“Letter of Indictment”: Documenting Truth in the Warsaw Ghetto
Historian Emanuel Ringelblum’s effort to document daily life in the Warsaw ghetto during the Holocaust was a profoundly creative act in the midst of destruction. The enormous amount of material amassed by the members of the secret archive included thousands of original works: diaries, letters, poems, paintings, and songs.
The creative outpouring by archive contributors was a form of resistance, a method of maintaining a sense of self, a preservation of their dignity. After their deaths, it would take on a new role as testimony to the truth of their persecution and murder.
It was a courageous act. And it did not come naturally or easily — especially to one woman, Rachel Auerbach, a writer who felt silenced by the suffering she saw around her.
Who Will Write Our History?, the new documentary film about Ringelblum’s archive released worldwide on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, offers a glimpse of Auerbach’s struggle to write in the face of despair. Before the war, the Polish journalist had contributed to a daily newspaper covering the political and cultural life of Lviv. She also established a literary journal for Yiddish writers. In 1933, she moved to Warsaw, where she wrote for the Yiddish press as well as a Polish-language Jewish newspaper. Auerbach was a prolific writer in two languages, but the German invasion of Poland in 1939 and the creation of the Warsaw ghetto almost silenced her. For nearly the first two years of the war, she was unable to write.
“Let the witness be our writing”
Tapped to run a soup kitchen by Ringelblum, who also coordinated social welfare assistance in the ghetto, Auerbach was in a unique spot to observe the effects of starvation and disease. As dramatized in the film, she witnessed the dwindling numbers of Jews coming for the meager sustenance the kitchen workers could provide.
The unrelenting suffering Auerbach saw rendered her mute. She felt helpless, apathetic, and fearful that she could not find words to describe what she called the “terrible pictures of daily life.”
But Ringelblum refused to let her stay silent. He recognized the importance of her voice and kept prompting her to contribute to his archive. Eventually she found the courage to pick up her pen.
Once she started writing, Auerbach couldn’t stop. She was “… compelled to go on writing. It is in this writing, this testimony to the crime, this letter of indictment against the murderers, that I find the sole purpose of my survival,” she wrote in her diary.
Auerbach’s submissions to the archive included an essay about the soup kitchen as well as the testimony of an escapee from the Treblinka labor camp and killing center, which she recorded on more than 300 pages.
In the early spring of 1943, Auerbach escaped the ghetto and survived the rest of the war on the “Aryan” side of Warsaw. From outside the ghetto, she witnessed its destruction and the deportation or murder of the remaining inhabitants. She wrote two long essays for an underground Polish newspaper: one about the city’s cultural life, the other describing the summer 1942 deportations from Warsaw:
“I have so many names to recall, how can I leave any of them out, since nearly all of them went off to Belzec and Treblinka or were killed on the spot […] They are all mine, all related. All who were killed. Who are no more.”
“The writing of a great indictment”
Auerbach was one of three people associated with the archive to survive the war. Together with Hersh Wasser, a secretary of the archive, she spearheaded the search for it underneath the rubble of Warsaw. She recognized the archive’s uniqueness in preserving the truth of what had happened. Even as early as 1946, she was concerned that survivors’ postwar memoirs were presenting a distorted picture of the ghetto. “The most believable witness will be the written word from those years, which is now under the ruins of the ghetto,” she wrote.
After helping locate and unearth parts of Ringelblum’s archive, Auerbach turned her attention to collecting survivor testimonies in Warsaw on behalf of the Jewish Historical Institute, and later in Israel for Yad Vashem. She founded and directed the latter’s Department for the Collection of Witness Testimony, pioneering new methods of recording and organizing firsthand accounts.
In that role, she helped compile a list of survivors to testify at the 1961 trial in Israel of Adolf Eichmann, who had played a central role in deporting more than 1.5 million Jews during the Holocaust. Auerbach herself testified at the Eichmann trial, describing her work at the soup kitchen and Ringelblum’s creation of the archive. “In my opinion,” she testified, “Dr. Ringelblum was the first to start with the writing of a great indictment, and there is a direct path leading from that place in the ghetto to this courtroom.”
For the rest of her life, Auerbach remained dedicated to collecting Holocaust survivors’ testimony. She was an outspoken critic of commercially successful novels that claimed to be based on fact but in which she found inaccuracies or distortions. Having struggled to find her own voice at a time of great darkness, Auerbach made it her life’s work to record for all time the voices of other survivors.
Anne Merrill is a digital content strategist and editor at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.