By Chris Hedges
A group of Jews are escorted from the Warsaw Ghetto by German soldiers in 1943. (AP)
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!”
Ringelblum, like Goldin and Auerbach, was acutely aware that the soup kitchen and other charities he helped organized “did not solve the problem [of hunger], it only saves people for a short time, and then they will die anyway. The [soup kitchens] prolong the suffering but cannot bring salvation. It is an absolute fact that the clients of the soup kitchens will all die if all they have to eat is the soup they get there and the bread they get on their ration cards.”
The hellish existence of the Warsaw ghetto—where within 100 square blocks a half million Jews were deliberately starved to death, exterminated through beatings and executions or seized for transport to the gas chambers over three years, brought out the worst and the best, including the majestic moment when Dr. Janusz Korczak sacrificed himself by volunteering to accompany the nearly 200 orphans he cared for to the loading platform and eventually the gas chambers at Treblinka. Korczak dressed his orphans, some only 2 or 3 years old, in their best clothes for their final journey, gave them small blue knapsacks and let them carry a favorite toy and book.
Rabbi Shimon Huberband, who too was murdered at Treblinka, explained how the occupation provided a demented and uninhibited playground for sadists. He writes of being seized with other Jews and held for a week in a forced-labor site called Dynasty where cars of the SS were repaired. A German named Schultz beat the rabbi, spat in his mouth, forced him to lick his boots and then, after a savage assault that saw Huberband briefly lose consciousness, ordered him to drink the contents of a spittoon. The Germans made kidnapped Jews at the repair yard get on all fours and play what was called the “dog game.” Pieces of brick and plaster were hurled at the men. They had to catch the objects in their mouths. Those who did not catch the objects were beaten again. Schultz periodically left the repair yard “hunting for individual Jews.” He targeted “only fat, rich, and elegantly dressed Jews.” He forced them to pay him huge bribes to avoid the degradation. Those who could not pay became his toys. Sadism was often a prelude to murder.
Evil was not limited to the oppressor. Ringelblum, who in 1944 was executed by the Nazis along with his wife and 12-year-old son, described the Jewish police, most of whom were lawyers before the war, as “gangsters.” [Click here to see a .PDF copy of Ringelblum’s journal, “Notes From the Warsaw Ghetto.”] They did dirty work for the Nazis, rounding up people, including children, to fulfill deportation quotas. The Jewish police demanded bribes of money, diamonds or gold to remove fellow Jews from the transport lists. It was usually the destitute and the poor who died first. Ringelblum often went to the Umschlagplatz, the square in the ghetto where Jews were collected before being marched to the trains bound for Treblinka, to plead with the Jewish police to release some victims, especially writers, intellectuals, teachers, musicians and artists. Jewish police often responded by beating him with their truncheons.
“Where did Jews get such murderous violence?” he asked about the Jewish police. “When in our history did we ever before raise so many hundreds of killers, capable of snatching children off the street, throwing them on the wagons, dragging them to the Umschlag? It was literally the rule for the scoundrels to fling women on to the Kohn-Heller streetcars, or on to ordinary trucks, by grabbing them by the arms and legs and heaving. Merciless and violent, they beat those who tried to resist. They weren’t content simply to overcome the resistance, but with the utmost severity punished the ‘criminals’ who refused to go to their death voluntarily.”
He had a bitter contempt for the wealthy elites in the ghetto.
“Turbulent times at least have one good result,” he wrote. “Like a strong searchlight, they expose things that have hitherto remained hidden. The beastly face of Jewish bourgeoisie, its cannibalistic character has recently surfaced during these hungry times. The whole activity of the Judenrat [the Jewish administrators of the ghetto] is one of heartrending injustice against the poor. If there were a God, he would destroy this nest of wickedness, hypocrisy, and exploitation.”
Ringelblum called the Judenrat, the rich and most of the shopkeepers “leeches who exploit the predicament of the poor who lack money even for a piece of bread.” When an appeal was made to wealthy members of the ghetto to levy a tax on themselves for the benefit of the refugees being herded into the ghetto from other parts of Poland, there was, Ringelblum wrote, a standard reply: “That won’t help. The paupers will die out anyway.” He documented the widespread trafficking in ration cards of the dead and the missing, calling it “a very lucrative business for certain elements in the Ghetto, particularly officials. They are hyenas of the worst sort.”
The archives detailed the depths to which people sank in the desperate struggle to survive, including the unearthing of corpses to extract gold teeth and steal burial shrouds. This dark descent is characteristic of all societies in disintegration. Those who rise above the mad scramble for survival, who assist the weak and the vulnerable, jeopardize their own existence. Few who live in stable societies see what lurks beneath the surface. The blindness of the comfortable makes the archives an important contribution to the understanding of the human condition.
Cultural and political life, religious rituals, smuggling and even the black humor that helped people cope made it into the buried boxes and milk cans. Ghetto residents told a joke about the Hasidic rabbi of Ger. Winston Churchill asked the rabbi how to defeat the Germans. The rabbi told the British prime minister: “There are two possible ways, one involving natural means, the other supernatural. The natural means would be if a million angels with flaming swords were to descend on Germany and destroy it. The supernatural would be if a million Englishmen parachuted down on Germany and destroyed it.”
When the Nazis shot and killed Ringelblum’s close collaborator and friend Yitzhak Giterman, who had organized cultural events in the ghetto, Ringelblum knew his own chances for survival were diminishing.
“Now to this list, which includes entries in his handwriting, I have to add the name of Yitzhak Giterman,” he wrote. “My hand shakes as I wrote these words; who knows if a future historian, reviewing this list, will not add my name, Emanuel Ringelblum? But so what, we have become so used to death that it can no longer scare us. If we somehow survive the war, we’ll wander around the world like people from another planet, as if we stayed alive through a miracle or through a mistake.”
As the ghetto was emptied in the fall of 1942 Ringelblum longed for armed resistance, a resistance that eventually came with the heroic yet doomed uprising that began April 19, 1943. The Germans burned and razed the ghetto after the uprising, as they did nearly all of Warsaw when it carried out an armed revolt in 1944. Only a few fragments of the brick wall that surrounded the ghetto and a handful of old buildings from the ghetto remain.
“We are seeing the corroboration of the well-known psychological law that slaves who are totally beaten down cannot revolt,” Ringelblum wrote not long before the uprising in the ghetto. “Now it seems that the Jews are recovering a bit from the heavy blows; they have sobered up as a result of their sufferings and have concluded that [passively] going to the slaughter did not make the number of victims smaller but, on the contrary, it made the number larger. No matter whom you talk to now, you hear the same thing: we should not have allowed the Great Deportation to have taken place. We should have gone into the streets, we should have burned down everything, blasted the walls and run to the other side. The Germans would have taken their revenge. It would have cost tens of thousands of casualties, but not three hundred thousand. Now we are covered in shame and ignominy, both in our own eyes and in the eyes of the entire world, since our passivity gave us nothing. This should not happen again. Children and adults must defend themselves against the enemy.”
Ringelblum, as Samuel D. Kassow wrote in “Who Will Write Our History?: Rediscovering a Hidden Archive From the Warsaw Ghetto,” “was absolutely convinced that the story of Jewish suffering, no matter how terrible, was a universal story and not just a Jewish one. And evil, no matter how great, could not be placed outside of history.”
We all have the capacity for evil. The line between the executioner and the victim is razor-thin. Ringelblum and his writers warned us of how easy it is to surrender our better selves in the name of survival. They cautioned us against the danger of political ideologies, careerism, opportunism, the lust for violence and the loss of empathy. They excoriated those who survived at the expense of another. Ringelblum and his writers buried their records shortly before most of them were killed. In their final moments they cried out for us to be faithful to the good. They could not save themselves. But they could, they hoped, save us.