WARSAW, Poland—Dreary, Soviet-style concrete apartments rise up where 68 Nowolipki St. was during World War II. It was at this spot, although there is no marker to record the event, that some of the milk cans and metal boxes crammed full of essays, reports, official communiqués, wall posters, pictures, drawings and diaries that recorded life in the Warsaw ghetto were unearthed from the rubble shortly after the war.
The cache of material, known as the Oyneg Shabes Archive, was buried by writers, led by the historian Emanuel Ringelblum, as German occupation forces were liquidating the ghetto. They meticulously documented all aspects of life in the ghetto and the annihilation of the Jews by the Nazis.
Writing was an act of resistance and faith. It affirmed the belief that one day, a day the writers knew they would probably never see, these words would evoke pity, understanding and outrage and provide wisdom. They struggled to make sense of the stark contrasts of good, evil and indifference. They explored what it meant to live a life of meaning in the face of death. They did not know if their writing would survive. Some of the archive was never found. They did not know who, if anyone, would read their work. But they wrote with a messianic fury. Their words were the last link to the living.
Dawid Graber hastily buried some of the archives in August 1942 as deportations in the ghetto were being accelerated—between July 22 and Sept. 12 some 300,000 Jews were driven out of the ghetto to the gas chambers at Treblinka. He wrote: “What we were unable to cry and shriek out to the world we buried in the ground. I would love to see the moment in which the great treasure will be dug up and scream the truth at the world. So the world may know all.” He ends with the words: “We may now die in peace. We fulfilled our mission. May history attest for us.”
Ringelblum formed his small army of writers clandestinely. Nazi discovery of any writer’s involvement meant his or her immediate execution or deportation to a death camp.
Ringelblum did not want a hagiography of the Jews. He demanded “the whole truth … however bitter.” He admonished his writers to eschew preconceptions, even about the Nazis. He called for them to describe the horror around them with an “epic calm … the calm of the graveyard.” He told them to capture “what the common man experienced, thought, and suffered.” The job of the writer, he said, was to document every aspect of reality, including the degeneration and immorality that beset many of the Jews trapped in the ghetto. Writers should collect enough fragments of life, with enough dispassion, to allow readers to sense the ghetto’s totality.
Ringelblum’s ruthless commitment to the truth gives to the archive, only parts of which have been translated into English, an immediacy and profound moral force. He and his writing collective, which he called a “free society of slaves,” left behind insights into human nature, tyranny and resistance.
The stories and reports were often about people who would otherwise have been forgotten. Rachel Auerbach wrote in the archive about the soup kitchen she managed in the ghetto. She described her voluble cook, Gutchke, who exuberantly sang Yiddish ballads in the kitchen, gave her pots nicknames and had a casual approach to hygiene that saw her routinely dip her fingers in the soup. Gutchke, who had recently married an elderly widower and scholar, was barely literate, and she took great pride in her husband’s erudition. Auerbach, at one point, caught her trying to sneak food home to him. “Why did I shame her and depress her?” Auerbach wrote. “Why didn’t I understand that through this little transgression she wanted to gladden and strengthen her elderly helpless husband who had become like a child? How blind, how stupid we were then—on the brink of extermination.”
Leyb Goldin, a journalist and translator of European literature, left behind a short story called “Chronicle of a Single Day.” The main character in his story, an intellectual and former revolutionary named Arke, is wasting away. His legs are nearly useless sticks. He has nothing left to sell. A soup kitchen is his only source of food. He staggers slowly through the streets, past the emaciated corpses, usually stripped of their clothes, and the gaunt army of beggars. He wonders when death will take him. The Nazi blockage of food intended for the ghetto has led to 100,000 people dying of starvation. There is an internal war between Arke and his stomach. “If you’re hungry, you cease to be human, you become a beast,” he says.
“… It’s your stomach and you,” he says. “It’s 90 percent your stomach and a little bit you. A small remnant, an insignificant remnant of the Arke who once was. The one who thought, read, taught, dreamed. …
“… The war has been going on for a full two years, and you’ve eaten nothing but soup for some four months—no, longer than your whole life until now. From yesterday’s soup to today’s is an eternity, and I can’t imagine that I’ll be able to survive another twenty-four hours of this overpowering hunger. But these four months are no more than a dark, empty nightmare. Try to salvage something from them, remember something in particular—it’s impossible. One black, dark mass.”
Arke gets a second bowl of soup when the soup-kitchen waitress forgets to collect his ticket, and he is plagued by guilt.
He peers late in the afternoon into the window of a hospital where doctors are operating on a child.
But why, why? Why save? Why, to whom, to what is the child being brought back?
And suddenly you remember that dead Jew, whom you nearly tripped over today. What’s more, you now see him more clearly than before, when you were actually looking at him. Somewhere, years ago, there was a mother who fed him and, while cleaning his head, knew that her son was the cleverest, the most talented, the most beautiful. Told her aunt, her neighbors his funny sayings. Sought and delighted in every feature in which he resembled his father, his father. And the word Berishl was not just a name to her, but an idea, the content of a life, a philosophy. And now the brightest and most beautiful child in the world lies in a strange street, and his name isn’t even known; and there’s a stink, and instead of his mother, a brick kisses his head and a drizzling rain soaks the well-known newspaper around his face. And over there, they’re operating on a child, just as if this hadn’t happened, and they save it; and below, in front of the gate stands the mother, who knows that her Berishl is the cleverest and the most beautiful and the most talented—Why? For whom? For whom? …
… Each day the profiles of our children, of our wives, acquire the mournful look of foxes, dingoes, kangaroos. Our howls are like the cry of jackals. … But we are not animals. We operate on our infants. It may be pointless or even criminal. But animals do not operate on their young!
“Maybe you are destined now, of all times, in your last days, to understand the meaning of this meaninglessness that is called life, the meaning of your hideous, meaninglessly hungry days,” Arke says after seeing the hospital scene. “An eternal, eternal law. An eternal, eternal process. And a kind of clarity pours over your neck, your heart. And your two propellers no longer spin round in one spot—they walk, they walk! Your legs carry you, just as in the past! Just as in the past!”