A bit stubborn: Rachela Auerbach

Rachela Auerbach’s story.

Wide wide rachela auerbach

She is a bit stubborn, but what a talent! — wrote Basia Temkin-Berman in her diary on 7th May 1944, commenting one of works of Rachela Auerbach written for the Jewish National Committee just after leaving the ghetto. Yes, without a doubt this, still not known well enough, writer, critic and journalist, writing in Polish and Yiddish, was stubborn and talented, extremely determined, often rather brusque and because of her uncompromising nature, she did not always gain people’s favour. However, she had a sense of mission and responsibility towards the murdered.

She was born... and here we already have a problem. According to the details she gave after the war in the majority of official papers, it was 18th December, 1903 (literature on the subject uses also a few other dates). However, as it was quite often at the time, it was not a proper date, and the author made herself a few years younger (all of the interested should see the JHI’s publication to be published soon). On the other hand, the place of birth is known. „Łanowce village, Borszczów powiat, post — Jeziorany near Czortkowo”. That is how letters used to be addressed to the Auerbachs. A vast majority of their relatives lived also in the area. Auerbach went there for the last time around 1933, maybe just before moving from Lviv, where she finished gymnasium and studied, to Warsaw, or possibly later. The image of Łanowce, which the author often dreamt about, reappears a few times in her diary written in the ghetto, which the author gave to the Ringelblum Archive and which is now stored at the Jewish Historical Institute. Already on the first page we read:

(...) dream about a cat. And I like cats so much. Association of home, Łanowiec, freshly roasted milk, peace and quiet of an afternoon in the country and all those things whose memory could bring me easily to tears if September 1939 had not clogged in me for so long — maybe forever — the source of tears. [Entry from 4th August, 194]

However, ghetto dreams about home turn into nightmares:

But I was supposed to write down another moment of the dream, which I had tonight. In this dream, this fate befell me too. They had already caught me; I was tied up with a rope and like that was taken to some garden (locale...Łanowce) and laid down in front of a hole in which a huge dog was lying. So, I was destined to be „devoured by animals.” And maybe, these dogs in the hole are rabid, I thought, and even though they will not bite me to death, they will infect me with rabies; but the terror and terrible torment of this dream was trying to come up with an escape. Wouldn’t it be something à la „Daniel in the Den of Lions”? Dogs can be lured, mollified. And so I started making humble attempts, and this colossal hound would answer me with bass purring of unclear intentions. Simultaneously, I was frantically considering if I was allowed to speak, to communicate somehow with the countrywomen working nearby. I was looking for some neutral words, so that they, heaven forbid, would not have a reason to denounce me, and at the same time, if they were not „hooked”, to persuade them to set me free and hide before the pursuit. Doubts and this fear. It was a terrible torment, a real nightmare; I woke up in cold sweats. [Entry from 15th April, 1942]

In the Holocaust, Auerbach lost almost her whole family. She said goodbye to them in a moving, funeral poem „Yizkor”, today belonging to the Holocaust literature canon:

„Enough, enough... i have to stop writing.
No. No. I can’t stop. I remember another girl of fourteen. My own brother’s orphan daughter in Lemberg whom I carred about in my arms as if she were my own child. Lussye! And another Lussye, older than she, one of my cousins who was studying in Lemberg and who was like a sister to me. And Lonye, my brother’s widow, the mother of the first Lussye, and Mundek, an older child of hers whom I thought of as my own son from the time that he was orphaned. And another girl in the family, a pianist of thirteen, my talented little cousin, Yossima. And all of my mother’s relatives in their distant village in Podolia: Auntie Bayle; Auntie Tsirl; Uncle Yassye; Auntie Dortsye, my childhood’s ideal of beauty. I have so many names to recall, how can I leave any of them out, since nearly all of them went off to Bełżec and Treblinka.

She was one of three associates of the Underground Archive of the Warsaw Ghetto, with Hersz and Bluma Wasser, who survived the Holocaust. Bearing witness was for her the only reason of survival, which made her kind of embarrassed: I think I still have to do something special to deserve this honour that fate has given me. I feel terrified because of that. A fear of too big a responsibility. She used to say that to live was more her obligation than right: And it is so, because the memory of those who died lives in me. And also lives in me — a living witness — the tragedy of their doom. If I died — the others would perish with me again. 

Remembering and writing down events of the Holocaust and bearing witness — these were the objectives that motivated her work as a writer, both in the Warsaw ghetto, and from March 1943 on the Aryan side, and after the war, when almost immediately she took up cooperation with emerging Jewish institutions. She cooperated with the Central Jewish Historical Commission, participated in a site inspection at the former concentration camp in Treblinka, after which she wrote a moving reportage Af di felder fun Treblinka (Yiddish, The Fields of Treblinka, Polish, Treblinka. Reportage). Its final parts comprise a description of the former Jewish dustbin of things, which is turned into Polish Colorado, dug up, a carefully-searched golden field.

Since the end of the war she had actively strived to begin search of the Ringelblum Archive, buried under the ruins of the ghetto. She was still in Poland when on 18th September, 1946 they discovered its first part, which included a lot of materials deposited by the writer. As she wrote herself: Among 10 metal cases excavated from under the ruins in 1946, the whole one of them was filled with materials deposited by me.

Auerbach was in the first group of people to work on organizing these priceless materials. In the first part of the Archive we can find sketches for a monograph of folk (popular), soup kitchen at 40 Leszno Street, which at the initiative of Emanuel Ringelblum she had directed since October 1939. As there were many men of letters among the habitual guests of this kitchen (before the war, Auerbach was an activists of Jewish cultural scene), it is often referred to as kitchen for men of letters. However, we ought to remember that the kitchen, after a few changes of the address, was located in the ghetto at 13 Tłomackie, in a wing of the building where, till 1938, the Jewish Writers’ and Journalists’ Association operated — mythical Tłomackie 13, which writers such as Zusman Segałowicz or Ber Rozen wrote about.

When at the beginning of the occupation, Ringelblum summoned Auerbach to come to his place (this information was given to her by a poet Rajzla Żychlińska), in Wielka Street, where at the time Joint had their headquarters, he told her that a decision had been made to employ as many members of the Jewish intelligentsia as possible so as to „save personnel”. He also added that not everyone could afford to escape. Auerbach made this commitment.

In the first, excavated part of the Archive there was also her diary, though, I think, the genre character of its text is still disputable. Diary is an extremely moving document of registering the Holocaust, a literary way of pitting oneself against it, a testimony to doubt, despair, helplessness. It is also a document of literary artistry of the author. Her ability to spot, among the series of events, single scenes, keep them in short notes-frames, doing literary close-ups. Auerbach sees the reality of the ghetto as „s spontaneous theatre, a sound movie filming itself”; she is constantly looking for appropriate means of expression, often admitting to not having strength to write. A way to face the reality of the Holocaust, to express „terror, alienation, ambivalence” of border experience, is for her, as Jacek Leociak, quoted here, put it, a macabre grotesque.

In the first part of the Ringelblum Archive, we can also find partly pre-war works of the author and her life partner, an excellent Jewish poet, Icyk Manger. Already while ordering the material and making a protocol, the writer signalled that she wanted to take her documents back. She files an official application, which the Presidium of CKŻP considers on 4th October 1946. The final decision is dependant on the opinion of the Culture and Propaganda Department of CKŻP. In November, Auerbach receives permission to take back her documents created before January 1940 (according to other data before September 1939) and personal belongings. She can copy the rest of the documents. Before the second part of the archive is found in 1950, Auerbach will have already left Poland. She leaves, through London, to Israel.

Among the documents from the second part of the Archive there are her pre-war academic and journalistic works, another part of Manger’s works, Auerbach’s letter to nephew Mundek in Lviv, and an escapee of the camp in Treblinka, Abram Krzepnicki’s testimony written by her. Auerbach was writing it down while working at 30 Franciszkańska Street at a sweets and artificial honey factory. The testimony is preceded with an introduction entitled What is Treblinka? — phenomenology of the enterprise of murder. Many times, she strived at the Institute for regaining these documents or at least their copies. In her letter to Ber Marek, at the time Director of the JHI, from 20th March, 1951, she was trying to convince him that pre-war items could be returned to her in the form of originals (”they are of no archival value”, she argued), as far as the others are concerned, she asked for copies. She also informed that she was already working on the history of the Archive.

Another letter, from April 1951, begins with the following words: I am still awaiting photocopies of my manuscripts about Treblinka along with other articles, but unfortunately I still have not received them. I do not have to explain it to you how much do I desire to see these things and how much annoyed do I feel wondering why they have not yey arrived. Please, tell me why it is taking so long. I am also asking you to make sure that these things are sent to me as soon as possible. [translation from Yiddish. Karolina Szymaniak]

The next letter, from 1967, was addressed to Tatiana Berenstein and Adam Rutkowski. It accompanied a letter of authorization given by Auerbach to, going to Poland, Miriam Peleg-Mariańska (Maria Hochberg), asking to give her the documents kept in the JHI’s Archive. Rutkowski hand-wrote on it: We have talked to Mrs Peleg (Mariańska) and explained that there was no way we could hand over the photocopies (microfilms). Today, it is still hard to establish for sure whether Auerbach received all these documents before her death in 1976. Well, certainly she had at her disposal (partly at least) photocopies of Krzepicki’s testimony.

Lack of access to these documents must have been for Auerbach an unusually harmful experience. She had a very emotional attitude to her writings and she was even physically connected with them. In the introduction to the work of Bechucot Warsz she emphasised that she worried about them like a mother about her children.

For her, they were testimonies to the murdered world and the world of the Holocaust, to which she attached huge importance. Though, she often said with bitter (auto)irony: Unfortunately, I was more lucky to save manuscripts than people...

When she emigrated to Israel, her main scope of activity was work on testimonies. When the Yad Vashem Institute was established in 1953, she became head of the Documentation Department (from March 1954). She also worked on theory of testimonies and methods of collecting them. For example, she thought that witnesses’ accounts should be recorded as writing disrupts the train of thoughts, destroys the suspense; besides, written record does not always reflect the language of the witness, they way of forming thoughts, work of their memory. However, at the time, not everyone perceived it in a similar way and it was hard for her to persuade the management of the Institute to find suitable witnesses for recordings. Out of 3000 testimonies collected by her till 1965, consisting of 82 thousand folios, only 600 of them are recordings.

At the end of the 50s, Auerbach, for some time, after an argument with the management of the Institute, was removed from her post, which she regarded as a mission. Later, after a longer dispute, which also took place in the press, her post was given back to her and as a result she came out of it stronger, energetically preparing for extending her Department and the scope of work to collect testimonies, which in her view were to be an evidence before the historical tribunal if they were not meant to be heard before the judicial tribunal. Only a few years later, in 1961, for the first time on such a large scale, the voice of the witnesses reverberated loudly in the courtroom.

The part that Auerbach played in preparations for the Eichmann trial is beyond overestimation. It was her and her co-workers who worked closely with the investigators and provided evidentiary material for the trial, made lists of witnesses, provided summaries and materials. At first, participation of about 20 witnesses was estimated. Auerbach was worried that the prosecution would concentrate only on official doecuments and direct evidence for Eichmann’s guilt. However, preparation works and closer relationship of the prosecutor, Gideon Hausner, with Auerbach herself and her Department resulted in the fact that the role given to the witnesses in this trial was changed completely and as a consequence the trial itself changed its character.

Auerbach herself was also preparing for giving testimony; she asked to assign 1.5h to her. She was given 45minutes and questioned even a quarter shorter. She was to speak before the ghetto fighters, talk about the situation before the uprising, above all, about the activity of Jewish artists in Warsaw, but finally she testified after Jicchak „Antek” Cukierman and Cywia Lubetkin. It was them who became key characters for Hausner and driving forces of the trial. Israel needed model heroes-soldiers. Auerbach’s quiet heroes, resisting in the ghetto mainly in spiritual way, receded into the background. This case hurt the writer, who was so nervous and irritated that she was not able to testify properly. In one of her letters, she wrote: I am deeply hurt and I will not recover either easily or quickly.

It did not stop her from working, which she continued until retiring in 1968. And also later, though not without troubles from the Institute. As always stubborn, fighting for what she regarded as most important, worried about the future of the department created by her. Only in 1974, after years of break, her own book was published „Warsaw Testaments: Encounters, Activities, Fates 1933–1943”. She neglected her own writing for years, devoting to the testimonies of others, feeling the burden of obligation, the burden of salvation. As she notes still during the war:

With every human who dies, dies a whole world. The consciousness of this fact has to become after this war a new motto of pacifism and new return to acknowledgement of an individual, postponed so much during present totalitarianism in favour of the abstract of collectiveness. With death of a Polish, German or Russian, dies a whole world, which exists in different variants. With death of every new survivor of the holocaust of the Polish Jewry, dies knowledge of him. Dies a species. Dies knowledge of their most important experiences, including the experience of the Holocaust.

She did not manage to finish the next book she was working on. It was published posthumously. A few years earlier, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She died on May 31st, 1976.

In the article, footnotes were omitted. More detailed information on the writer you will find in the article accompanying a compilation of Auerbach’s works entitled Pisma z getta warszawskiego [Writings from the Warsaw ghetto] published by JHI.

Further information about the Ringelblum Archive and the Oneg Shabbat group can be found at: http://onegszabat.org/en/ and JHI website, as well as on the Oneg Szabat Program Facebook and Twitter profiles.

The Oneg Szabat Program is implemented by the Emanuel Ringelblum Jewish Historical Institute and the Association of the Jewish Historical Institute of Poland, within a public-private partnership.

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