- A Soup Kitchen in the Warsaw GhettoFrom the Memoirs of Rachel Auerbach
Rachel Auerbach (1903–1976) was born in Lanowce, a shtetl in Galicia, Poland (now Lanovtsy, Ukraine). She grew up with a strong Jewish identity, but with a Polish education and cultural identity as well. She studied psychology and philosophy at the University of Lemberg. She was a founding member of the Yiddish literary movement in Galicia in the late 1920s and an editor of its journal, Tsushtayer, and during the 1930s a prolific journalist for the Yiddish and Jewish-Polish language press in Warsaw.
As a writer, Rachel Auerbach is best known for her memoirs of the Warsaw Ghetto. Shortly after the German occupation of Poland, she joined historian Emanuel Ringelblum’s secret Oyneg Shabes group, which was dedicated to documenting daily life in the Ghetto. When Ringelblum asked her to establish and manage a “folkskikh,” a soup kitchen for refugees, she chronicled her experiences on what she called “the front lines of hunger” and composed a monograph on the subject which was included in the Ringelblum Archive. In 1943, she escaped to the “Aryan side” of Warsaw, where she was a courier for the Jewish Underground. At the risk of her life, she continued to record what she knew of her wide network of friends and colleagues in the cultural community—the writers, artists, musicians, actors who perished—and [End Page 96] to set down what she had witnessed during the aktsie, the great round up and deportation of the Ghetto population in the summer of 1942. She also transcribed the lengthy testimonial of an escapee from Treblinka.
She survived the war and with Hersh Wasser located and recovered the first part of the Ringelblum Archive. In 1950 she settled in Israel, where she was founder and, for a long time, director of the Gvies eydes (oral testimony) section of the Yad Vashem memorial in Jerusalem.
Auerbach wrote and published in Polish, Hebrew and Yiddish. Her last two works in Yiddish, memoirs published in the 1970s, incorporated passages from her earlier writing, but with a new evaluation of her experiences in the Ghetto. During the war she felt despair about the real usefulness of the soup kitchens; but from the perspective of her later years, she saw their great communal and moral value as a part of the immense Jewish effort of resistance. In his study of the Oyneg Shabes Archive, Who Will Write Our History?, Samuel Kassow notes that “Auerbach was a superb observer of the Jewish everyday,” that her writings are “an indispensable source for any cultural or social history of the Warsaw Ghetto.” More information on Auerbach can be found in Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia, Kassow (above), and Anita Norich’s Discovering Exile. The excerpts included here are from Varshever tsavoes [Warsaw Testaments] (Tel Aviv: Yisroelcbukh, 1974). [End Page 97]
Seymour Levitan’s translations of Yiddish stories, memoirs and poems by Der Nister, I.L. Peretz, Rachel Korn and others are included in numerous anthologies. His recent publications include articles for the revised edition of Korn’s poetry, which was the l988 winner of the Robert Payne Award of the Translation Center at Columbia University. I Want to Fall Like This, his selection and translation of Rukhl Fishman’s poems, was published by Wayne State University Press in 1994.