We’re using Rutkowski’s translation from the 1950s as the basis, we verify it – we add fragments removed by Rutkowski for various reasons, and add writings sent after the war to YIVO by Hersz Wasser. On the other hand, in the 1950s translation, there are two large fragments which were lost after the war and we don’t have access to the complete original – we have to rely on Rutkowski’s work. We also have to be aware that these writings were subject to censorship on at least three levels – political, due to dynamic situation in Poland and unclear status of the JHI at that time; preventive censorship was applied by all institutions in Poland back then. Censorship was also related to the fact that the JHI was trying to shape the memory of the Holocaust and about the attitudes of the Jewish community during the Holocaust. This is very interesting, because different censorship is applied in the Yiddish and in the Polish versions, which has to be considered if we want to utilise these translations today. Third layer of censorship is related to the memory of war in general, not only in Poland. I mean here psychological, social issues, the way the experience of women was described after the war. Thiss is an issue not specific only to Poland and to the Jewish community, parts which referred to sexuality were being removed from Polish and Jewish documents worldwide. Many excerpts had been removed from postwar translations, but at the same time these changes were not marked, or marked as unclear. Sometimes the reader was indirectly informed about censorship through a statement that for example a fragment was unclear.

Joanna Nalewajko – Kulikov There were less censored fragments in Ringelblum’s writings that one could expect. It is also interesting that the Polish edition was more censored than the Yiddish one. There are omissions in the latter as well, but they stem for example from a mistake made by a typesetter. In the 1983 Chronicle of the Warsaw Ghetto, the fragment about Witkacy committing suicide after the aggression from the Soviet Union was removed, whilst in the Yiddish version, it wasn’t. Maybe because it was aimed at a different reader?

Agnieszka Żółkiewska These texts had been modified many times after the war for many reasons. Even in such innocent writings as poems, translators or editors didn’t accept the truth which they carried. In order to avoid controversy, too brutal excerpts describing the ghetto reality, or related to human body or sexuality were sometimes removed. But smoothing the text meant automatic smoothing of reality, which was much more complex than it may seem. Ringelblum was caring about compliance of the Archive documents with his very high standards. A special committee comprising several people was reading the texts before Ringelblum confirmed them and accepted into the Archive. In fact, many texts which seem more controversial from today’s point of view than today, had been accepted. Ringelblum was thinking ike a historian who wanted to convey the reality in a possibly objective way. Ghetto was his reality, so he didn’t have the problems which postwar Holocaust historians, especially in Communist Poland and East Germany, were struggling with. We can’t be fully sure whether it was their personal issue or rather one specific to the political reality which had a strong impact on them.

Joanna Nalewajko-Kulikov In the case of Ringelblum’s writings, Rutkowski’s translation sounds a bit archaic, certain phrases are not in use anymore, or things are said differently. Agata Kondrat delivered the translation in a raw form, as it was agreed, and I was wondering whether it should be more polished, if I have the right to modify the language used by Rutkowski, who came from the same background as Ringelblum – Polish-Jewish intelligentsia. I assume that Ringelblum’s Polish was closer to the language used by Rutkowski than contemporary one. Eventually I decided that this translation would have sounded archaic today. It would be different if it was the original text. But a translation has to be clear for readers today. Also, the older translation was Christianised, with Easter instead of Pesach and Confirmation instead of Bar Mitzvah. This is not practiced today.


The works on the first volume began in mid-1990s. In 1995, Ruta Sakowska prepared a concept of dividing the documents from the Archive into particular volumes of the future edition. In 1997, the first volume of the complete edition was published, and in a short time, two following ones were ready to print. In order to accelerate the editorial works, Feliks Tych, director of the JHI since 1996, decided to decided to prepare a new inventory of the collection in the first place, assigning the task to a team led by professor Tadeusz Epsztein. Preliminary works have begun in late 2000. In Spring of 2001, first archive indexes of documents from the first part of the Archive were introduced. In May 2003, the indexes for the inventory were ready. Between 2009 and 2010, last additions and corrections were introduced to the inventory in Polish version. In early 2007, dr Eleonora Bergman took the position of the director of the JHI and began to form a new editorial staff. [6]

Tadeusz Epsztein I wouldn’t have taken this challenge without Ruta Sakowska. She had taught me many things, introduced me into the specifics of the Ringelblum Archive, taught me to notice various problems in documents, encouraged me to learn the basics of Yiddish. She signed only few texts as a translator, but it can be misleading – she was also proofreading documents translated by others. Her contribution was significant.

Eleonora Bergman The first volume of the complete edition of the Ringelblum Archive was composed by dr Ruta Sakowska. The idea to begin with documents which speak on the human level the most, such as private letters, microhistories, was hers. The second volume – documents about children and their stories – was her own idea too. Materials for the third volume were selected and arranged by professor (then – still doctor) Andrzej Żbikowski, who was interested in the history of the Eastern Borderlands after the outbreak of World War II. The fourth volume, dedicated to the works of Gela Seksztajn, was edited by Magdalena Tarnowska, according to her own interests.

The base of the new inventory which prof. Epsztein was working on was ready already in 2000. I have already been strongly engaged in these efforts and I came to a conclusion that with inventory, we could approach the planning of the new edition differently. We have begun from volumes dedicated to territories (including documents related to the entire territory of Poland occupied by Nazi Germany: aside from Eastern Borderlands, the General Gouvernement and areas incorporated into the Third Reich) edited by Marta Janczewska, under supervision from Ruta Sakowska.

Tadeusz Epsztein The person who encouraged me to join the works on the complete edition was dr Eleonora Bergman. It is our shared project. The most difficult challenge was to organize a network of translators. It was very difficult, even though I had contact to many peeople who were helping with translations from Yiddish and Hebrew during the work on the inventory. Still, that required basic information, whilst here, we needed comprehensive translation. We relied mainly on Sara Arm, but she wasn’t able to deal with such an enormous amount of documents alone. She was cooperating with us all the time, until the end.

Sara Arm I have heard about the project first at the corridor of the Jewish Historical Institute a long time ago. Michał Friedman said that we have to begin translations of the Ringelblum Archive. I was aware that not many people in Poland knew what it was. I thought: I have to translate it! I was looking forward to working on something I consider very important.

Eleonora Bergman In 2007, we had begun to plan the complete edition with Tadeusz Epsztein. We had been collecting funds, but differently – for selected materials. At that time, the inventory was being printed in Washington. We have made a table including all the materials from the Ringelblum Archive, with an annotation about the type of material and other basic information. At the same time, we managed to receive a grant from the Foundation for Polish Science – which allowed us to work on the „territorial” volumes. Thanks to funds from the Polish-German Cooperation Foundation, we could have begun to work on regular translations. These processes were happening in a parallel way. We began to search for translators, to built a base of people involve in the project. Because parts of the material had already been translated by Sara Arm in cooperation with „Karta”, vol.5 (Warsaw Ghetto, the daily life) could have been published quite quickly. A lucky coincidence was also the establishing of the Polish Society for Yiddish Studies, where some of our translators come from — Joanna Nalewajko-Kulikov, Bella Szwarcman-Czarnota, Agata Kondrat, Agnieszka Żółkiewska, Marek Tuszewicki, Karolina Szymaniak and others. It was a real breakthrough when it comes to translations – it turned out that there emerged an entire group of people who could join us, also Monika Polit and Marcin Urynowicz. An additional helpful factor was the fact that since 2008, everybody was able to work on scanned documents. It was a phenomenal coincidence. When we applied for funds for the complete edition from the National Program for Development of Humanities in 2012, it was clear that we had translators and editors for next volumes.

Magdalena Siek For several years, the work had been very intensive, because we were moving fast. There were never enough translators, initially the work was done practically only by Sara Arm. Sara was responsible for translations to volumes edited by me – 8 and 9. Because they relied mainly on manuscripts, it was good to have someone else to look at the text in order to resolve unclear situations, add corrections. This is how I became involved. While working on the editions of my two volumes, checking Sara’s translations and comparing them against the originals, I became familiar enough with the text to move on towards other translations.

Tadeusz Epsztein We were in a hurry because we assumed that we will prepare a complete edition. In the planned volume, we had to include all the documents related to a particular subject. The main challenge were translations from Yiddish because they make the majority of documents. We were looking for translators in Poland and abroad. Many people didn’t want to work on manuscripts – and we had mostly manuscripts or typed text which was also damaged, which required excellent knowledge of the language.

Eleonora Bergman Among the JHI employees, Piotr Kendziorek was responsible for translations from German, Magdalena Siek did a great job with translations from Yiddish. This is how the group working on the Archive kept expanding. Most of the members remained there, in various configurations, until the end of the project. The same translators, while working on following volumes, had to work on a variety of themes which required not only the knowledge of the language but also of the conditions of described reality. There were also contributors, mainly from the Polish Society for Yiddish Studies, who were also providing single translations.


Magdalena Siek The documents in the Archive are very diverse. Literature, official documents, reports, everything written differently. Not everybody who is a good belles lettres translator understands well the historical context.

Marek Tuszewicki Aside from literature – belles lettres or works arpiring to this name, in volume 26 (Literary works from the Warsaw Ghetto) we can find texts collected on the street, ethno-humor, jokes, folk songs and even legends. They all fall into a separate category of a resource and as such, they’re very interesting due to providing an image of a community closed in a ghetto, especially covering the groups which were hardly given their voice: orthodox Jews, or Jews who were simple and didn’t know much Polish. Their various beliefs, myths, symbolic links to the way they experienced the world and religion are very interesting. Their presence in the language of facts, of parallel war events is striking. Their awareness of battles in the Far East or Northern Africa may surprise when we take into consideration the fact that they were closed in one district of Warsaw. It breaks the vision of the ghetto as a place cut off from the world, separated from reality.

Icchak Kacenelson, The Day Of My Great Disaster / The Ringelblum Archive

Marta Dudzik-Rudkowska I was translating pre-war textbooks written by Kalonymus Shapiro, a tzadik from Piaseczno, addressed at hassidic youth beginning their mystical way of Judaism. It was an attempt to protect the youth from the allure of the outside world, to bring back a dimension of Hassidism which would be attractive to the young audience.

Monika Polit I am from Łódź and I’m researching the subject of the city as well, hence the first volume edited and translated by me was dedicated to the Jews of Łódź. The Ringelblum Archive was collecting documents written in Łódź in 1939 and early 1940. Many inhabitants, or rather prisoners, of the Łódź Ghetto – mainly clerks but also acolytes of Mordechaj Rumkowski – escaped to Warsaw and took important documents from the period right before and after establishing the ghetto. These are mainly official announcements, but also personal documents: reports, stories. I was interested in them due to my work, so the goal was both practical and holistic – I wanted to complete the publications which I had been working on before with knowledge from the Ringelblum Archive. This is how it all began.

In case of the volume dedicated to Perec Opoczyński, a few years earlier, at Barbara Engelking’s request, I worked on Perec Opoczyński’s Press Stories – a choice of the best articles in his work as a journalist and reporter. Due to this, it became natural for coordinators of the complete version of the Archive that I could also work on Opoczyński’s legacy.

Piotr Kendziorek The documents in German were both official announcements (published by the Germans or by the Jewish Councils) and personal documents – stories or letters, because there was a law according to which letters had to be sent in German. The latter could be divided into two categories: letters written by native speakers, mainly Jews from Austria, Germany or Czech Republic, people who spoke German well. There were also letters, applications, formal documents written by Polish Jews, with mistakes, problems with grammar, unusual constructions, cliches from Yiddish.


Eleonora Bergman Majority of documents in the Ringelblum Archive are in Yiddish, the rest – in German and Hebrew. In the volume on Eastern Borderlands there appears also Russian, Ukrainian, Belarusian, which shows a certain specific nature of communication in that area. Translations from Hebrew proved to be a very difficult job, such as in the case of pre-war short stories by Perec Opoczyński. Majority of contemporary Israelis simply don’t understand them. We know a little about the evolution of Hebrew, but it was shocking to discover that they simply cannot understand language from a few decades back. Thankfully, Agnieszka Jawor-Polak, Daria Boniecka-Stępień i Karol Becker came to the rescue.

Tadeusz Epsztein Another issue which we weren’t fully aware of was the fact that Yiddish is a very complex language, comprising various dialects, for example the writings of rabbi Huberband have a parallel Hebrew layer. The Hebrew vocabulary is related to the cultural circles he belonged to, the educated, religious people. It is a layer in which a translator who knows only Yiddish or only basics of Hebrew won’t understand at all. Ania Ciałowicz, a very competent translator, was working on Huberband and put a lot of effort into this work. A priceless contribution came from Blanka Górecka, an expert on Hebrew, with a great knowledge of Jewish religious culture. The translation may be correct but it would lose a lot without commentary, the second, very important layer wouldn’t be visible without them.Other pieces of text required translators who could feel the common speech, often appearing in the personal accounts.

The prison couplets / The Ringelblum Archive

Sara Arm and Ruta Sakowska grew up in Yiddish-language culture, have been learning the language as children and could feel it, notice nuances. They would say: it is not like this! It’s something different! For somebody young, such nuances are invisible. The press was also a big translation challenge. Another topic are Hebrew translations. It may seem against logic, because it is a functioning language, so we should have been able to find translators – yet it proved to be a challenge. Some people were working with us long-term, such as Agnieszka Jawor-Polak, who delivered a high-quality translation of Opoczyński’s short stories. Marta Dudzik-Rudkowska and Regina Gromadzka have translated an extraordinarily difficult piece, the writings of rabbi Shapiro.

Marta Dudzik-Rudkowska It was a great challenge for me, difficult, but professionally very important. Kalonymus Shapiro’s works are special for many reasons – linguistic, literary, but also for research. They’re written in rabbinical Hebrew, rarely encountered by contemporary Hebrew translators, often difficult to understand for contemporary Israelis. There also fragments in Yiddish and Arameic. The writings deal with phenomena which are not present in the Polish microcosm, we’re not familiar with Jewish mysticism, so we have to find a new approach in Polish. I owe a lot to professor Maciej Tomal, who supported my work.

Agnieszka Żółkiewska The majority of literary works published in the 26th volume of the complete edition have seen the light of day for the first time. It’s also a pioneering translation in Polish. What facilitated our work in terms of writings in Yiddish was the closeness to the Polish language. In works written by younger associates of Ringelblum, Polish appears often, sometimes in a surprising way, mainly as neologisms which didn’t exist in Yiddish previously. For example Skałow – it was a pseudonym used by writer Lejb Truskałowski – created a number of new words, verbs such as kurczen zich (to shrink), or more obvious ones, like dlonies (hands), slojez (jars). His Yiddish is deeply tooted in Polish, we can see that these words were appearing inadvertently, that he was functioning in both languages.

The intertwining between these languages can be seen in such a surprising work of literature as the Prison couplets — it’s written in Yiddish, in Latin alphabet, bbut if we take a closer look we can see Polish influence. It was written in Gęsiówka, the famous prison in the ghetto, where people speaking various languages met, and their languages would mix.

Languages in the Ringelblum Archive appear also in a comical manner – a play on Yiddish and Polish and relations between them appears in Jurandot’s comedy, Love lookign for an apartment. The play confronts two groups – Polish-speaking and Yiddish-speaking, there is also a „test” of the knowledge of Yiddish for the Polish-speaking group. It is linguistic humor, specific for the Warsaw Ghetto. One has to know the circumstances to understand it. The text can be fully understood and reveal itself as playful when someone knows both languages. Jurandot’s comedy is also a document of relationships between assimilated and non-assimilated Jews in the ghetto.

Joanna Nalewajko-Kulikov Texts from the Archive are very demanding for a translator. They were written by ordinary people, sometimes in the same way as they were speaking. They didn’t consider that they may be read one day by someone speaking a different language, not knowing vocabulary specific to a profession or location. One needs general knowledge about the ghetto reality in order to understand what they were writing about. There’s a couple places in the Ringelblum Archive where we’re not sure what was the meaning. Some fragments were written in a code, but there are also words which previous translators struggled with, such as the word „asurejka”, which is underlined – from that we know that others had difficulty translating it too. Even in the version in Yiddish, there’s a square bracket with a quotation mark. We know it refers to some kind of money collecting but we don’t know details. In the Hebrew version, there’s a suggestion in the footnote that it may be a folk term for charity, but I couldn’t confirm it.

Ringelblum didn’t write a diary, he was taking notes for his own memory, as a historian. These were resources to his future book. And we know what notes are like, they’re supposed to be clear only for ourselves. For example: while writing in Yiddish, he was replacing personal pronouns with a past tense participle, which is grammatically the same for every person in the past tense, for example gezen can mean: I saw, we saw, it was seen. In Polish, we have to make a decision. Agata was usually going for 3rd person singular or in general, that „someone was seen”, after Rutkowski. It was the safest option. Ringelblum was more polonised than we may think. He was writing in Yiddish, it was his ideological choice, but Polish remained strong in the back of his mind. When he has to take a quick note, it is often in Polish. It’s an interesting addition to multilingualism, which often makes things more difficult for the translator.

Marek Tuszewicki Folk texts are often very brief. Jokes, comparisons, sayings are often so strongly embedded in a context that someone unfamiliar with wider context simply won’t understand them. We had to put a lot of effort into identifying what they’re about. We were working on this with Agnieszka Żółkiewska but also with Sara Arm, who gave me several dozen pages of initial translations of jokes. Some of them were translated brilliantly, sometimes I had to correct them because I found different meanings and references. I’m certain that the most important part, the fragments which expand our knowledge the most, were delivered to the Polish reader. I hope we haven’t lost too much from this material. I’m generally satisfied with our achievement because the challenge was enormous.

Monika Polit Opoczyński’s stories are a real challenge for a translator. The author reaches for dialect, but also for jargon or underworld slang. These languages were not codified, archived. Of course, we have early works dedicated to such genres, registers of language, prepared by YIVO in Vilnius, but it wasn’t enough. I counsulted language teachers and people brought up in Yiddish language. Today, they’re often elderly, but also they could not help because they weren’t familiar with these registers of language. It’s obvious that not everyone knows prison or smugglers’ slang. Sometimes I had to rely on my own assumptions. These were real translating troubles, but also a great pleasure, because a task seems the more interesting the more effort it takes.

Marta Dudzik-Rudkowska It took a lot of time to find Polish equivalents for Hebrew words, creating a glossary of Polish terms. Often, in translations like this, Hebrew phrases are being used in transcription. Terms used in mystic writings are often very specific, difficult to convey, hence the use of Hebrew phrases in many works. We decided to go in a different direction. We made an assumption that a text should be clear for a reader who is not familiar with Judaism or Hassidism. Hence we tried to make the text more descriptive than based on phrases. We refer to Hebrew phrases but we also tried to find Polish equivalents, possibly close to author’s intentions. When it wasn’t possible, we relied on our own translation. Of course it is signalled in the text.

Bella Szwarcman — Czarnota When it comes to religious terminology, it wasn’t problematic. Words of Hebrew origin were more of a difficulty. Obviously, because I was responsible for translating the Zionist press, many of them were appearing. I was reading a lot for my own purposes about kibbutzim and their types. I didn’t pay that much attention to this subject before. It was very interesting.

Piotr Kendziorek In the case of documents released by the Jewish councils or by German officials, there was a question of conveying the specific of the language of Nazi bureaucracy. Almost always, there were references to legal codexes, usually marked by abbreviations which had to be deciphered. Another issue were the names of German offices, military ranks – it was translator’s decision whether to translate them into Polish or not. The letters often referred to economy, production in the ghetto. It mentioned various types of products, intermediates, materials, often using very specific terms, such as for types of shoes – which are not in use anymore. The German language gives an opportunity of developing precise names through linking particular words, which causes difficulties with finding an equivalent. A great help came from two-volume Great German-Polish dictionary published in the PRL era, which included all the vocabulary used from 19th century until the 1960s. These wourds cannot be found in online dictionaries or in the current largest dictionary published by PWN.

Hersz Wasser’s Notes / The Ringelblum Archive

Magdalena Siek Many translators refused our offer as soon as they were finding out that texts are in manuscript. Many believe that manuscripts are harder to translate. But a typewritten text doesn’t make things any easier – in handwriting, the author doesn’t make typos, even though they can make a spelling mistake. Certain manuscripts are difficult to work on for certain, for example Rachela Auerbach had unintelligible handwriting. Her writings aren’t easy to decode in Polish and in Yiddish alike. Same with Hersz Wasser, who had a tendency to use abbreviations, dots, lines, hyphens, which we don’t know the exact meaning of.

Sara Arm It was difficult, arduous work. I was translating manuscripts. Stories shared by ordinary people who were escaping death. Sometimes nothing was clear, and I could spend days working on a single word. Yiddish contains borrowings from many languages, not only Hebrew – words from languages spoken in the countries in which the Jews were living. Slavic languages, Lithuanian, even French. Sometimes, I was working on a word which didn’t resemble any other one I knew. I have read it aloud, and then I realised. It helped.

Eleonora Bergman It is certainly more difficult to read manuscripts, but on the other hand, we have in the Archive also hectographic prints, whose quality is awful – the ink was spilling, previous pages would leave marks, everything was done in very poor conditions after all. At the same time, some manuscripts are beautifully written. To certain styles of handwriting, one can even get used. Hersz Wasser’s writings are a translator’s nightmare – both in the case of Polish and in Yiddish writings (he was perfectly bilingual). His handwriting was horrible. Together with Tadeusz Epsztein, we were making a transcription of a Polish piece of text by Wasser and we were unable to decode everything. Wasser was making abbreviations, replacing some words with hyphens. After the war, he added his notes, taken in Polish and in Yiddish. Another author with awful handwriting was Chaskiel Wilczyński. Magdalena Siek was translating his writings from Yiddish, and together with Tadeusz Epsztein, we were transcribing the Polish ones. It was a hellish experience.

Monika Polit Translating is a demanding task, which requires time – especially that most of the documents are manuscripts preserved in various condition. Thanks to conservation procedures at the JHI, all of the Opoczyński’s writings could have been decoded. In case of the Łódź volume, only small fragments proved problematic, so there were only few omissions.

Marta Dudzik-Rudkowska Shapiro’s pre-war textbooks were rewritten by a scribe and prepared for print, this is why they’re very neat, calligraphic. Shapiro’s notes on the margins were a big challenge. Some of his sermons were rewritten, later probably situation became more complicated and the rabbi was writing on his own. His handwriting is almost completely unintelligible. Perhaps this is not a task for a Polish researcher but for a native Hebrew speaker – this is why the edition was coordinated, in an excellent way, by Daniel Reiser. [1]

It was an enormous task. There were numerous corrections, additions in various places, underlinings – all of it was included in Daniel’s edition. It would have taken too much time if we wanted to do everything on our own. Even Daniel spent a few years working on it. When one works on a manuscript, it has to be transcribed first, and only later translated. We can assume that we do a page every day – but sometimes, we will end up with half a sentence, because it will take an entire day to find a meaning of one single word. And then it will turn out that it is a typo, because we have misread te manuscript.

Magdalena Siek If we cannot read something, we have to consult other translators, or sometimes translate with a commentary in a footnote. We can also leave something untranslated in hope that in a few years, someone will reach for it and suggest an idea. Many writings from the Ringelblum Archive were copied by Oneg Shabbat associates. If we read documents made with one and the same hand, we can get to know the handwriting style, which makes later work faster and easier.

Bella Szwarcman — Czarnota I was translating Zionist press. Many problems were appearing on the way. The documents I received were quite difficult to read, with unclear print and various damage – holes, blurrings, traces of burning, and I had to guess what could have been there. It was a very hard thing to do. I was working on three computers simultaneously, gradually making the font bigger.

Agnieszka Żółkiewska Reading manuscripts preserved in various condition wwas a challenge. We were often losing context, one missing word could have changed the meaning of an entire fragment, hence consultations, looking for support among other translators. It expanded the time of our work exponentially.

Piotr Kendziorek If a document is mechanically damaged, it makes it impossible to read. In most cases, I had to deal with typewriting. In the case of German manuscripts, the biggest issue is the type of pre-war German calligraphy. The shape of letters is completely different than now. Of course one can learn it, but there remains a question of individual style of handwriting. The problem can become twofold – first, the shape of letters in calligraphy, and second, someone’s personal habits. Sometimes, I was omitting fragments which I couldn’t read. There’s a type of calligraphy which looks like a pattern, If one can distinguish letters, it is possible to compare. Those took the most time.

Tadeusz Epsztein  Another issue is idetifying handwriting. I have initiated this process when I was working on the inventory. We returned to this idea while working on the complete edition. It was up to the translator to decide if something was actually written by a particular author – not basing on handwriting but identifying language, style.


Marek Tuszewicki It’s difficult to evaluate particular volumes, especially that the literary volume is only a small piece of the Archive. Perhaps an awareness of being a part of such a great project had left a mark on the translation. We knew that we have to work on the entire system, so that the reader knew that they deal with another volume of the complete edition of the Archive, without being surprised by new names emerging or situations which, in other conditions, could have been considered licentia poetica.

Bella Szwarcman — Czarnota The translator’s work always takes a lot of searching. When I worked with press in the past, these were literary magazines or Bund press, and here, I had to work on Zionist press in Yiddish. I have spent a lot of time on discussions with Ewa Koźmińska-Frejlak – together we were wondering on how to improve the text, how to phrase something differently. She would ask me to make something more precise, or to explain particular sentences – typical editorial corrections. She was making sure that I have read a word correctly.

Joanna Nalewajko-Kulikov Cwi Pryłucki was fairly easy to translate. The translation was made by Agata Kondrat, I was editing. He had very neat handwriting, decoding it posed no difficulties. It was harder to identify some people, who there are many of in his writings.

Marta Dudzik-Rudkowska It took a lot of effort to find sources, because Shapiro didn’t use bibliographic notes, or if he did, it was in a very limited form. We didn’t always succeed. Prof. Maciej Tomal’s experience was the key contribution which allowed for finding many things. It was painstaking work. Text after setting had to be completed with footnotes referring to sources which the author used and terminology he used.

Joanna Nalewajko-Kulikov Ringelblum noted jokes, sayings which were emerging at hoc, and only on a certain stage one realizes that they can be linked together. For example, he noted a song popular in the ghetto – in Polish translation, it begins with words „Hang on lad, the help is coming”. I didn’t manage to find it. In another place, there was a joke, an unrelated sentence that when the occupattion of France began, Roosevelt sent a telegram to Pétain: „Hang on, man”. Later I realized that probably the joke must have been there, that it may be an allusion to the song. Suddenly, something links together. We still don’t know what was the issue with the song and why it was supposed to be funny. It makes such writings difficult on another level – something is taken out of context and we don’t know what’s the meaning.

An additional difficulty was identifying people. I was very happy that I could edit Ringelblum’s writing at the end of the project, when many people have been already identified. It is a great advantage of this edition in comparison to the previous ones – the identity of many people could have been revealed because they appear in other documents from the Archive, or in digitalized documents online. My favourite example is Ms. Mokrska, who was functioning without first name for a long time. In one of the volumes of the Archive, she appears with an initial — „Sz”. Eventually, in digitalized pre-war press, I managed to find an information that her name was Szulamit.

Katarzyna Person The Inventory is being constantly updated – now that we have the complete edition in translation. Thanks to the fact that we were translating everything from the beginning, we had knowledge of the contents. We keep finding out about new things. The content of certain documents is different than it was originally believed. This is why this work is so valuable.

Eleonora Bergman What didn’t make its way into other volumes for various reasons, will be published in an additional, 38th volume. There will be a table which will allow for finding out which volume contains a particular document.


Marek Tuszewicki I have to admit that I am attached to certain translations. They’re personally important for me. I was feeling a strong emotional link to the manuscripts – I was dealing not only with the text which was to be printed but also its palimpsest, layers of its previous versions. It made a great impact. I was working on writings by Itzhak Katzenelson, which carry an enormous energy. I believe that it wouldn’t take encouraging me too long to translate them again. Perhaps for majority of translators of such literature, the awareness that one is a co-creator of the translation, and that one can live through certain emotions together with thee author, paying an homage and ectending the memory, it a great reward for the effort. Of course, there were painful emotions too, especially in the context of losing loved ones, of a family tragedy, very personal, put into very simple rhymes, even too simple for a remarkable work of art. Yet I am aware, and I was trying to convey it in my translations, that these works weren’t made for the purpose of empty aesthetic play. They were embedded in the necessity, in things happening around the author, and within him.

Marta Dudzik-Rudkowska I feel the strongest attachment to a document which is not didactical – it appears as the last in volume 25, in the form of notes on various subjects. It is called „The order and its eager fulfillment”. It is very personal. We can see there not only a great tzadik, an example for the Hassidim, but also an exceptional person – a father who shares his child’s struggles with suffering. I treat this piece of writing very personally. When I was working on it, I had to take breaks sometimes. I had a while to breathe out, to cope with the emotional baggage it carries. I have a principle that when a translation is done, I put it aside for a moment to rethink it, and then I read it with a different pair of eyes – but I have to say that during the second and third reading, it still has the same power and makes the same impression.

Agnieszka Żółkiewska For me, an interesting experience in translation were texts of folklore. The level of difficulty was really high there due to wordplay, puns, strong references to Jewish religious literature and to pre-war reality. One could say that the line between the world before the ghetto and in the ghetto was very thin there. It required in-depth research in order to understand jokes, anecdotes, riddles.

Marta Dudzik-Rudkowska Personal connection to the author is yet another completely different element. In the case of Shapiro, we know that we’re dealing with a special personality, with someone very religious, spiritual. His charisma is strongly present in his writings.

Bella Szwarcman–Czarnota It was incredible for me – and I don’t mean here the content of particular articles in the Zionist press, but the fact that in those terrible conditions, their authors were fueled by the dream of their homeland which they will be building, a place safe for the Jews. It was extremely moving and very important for me. Writers and poets were looking for joy and consolation in their own work, and in the works of others. The authors who were writing for the Zionist press were living with a vision of an ideal reality which they would build one day, or which is already being built, in the Land of Israel. And everytime when I came across fragments which I found tiresome, I kept thinking: it is incredible and so reinforcing that they are thinking about it in such conditions, in such a moment! This thought had remained with me throughout my work.


Marek Tuszewicki My work on the Archive was twofold. Together with Agnieszka Żółkiewska, I was editing the volume dedicated to literature. I was involved more strongly in work on this volume. Translating literature is completely different than documents from my previous volume about the countryside. I receive and sense it in a different way. There also appears the question of elements of art and attempts to convey not only content and strong emotion but also artistic shape of what was written. The project of the literary volume was important for me not only due to the Archive itself but also due to what I could experience. On the other hand, translating historical testimonies which don’t carry so much cumulated emotion as literature does, is actually documentary, archive work, which involved turning pages of history and making them legible for contemporary reader again. I see myself there more like a custodian than a translator of literature.

Piotr Kendziorek Translating personal testimonies means dealing with horror. It is a litany of unimaginable suffering. I have been especially moved by accounts of the Jews who were subject to forced labour on labour camps, in which Poles were often working as guards. The Jews were often being tortured and robbed. I remember it being shocking to me – the cruelty often was driven by greed, but sometimes it was happening for no reason, simply as the norm. One has to find language to convey such horror, but a translator should not introduce words stronger than the original – their job is to mediate the intention of the author.

Personal documents pose different problems than official ones. It hardly ever happened that I had no idea what they were about. But there always appears a question whether the Polish translation should also include linguistic imperfections, mistakes, as in a translation true to the original? Or would a reader think that I have confused something, and everything would require a footnote? With smaller mistakes, I was trying to simplify, and in case of serious ones, I tried to explain. For a translator, it is a question of balance between clarity, conveying the original and not burdening the reader with footnotes. There is also a question of numerous repetitions – what if something is written correctly, but the author had a tendency or habit to repeat the same word in two sentences? It doesn’t sound too well. Also, what in the case when a translator cannot find a Polish equivalent? I have to admit I haven’t come across a case like this. There’s a principle according to which one doesn’t translate what they don’t understand. Even if something doesn’t make sense, we have to ask ourselves: why does it lack sense? Why did someone do something illogical, make a mistake? What may have been the reason? In general we have to assume that if we don’t understand something, we are making a mistake.

Abraham Lewin’s ‘Diary’  / The Ringelblum Archive

Agnieszka Żółkiewska Another problem encountered by translators, especially translators of literature, is the fact that their authors were never given a chance to correct, perfect, polish them. This leads to various dilemmas – how to convey the writing with an advantage to the author? If something was unfinished, or had certain logical or stylistic shortcomings, we had to make decisions. Such situations are difficult for translators who don’t want to interfere with the text and correct the author. But such interferences never modified the meaning.

Those from Ringelblum’s associates, who had experience with literature, some of them were working as journalists before the war – were luckier than their fellow writers in the ghetto, because they were receiving a certain minimum payment for their work. They approached their profession with commitment and it can be noticed in their writings – the reality is being described in detail, with empathy, and with criticism directed at those who lacked empathy towards the tragedy of the ghetto. This is a new, fresh challenge. We’re used to a non-Jewish perspective, to seeing the Holocaust through the eyes of non-Jewish witnesses who had never experienced the ghetto. We have a reverse perspective, seeing Warsaw Ghetto from the inside, through the eyes of people trapped there. It was also a challenge for us translators – it provides a different picture of the ghetto, full of martyrdom, very moving, but also delivering an image of very complicated conditions.

Marta Dudzik-Rudkowska I have been working on my translations for nearly three years, including weekends, days and nights. I remember it as a very exhausting experience.

My experience so far shows that no kind of reading, academic or for one’s own, never provides such a deep bond with the author as reading for the purpose of translation. I see things I haven’t noticed before, and this provides another dimension to my experience.

Monika Polit A translator is someone who is skilled in the craft of, I would say, artistic translation. One can perform this job because of necessity, for example for research. It’s hard to call any of us a professional translator, for none of us this is primary occupation. We perform it occassionally, but with no smaller attention. Quite the contrary.

What links us to professional translators is the fact that we keep returning to words, revolve around them, look carefully at anything unclear, unreadable. Eventually, a word which seemed originally like an ink blot, becomes obvious after revisions and working with context. Sometimes, we only assume the meaning, or we realize that no other one suits there. Some of us were also editors, which meant working both on translation and editing. This requires a completely different approach. We have to deliver material to linguistic editors in a form which won’t pose difficulties until the moment of publishing, we have to be ready to answer any question related to our academic and editorial background.

Marta Dudzik-Rudkowska This work has taught me a lot. Humility is an important quality for a translator – we never know what to expect when we begin work, even if we read the text before. It brings great satisfaction, a lot of stress, and carries a lot of responsibility towards the author, readers and researchers, as the text can be used as resource.

Monika Polit My personal experience with this work is meditational. As a very impatient person, I have a chance to become methodical and careful while working on manuscripts, I slow down my thoughts and actions. Translation is a linear process. It makes me stop, settle, provides quiet, peace and distance. First of all, it is related to the matter or working with manuscripts, but secondly – they’re usually exceptional literature or works of art, so I pay attention to deliver every word correctly, without twisting the meaning.


Tadeusz Epsztein I can remember a moment when we were beginning. Thousands of documents were waiting to be translated, and it was a dream to find at least a few translators. We were desperately searching across Poland. I was sitting and my computer, sending emails, asking people to deliver anything. We really wanted it all to begin. This edition wouldn’t exist were it not for translators. It wouldn’t be possible without them.

Dr Eleonora Bergman and prof. Tadeusz Epsztein received the Jan Karski and Pola Nireńska Award in 2017 / Photo: Grzegorz Kwolek (JHI)

Marta Dudzik-Rudkowska Coordinators of the project deserve great respect for the enormous work they’ve done. It seems like a miracle that we manages to complete it, and in such a form. All the volumes are perfectly edited, the team maintained quality until the very end. I don’t knowif anyone else would be capable of doing this. I appreciate the determination and would like to emphasise the importance of this work for us all, not only future generations, but also for us translators, through creating convienient conditions for us to work in. We could have always counted on their support, regardless of how many of us were at work. They were an enormous sea of people to guard, manage, help, who have their needs and particular project, specific language, nature of translation – it was an incredible job.

Monika Polit I am satisfied, but I’m not always pleased – every time I take a look at my translation again, I can point at a place where I could correct something. But I believe it must be natural. One has to keep going, keep working, without conviction that the work is done. Something which seems certain now, may be revised or corrected in the future, maybe by a native speaker or someone with an education similar to the authors of the Archive. This would allow for noticing subtleties which we’re unaware of and spot mistakes in our thinking.

Agnieszka Żółkiewska Working with documents from the Ringelblum Archive was a different challenge for everybody, even though we have all felt deep emotions about them. It is unavoidable during work with Holocaust-era documents. In the case of writings in Yiddish, we were aware that they were one of the last things written in this language in Poland – the language was killed along with people who spoke it. Now, the last Jews who were brought up speaking Yiddish are passing away. This is why we felt the great responsibility, and we were also aware that Oneg Shabbat were linked by a sense of mission to tell the whole world about what was happening in the Warsaw Ghetto. We wanted to perform our task the best we could.

Sara Arm I was simply translating human fate. The fate of these people, this is what I had in mind. The world should know and remember about them. This is why I agreed to this commission. I didn’t want to be the only one to know. I didn what I could. I was sitting over these documents day and night. It was really difficult. I have lost touch with many friends because I was spending all my time on it. Some things were really shocking for me and I was talking about them, but nobody wants to listen, especially if they’re not interested.

Of all things I have done, this was the most important for me.

Tadeusz Epsztein When we began work on editing the documents, there were various ideas on how to approach it. We had no doubts that we had to follow the intention of Ruta Sakowska, already in the 1970s, to make the documents alive, functioning. This required translating to Polish and later also to English. We knew that if they’re not edited, translated and shared, people won’t reach for them, and all this heritage will remain safe but useless. These resources have an importance which reaches beyond the realm of professional history. I don’t want to sound pompous, but we had a task to make it public, not only for people who speak these rare languages.

Full edition of the Ringelblum Archive

Complete list of translators of the complete edition of the Ringelblum Archive, in alphabetical order:
Sara Arm, Aleksandra Bańkowska, Małgorzata Barcikowska, Tatiana Berenstein, Eleonora Bergman, Daria Boniecka-Stępień, Iwona Brzewska, Anna Ciałowicz, Marta Dudzik-Rudkowska, Tadeusz Epsztein, Joanna Feldman-Kwiecień, Maria Ferenc Piotrowska, Michał Friedman, Maja Gąssowska, Aleksandra Geller, Alicja Gontarek, Blanka Górecka, Regina Gromacka, Julia Jakubowska, Agnieszka Jawor-Polak, Piotr Kendziorek, Michał Koktysz, Agata Kondrat, Iga Monika Kościołek, Shmuel Krakowski, Jan Leński, Tadeusz Lewandowski, Joanna Lisek, Izabela Łach, Justyna Majewska, Piotr Matywiecki, Joanna Nalewajko-Kulikov, Agnieszka Olek, Zofia Pacuska, Kazimierz Pacuski, Katarzyna Person, Monika Polit, Yale Reisner, Martyna Rusiniak-Karwat, Adam Rutkowski, Ruta Sakowska, Jacek Sawicki, Magdalena Siek, Alina Skibińska, Anna Szyba, Karolina Szymaniak, Bella Szwarcman-Czarnota, Sylwia Szymańska-Smolkin, Magdalena Tarnowska, Maciej Tomal, Marek Tuszewicki, Marta Tycner-Wolicka, Marcin Urynowicz, Maciej Wójcicki, Franciszek Zakrzewski, Olga Zienkiewicz, Andrzej Żbikowski, Agnieszka Żółkiewska.
I would like to thank everybody who contributed to this edition, especially my conversation partners: coordinators and scientific editors of the complete edition of the Ringelblum Archive — dr Eleonora Bergman, dr Katarzyna Person, prof. Tadeusz Epsztein and translators — Sara Arm, Marta Dudzik-Rudkowska, dr Piotr Kendziorek, dr hab. Joanna Nalewajko-Kulikov, dr Monika Polit, Magdalena Siek, Bella Szwarcman-Czarnota, dr Marek Tuszewicki, dr Agnieszka Żółkiewska.
[1] Feliks Tych in the foreword to volume 1, published in 1997, and translated entirely by Ruta Sakowska.
[2] The project involved translation of more than 35,000 pages of documents, spanning a vast array of subjects: accounts, diaries, memoirs, testaments, official documents, statistics, academic essays, literary works, press of the Warsaw Ghetto, press bulletins, religious writings, notes, reports, posters, flyers, letters, personal documents, surveys etc.
[3] The complete index of translators can be found at the end of the article.
[4] Tadeusz Epsztein, Pełna edycja dokumentów z Archiwum Ringelbluma, Kwartalnik Historii Żydów, nr 4 (264), grudzień 2017.
[5] Emanuel Ringelblum, Ksowim fun getto, 1939 -1943, Idisz Buch, vol. I, Warsaw 1961, vol. II, Warsaw 1963.
[6] Tadeusz Epsztein, Pełna edycja dokumentów z Archiwum Ringelbluma, Kwartalnik Historii Żydów, nr 4 (264), grudzień 2017.
[7] Daniel Reiser (red.), Kalonimus Kalman Shapiro, Deraszot mi-sznot ha-zaam. Deraszot ha-Admor mi-Piaseczna be-geto Warsza, Jerusalem: Herzog Academic College/World Union of Jewish Studies/Yad Vashem, 2017.