Life & Culture

Witness to the Warsaw ghetto: The brave woman who chronicled its horrors and survived

A new initiative will translate the works of Rachel Auerbach, part of a group who bore witness in the ghetto


Exactly 77 years ago, on September 18 1946, a Jewish woman, Rachel Auerbach, went to the ruins of a house in Warsaw, the streets unrecognisable after the destruction of the ghetto by the Nazis in April and May 1943.

Auerbach was one of only three survivors of a secret underground writers’ resistance group, known as the Oyneg Shabbos. In the dark days of the ghetto, its convenor, Emanuel Ringelblum, had gathered together a select group — rabbis, journalists, historians — with a single aim, to be the “recording angels” of what was taking place in the Warsaw Ghetto.

Ringelblum told his colleagues that they had to bear witness to the genocide of the Jewish people, and to that end, the papers — thousand of documents — of the Oyneg Shabbos group were buried in 1942 and 1943. The intention was to retrieve them when the war finally ended. But Ringelblum, and almost every other member of the Oyneg Shabbos group, did not survive.

On that September day in 1946, Rachel Auerbach was with Hersz Wasser, who also survived, along with his wife.

Wasser was the only person alive who knew where the Oyneg Shabbos material was buried, and they were there to witness the unearthing of one section of the massive archive. Inside metal crates and milk churns, there were diaries, playbills, tram and theatre tickets, photographs, and agonising descriptions of the endless deaths of Warsaw’s Jews

A second section of the Oyneg Shabbos writings was discovered by workmen in 1950. The third section has never been found, though it is thought to be under the basement of what is now the Chinese Embassy in Warsaw.

Rachel Auerbach survived the Warsaw Ghetto by escaping on March 9 1943 — a month before the uprising — and assuming Polish identity. Historian Professor Samuel Kassow says she could pass for Aryan and “had perfect Polish” — she wrote in Polish and Yiddish. She left at Ringelblum’s direction and received information smuggled out from within the ghetto — until there were no Jews left.

Outside the ghetto, Auerbach wrote a heartbreaking tribute to her companions who had died at German hands — Yizkor. And she also wrote a diary, furiously scribbling by candlelight in otherwise near-total darkness while she moved from refuge to refuge. She gave parts of this diary to the director of the Warsaw Zoo, Jan Zabinski, who buried the material for her and returned it after the war.

Auerbach’s masterwork, completed in 1948, is The Jewish Revolt, her clear-eyed and riveting account of the uprising of Jewish fighters in the Warsaw Ghetto. She left Poland for Israel in 1950 and became the head of the new Yad Vashem Eyewitness Accounts Department.

Now a group in London, calling itself The Jewish Brand, plans to reintroduce Auerbach — a Jewish heroine of the Holocaust — to a new audience, by publishing a new English-language version of The Jewish Revolt. Yad Vashem UK has funded the translation from Yiddish by renowned Yiddishist Michael Wex, and the project is spearheaded by film and TV producer Mark Forstater, film-maker Nathan Neuman, Rabbi Harvey Belovski and Yad Vashem UK’s chair, Simon Bentley.

Professor Antony Polonsky has written introductions to the book; and the TV presenter Rachel Riley, most recently honoured by King Charles for her work in Holocaust education, has also joined the project.

“Every year translators in the Yiddish Book Centre in the US are asked which book they would most like to see in English,” says Forstater. “I saw that many people wanted to see a translation of Auerbach. So I thought, right, let’s see if we can do this.”

Auerbach was ready to leave Warsaw — where she had become a successful journalist and commentator — when the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939. She was persuaded to stay by the charismatic Emanuel Ringelblum, who brought her into the Oyneg Shabbos secret circle. She had a public position — also at Ringelblum’s behest — running a soup kitchen for the ghetto’s Jews. She had no experience of such an enterprise, but Ringelblum, according to Samuel Kassow, knew it would give her material to write about.

In her diary, Auerbach mourns the inherent hopelessness of the kitchen. In February 1942, she writes: “A new balance sheet of death, as short as possible. What else could I write about when it comes to my activities at the kitchen. The conviction has slowly ripened within me that all the activities of our charitable institutions should be called death by instalments, breaking up death into instalments. We must finally realise that we cannot save anyone from death, we do not have the means. We can only delay that death, stall it, but not avoid it. In my practice I have not managed to do so with a single person. Not a single one!”

“In 1942 Ringelblum asked her to write about the Great Deportation”, says Kassow. That’s the harrowing eyewitness account of the July to September rounding up of thousands of Jews, who were either murdered on the spot in the Warsaw Ghetto, or sent east to be exterminated in the death camp of Treblinka.

This material forms part of the Oyneg Shabbos archive, housed today in the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw.

Auerbach, according to Samuel Kassow, was “a tough woman, uncompromising. She had an unhappy personal life”. Pre-war, she had lived with the renowned Yiddish poet Itzik Manger, who was physically violent to her and treated her very badly. Manger, as a Romanian citizen, was forced to leave Poland in 1938 and eventually arrived in Israel — but though the new state’s population was tiny at the time, Kassow does not believe the former lovers ever met again.

By the time she got to Israel, Auerbach was 47 and seems to have struggled to adjust. She gave evidence at the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem in 1961. But because her Hebrew was not fluent — and she insisted on speaking in Hebrew — her testimony did not make much impact.

At Yad Vashem, too, she did not fit in: there were disputes with her primarily male colleagues because of her focus on collecting survivor testimony. She died in Tel Aviv in 1976, bequeathing all her personal papers to Yad Vashem.

The proposed publication of her translated work will include a new version of Yizkor, and an English version of the Stroop Report, the account written for Hitler by the Nazi charged with the annihilation of the Warsaw Ghetto, Jurgen Stroop.

The inclusion of the Stroop Report in the proposed Jewish Brand publication gives important context, because if it were the only account of what took place in the Warsaw Ghetto, that would be the received version of how the Jews conducted themselves. Readers will be able to compare and contrast Stroop, writing for his Nazi masters, with Auerbach’s brave and striking account, based on her intimate knowledge of the ghetto fighters.

The Ghetto uprising began on the eve of Passover in April 1943.

Auerbach tells us: “Deep in the bunkers, in desolate apartments where you took cover until there was a lull in the shooting, Jews sat down one last time at tables that had been set. They recited the Haggadah. And Pharaoh’s evil deeds in Egypt blended with those of the wicked Hitler.

“Like the sages of Bnei Brak, the Jews of Warsaw recalled the miracles of the Exodus from Egypt that night and spoke of rebellion, praising what the young fighters of [the streets of] Mila and Zamenhof, Nalewki and Smocza, had done.”

Of Stroop, she writes witheringly: “Sending people to die just isn’t the same as killing them yourself.

“The ‘functionaries’ of Hitler’s extermination machine always took a private pleasure in going beyond the call of duty in carrying out their ‘functions’. Stroop was one of the bloodiest, one of the most frenzied… He himself took photos of this.

“But looking didn’t satisfy him, it wasn’t enough for Stroop. He had to do the killing himself, up close, and look the victim in the eye. Whenever he ran across a convoy of Jews, he had to stop and choose a couple to shoot. Once in a while, he would order a convoy to be exempted from selection: ‘Kill them all.’”

The result, reports Auerbach, was that when even the gravediggers were murdered, “there was no one to clear away the bodies. Piles of bodies were rising in the Judenrat courtyard and all over the ghetto, fouling the air with their stench. Something had to be done right away.

“Stroop came up with an idea. He wanted to bring in a steamroller and have it roll over the dead and iron them into the ground. He’d gone kill crazy. He finally ordered the corpses to be thrown into the burning buildings to be incinerated”.

In her diary, she writes: “And who knows if there will remain even one witness of this calamity… Only two things prosper in the closed city, two important things: love and death”. Thanks to her, we hear the authentic voice of the witness.

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