A bit stubborn: Rachela Auerbach part 1

Written by: dr Karolina Szymaniak
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, 1941


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. 

dr Karolina Szymaniak