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  • Soup Kitchen, Leszno, 40
  • Rachel Auerbach
    Translated by Seymour Levitan

Our heads were full of ash and soot from the fires that engulfed the city only a little while before. The heels of our shoes were split from trudging through the stone and bricks of buildings destroyed by bombs and our nostrils filled with smoke and the smell of corpses. The noise of planes and exploding bombs still echoed in our ears.

It looked as if an earthquake had hit the city. The government was dead but the body wasn’t yet buried, and we were the mourners for the burial. These were the last days of September 1939. After the capitulation of Warsaw and just before the German army officially marched in.

Near the end of September, on the first or second of a “Series of Black Days” of the first German placards on the walls, the poet Rajzel Zychlinsky1 came to me with the news that Emanuel Ringelblum2 was looking for me. He’d asked her to let me know I was wanted at the “Joint” office.3

After the destruction of its building on Jasna 11, the “Joint” had moved to Wielka Street. We had heard that Ringelblum carried on with his work during the entire siege, in the most intense days of bombardment, even on that frightening Monday, September 25th, when the bombardment lasted without letup from eight in the morning till six at night. The day that marked the beginning of the fall of Warsaw. [End Page 98]


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I was broken, despairing, desperate. And penniless. When I came to Wielka Street, Ringelblum told me that a decision had been made to busy as many intellectuals as possible in the Jewish institutions—to save “the cadre.” Moreover, he made clear to me that not everyone could escape—and not everyone should.

The Germans were uprooting Jews living in the West. There were already tens of thousands of refugees in Warsaw, along with the Jews driven out of the countryside. We couldn’t just let these people fend for themselves. He sent me to Leszno 40, the local of the Small Businessman’s Association. The building hadn’t been destroyed, and we ought to establish a kitchen there. Ringelblum introduced me to Tsalel, the secretary of the Association.

I was given a sum of money, and I set off scrambling over the ruins with Tsalel, over the broken barricades and unfilled anti-tank trenches. We wandered through the living quarters of former businessmen, looking for cooking utensils, plates, spoons and food. In a “Joint” stockroom there was a bit of food that hadn’t been burnt or soaked through. And so, on the first of October, the day of Hitler’s arrival in Warsaw, at the very hour of his victory parade at Saxony Square, Pyotr Sulin, the Polish caretaker of the Small Businessman’s Association, and I were clambering over the ruins of the side-streets which we were permitted to use, avoiding the German military divisions that were converging on the parade. I carried a pack of accounting books to help manage the administration of the new kitchen and a carton of dried plums. Pyotr hauled a half sack of rice on his shoulders. And I had obtained several packets of dried fish a day earlier.

That’s how it began….

On our first day we handed out fifty portions. We served our last two thousand bowls of soup at the time of the liquidations at the end of July 1942,4 just before our kitchen was transformed into a “shop kitchen”5 under the authority of the German firm W. C. Többens. I apparently have endurance. I held out at our workplace until that very moment. In the course of nearly three years I stood at the very center of Jewish suffering, on the front lines of the struggle against hunger. I experienced the fate of the Jewish masses so close up it would be impossible to be any closer to it. [End Page 100]

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Adolf as in Hitler, Bund as in Völkerbund

Adolf as in Hitler, Bund as in Völkerbund...


Additional Information

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pp. 98-107
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Archive Status
Archived 2012
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