Rokhl Oyerbakh: Literature as Social Service & the Warsaw Ghetto Soup Kitchen
#language & literature
default, Rokhl Oyerbakh, photo: Yad Vashem, center, rokhl_auerbach_yadvashem_3384_10.jpg
Leafing back through the biography of Rokhl Oyerbakh (Rachel Auerbach), it is no easy task to separate the contributions she made as writer from those she made as an activist, organiser and advocate for her immediate community – as well as a dispersed network of Jewish intellectuals throughout Poland and its neighbours.
Today, Oyerbakh is remembered for her work running a soup kitchen in the Warsaw Ghetto during World War II. Her tenure at the kitchen is one small glimpse into a lifetime of public service carried out, as a rule, by way of the printed word. This career extended before the war and decades after it, until Oyerbakh’s death in 1976.
A feminist Yiddishist & intellectual
Born in 1903 in the town of Lanivtsi (located in today’s Ukraine), Oyerbakh would grow up to self-identify as a Yiddishist intellectual – bilingual and non-partisan. This bears mention in the charged climate of the period, where pressurised circumstances often sorted Jewish intellectuals into politicised and polarised factions.
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Someone unfamiliar with Yiddishist culture of this time and place might presume its community to consist uniformly of observant and not-quite-assimilated Jews, but the reality on the ground was more complex. The communities wielding Yiddish as their language of choice were diverse (or even splintered), encompassing Orthodox and Hasidic Jews, the literary intelligentsia, socialist Zionists and socialists affiliated with the Jewish Labour Bund. The latter, anti-Zionist party formed coalitions with Polish socialist groups to organise for political change not elsewhere, but in Poland.
Warsaw and Vilnius stood out as the de facto hubs of the Yiddishkeit world: Vilnius (affectionately dubbed ‘Jerusalem of Lithuania’) was home to the Yidisher Visnshaftlekher Institut (still in operation today as YIVO). The city offered a rare example of sturdy infrastructure for its burgeoning circle of Jewish intellectuals. Warsaw, meanwhile, boasted Europe’s largest Jewish community, with its population swelling to 375,000 by the eve of World War II. Its Yiddishkeit scene was dynamic, spawning newspapers, sports clubs, cabarets, choirs and theatres.
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Rokhl Oyerbakh, however, pushed back against the consolidation of Yiddish culture in cosmopolitan strongholds and worked to diversify this map. Her first stop in this process was the city of Lviv, where she moved with her family in 1920. Oyerbakh did not ignore Warsaw and Vilnius, but her heart seemed to lie elsewhere. She held the radical and unusual position that the woman of the future would be a woman of the village. She invested in rural towns as the rightful domain of the Jewish women’s renaissance and the feminist renaissance of which it was one part.
As a young woman in Lviv, Oyerbakh lamented the city’s failure to feed and sustain Jewish culture. Instead of packing her bags and leaving Lviv behind to elevate her own career, she marshalled her resources to serve her local Lemberg (the city’s Yiddish name). Studying history and philosophy at the University of Lviv, then called Jan Kazimierz University, she grew close with Debora Vogel, who went on to become a seminal philosopher and poet. Oyerbakh worked side by side with Vogel to translate her prose into Yiddish.
In contemporary terms, Oyerbakh was a workaholic. She pursued a PhD in the psychology of knowledge; translated, edited and wrote for literary journals and served as secretary of the Lviv branch of YIVO. In her campaign to rekindle Yiddish culture, Oyerbakh never prioritised the pursuit of individual fame. She was the proverbial woman in the wings, toiling to build the infrastructure for a genuine Yiddishkeit creative boom in Polish Galicia.
Oyerbakh’s aim was not to accumulate a sprawling list of publishing credits under her name. She ghosted as uncredited editor for Yiddish-language journals such as Morgen and Tsushtayer. She did not let her invisibility dampen her output but filled the pages of Tsushtayer with her own genealogy of women writers. Her alternative history of literature included non-Jewish authors and intervened on the canon’s traditional segregation of cultural groups. In this way, her brand of feminism was intersectional from the outset, for she understood that sexism was inherently entangled with other forms of discrimination.
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As the scholar Karolina Szymaniak has noted in her research, many of Oyerbakh’s friends and colleagues were ‘apostates’ who had come back to the flock. These were assimilated and often secular intellectuals who had grown up speaking Polish. Despite their scarce working knowledge of Yiddish, they had gravitated back to it. These friends learned Yiddish from scratch as adults and were essentially auto-didacts in Jewish tradition, sometimes circling back to this identity by way of academic detours. Debora Vogel and poet Rokhl Korn were two such ‘apostates returned’ among Oyerbakh’s circle of friends.
Oyerbakh picked up on the impetus spreading among her peers to retrieve and reconstruct Yiddishkeit identity. Using the ingenuity and resilience that would later serve her in the Warsaw Ghetto, she supported the Yiddishist revival on a financial, editorial, empathic and intellectual level. Through exhaustive correspondences, she offered herself up as a connective node for Jewish intellectuals scattered across the region.
Oyerbakh saw this as a feminist task, for she felt that women were more susceptible to the pull of assimilation. As women writers began to flourish within modernism, she called on them to claim Yiddish as their language proper. In this way, Oyerbakh was supporting a movement that was already unfolding intuitively. She sometimes went so far as to chastise assimilated writers who worked in Polish for betraying the cause.
One of these interlocutors was the writer and artist Bruno Schulz. Also at a remove from cosmopolitan Warsaw and Vilnius, Schulz never moved from his hometown of Drohobych. In her letters to Schulz, Oyerbakh enjoined him to forego Polish and write in Yiddish. She did, however, offer a compromise: she called on him to advocate for the Jewish community by publicly identifying as a Jewish writer. In short: it became Oyerbakh’s mission to bring all (willing) ‘apostates’ back.
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Jewish writers and scholars, Poland, ca. 1930s. Pictured (left to right): Emanuel Ringelblum, Itsik Manger, Rokhl Oyerbakh, Yankev Shatzky, Ber Horovits, Raphael Mahler & M. Weinberg, photo: YIVO
In 1939, Warsaw had just been seised by German forces, and Oyerbakh wandered through a strangled city. She had moved to Warsaw in 1932 to finish her doctorate, but a different reality awaited her. Oyerbakh recalls the first moments of the occupation in her memoirs:
Our heads were full of ash and soot from the fires that engulfed the city only a little while before.
It was in this unravelling city that the idea to establish a soup kitchen in the Warsaw Ghetto took root and was swiftly realised. The action was carried out by a chain of writers-turned-social workers.
In the chaotic early days of the occupation, the historian Emanuel Ringelblum sent the poet Rayzel Zychlinski out into the fray on an urgent errant. Rayzel was to seek out another writer: one Rokhl Oyerbakh. Oyerbakh promptly made for the new offices of the Joint Distribution Committee, where Ringelblum and other workers had quickly improvised new headquarters after the destruction of their offices on Wielka Street.
Here, amidst the shuffle, Ringelblum’s message to Oyerbakh was clear: the Jewish intelligentsia were not to lift themselves above the suffering of their community. They were to stay put and work, ‘to save the ‘cadre:”’ In her memoirs, Oyerbakh writes:
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… he made it clear to me that not everyone could escape – and not everyone should.
After this brief exchange, Ringelblum dispatched Oyerbakh with a modest sum of funds and an address: 40 Leszno Street. This led her to a building left intact, where she was to carry out her role within this newly rallied ‘cadre’ and open a public kitchen for refugees driven out of the countryside – and pouring, by the thousand, into the Warsaw Ghetto.
Days passed. On the first day of October, a cavalcade traversed Warsaw’s Sąski Garden to celebrate Hitler’s victory. Just one kilometre north, outside 40 Leszno Street, Oyerbakh scavenged the debris-strewn Ghetto for the bare ingredients needed to serve a hot and fortifying soup, in bulk.
In rising to meet Ringelblum’s call to duty, Oyerbakh had joined a circle of people working to document and preserve the stories of the 400,000 people imprisoned in the Warsaw Ghetto – the largest Jewish Ghetto in Nazi-occupied Europe. In late spring of 1941, Ringelblum called on Oyerbakh once more to tell her of the coalition he was building. His ‘cadre’ of intellectuals had taken tangible shape.
Ringelblum’s group went by the codename Oyneg Shabes (Oneg Shabbat), a phrase that translates to the Pleasure of the Sabbath and references the circle’s weekly meetings on Saturday afternoons in its members’ apartments. It may seem incongruous to associate pleasure with the campaign to recuperate and store documentation of everyday life in the Ghetto. The group’s activities, however, shed light on a difficult truth: in a time of crisis, the labour of survival is elevated to the sacred and the beautiful. The circle of people building the archive practiced a delicate art as they struggled to spare some grain of hope while addressing their dire circumstances with the requisite pragmatism.
As late as June of 1942, when the BBC used research procured by Oyneg Shabes to report on the reality of the situation in Poland, Ringelblum confessed his hope for the exposé’s inevitable outcome: the downfall of the Nazi regime. In a bout of optimism that history did not rush to reward, Ringelblum blamed the violence wrought by the Nazis on a self-absorbed elite class. A sworn Marxist, Ringelblum set stock in the humanism of the German masses. He felt sure that once the grim reality of Nazi-occupied Poland came to light, the people would rise up against their leader.
The Warsaw Ghetto soup kitchen
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Ringelblum invited Oyerbakh into the fold of Oyneg Shabes. In keeping with her consistent conflation of intellectual labour and social engagement, Oyerbakh saw a natural union between her work in the kitchen and her work as archivist. She told Ringelblum her contribution would be a chronicle of the soup kitchen. Her role there secured her a rare vantage point. Thousands of people trafficked through the kitchen on Leszno Street daily: on opening day, they served fifty visitors, and before long, this number had soared to 2,000.
Perhaps Ringelblum had this in mind when he singled Oyerbakh out for this role. He trusted her capacity to multi-task as social worker and vigilant scribe-in-the-field. Oyerbakh wrote her accounts at night, after twelve-hour shifts doling out the stuff of survival, caught in constant dialogue with what she has described as:
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the song of hunger (…) a sort of choir recital that will forever remain engraved in the memory of those who will be fortunate enough to survive.
The group convening every Saturday to honour ‘the pleasure of the Sabbath’ by strategizing for the welfare of Polish Jews were paradigmatic zamlers. They were continuing the intergenerational Jewish tradition of zamling – collecting the papers of a people.
Oyneg Shabes valued logistical ephemera (birth certificates, census data) alongside anecdotes, folktales and even jokes. The art of zamling was part and parcel of a broader secular turn in Jewish culture. Zamling represented the embrace of the everyday, or the sudden diversion of intellectual focus from the Sabbath to the weekday, and from scripture to the piecemeal, prosaic experiences of working, secular Jews.
Oyerbakh’s own writing embodies the poetics of zamling. Her diary, which was written in Yiddish and Polish and has been edited and translated into Polish by Karolina Szymaniak and Anna Ciałowicz, is omnivorous in its themes.
Oyerbakh inventories objects for sale at the secondhand market and frequently slips in analyses of her dreams. For Oyerbakh, unpacking dreams (some of them night terrors, others simply enigmatic strings of imagery) was a mode of self-reflection that offered a coping mechanism in states of extreme duress. Her imagery is stunning and strange:
I had troughs filled with dough, and when I tried to separate it into rolls, it expanded into a bloated mass, proliferating over the breadboard, into the troughs and over baking sheets. But as it spread, it never grew thin but simply expanded, retaining its full, doughy thickness. I kneaded my fingers into its suppleness.
My other dream was of a cat – oh, I just adore cats so much. They remind me of home, of Łanowce and fresh fermented milk and the dull quiet of a village afternoon – all the things that would bring me to tears if not for the fact that the events of September 1939 have cemented the source of my tears for so long, perhaps for good.
In an essay written after the war, Oyerbakh again resorts to inventory as a poetic tool and reckons with the great loss she has suffered by listing those who have perished.
She names the ‘simple’ ones – ‘the lowly plants of the world’ – those who balked at going to the dentist but were led to the gas chambers; children ‘newly hatched’ and ‘tottering about on their weak legs’; ‘Smiling May blossoms’ of eleven, twelve, thirteen; ‘the Sarahs, the Rebeccahs, the Leahs of the Bible, their names recast into Polish;’ the young and ruddy workers (halutzim); the piously clad Orthodox men; artisans; wagon drivers; porters; thugs; fathers ‘selling sweets from their wobbling tables….’
The list is relentless. It reads as a lamentation. At some point in the list, Oyerbakh’s mania for enumeration is punctured by a note of despair:
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What madness is it that drives one to list the various kinds of Jews who were destroyed?
Oyerbakh’s hybrid role as chronicler and social worker reveals the limits of archiving as a sufficient antidote to tragedy. At the same time, she never disavowed this work.
A chronicle of the Warsaw Ghetto
What emerged in the hands of Oyerbakh and the zamlers of Oyneg Shabes was a kind of amateur and ad hoc sociology improvised in real time. They raked in data of every genus, conducting questionnaires on typhus, saving ration cards, poems, internal currencies that circulated in the Ghetto, placards announcing the deportations, eyewitness accounts of the camps, sociological studies of the Ghetto, postcards, armbands, diary entries, underground press, and weekly reports on sanitary conditions. Ephemera was mixed in with high literature and intimate personal papers. In the corroded milk canisters and metal crates where the archives were stored and buried, every piece of paper held equal weight.
The data set is breath-taking in its thoroughness: As families were deported there from small towns, the Warsaw Ghetto had become a sieve for news trickling in from all over Poland. The papers included updates from the camps as testimonies flowed back through underground channels. The Warsaw Ghetto was a magnet for all this information, and Oyneg Shabes, in turn, became a beacon for relaying it. In this way, the group embodied the role that Oyerbakhhad always claimed within her community – by acting as a connective node between far-flung parties working to form a unified front.
This was not passive work. Its endgame was not just to stow away the story for a later date. Oyneg Shabes engaged in direct action, of which zamling was only one constituent part. For Oyerbakh, this meant managing the soup kitchen and calculating, every day, how to maximise the benefits of their resources. By her account:
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The only outcome of our work was possibly this: preventing the whole ghetto from dying at once. Regulating death.
In her report on the first wave of mass deportations, Oyneg Shabes member Gustawa Jarecka wrote: ‘The record must be hurled like a stone under history’s wheel in order to stop it…’ Writing in the face of death became a form of resistance, neither less nor more important than filling empty bowls with soup. Oyerbakh wrote:
It is not my pen that can describe the horrors of genocide, but be that as it may, I am compelled to go on writing.
As the war raged on, their direct action became targeted: Oyneg Shabes raised money to buy weapons for the Jewish Fighting Organization. Oyerbakh’s kitchen became a platform for organised resistance, accommodating meetings to plan the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.
The soup kitchen remained in operation through the Great Deportation of 23rd July 1942. This fell on Tisha B’av, the Jewish day of mourning. As the round-ups began, the kitchen’s doors stayed open. Crowds surged Leszno Street. Oyerbakh has described it as ‘a beggar’s feast’. All who asked got second helpings.
Oyerbakh’s survival & legacy
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In March of the following year, Oyerbakh escaped to the Aryan side and eventually waited out the war in hiding, in the town of Końskie. Oyerbakh was one of three Oyneg Shabes members to survive, and she had a hand in locating the buried cache of documents after the war. The archives were recovered in 1946 from beneath the ruins of a school on Nowolipki Street, where they filled ten metal crates. A second instalment was unearthed by Polish construction workers in 1950. The contents amount to 35,000 pages – an ocean of knowledge.
And so, Rokhl Oyerbakh survived. In the years following the war, she worked for the Jewish Historical Commission and Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw before emigrating to Israel in 1950 and directing Yad Vashem’s Department for the Collection of Witness Testimony. Oyerbakh helped to prepare witnesses for Adolf Eichmann’s historical trial in Jerusalem in 1961 and testified there herself. She continued to amplify the voices of others long after the war – a fact that often detracts attention from her own singular voice.
Oyerbakh had an uncanny ability to translate impossible circumstances into vivid prose. Here, she describes the shadow of death encroaching on her people:
Every instinct is revealed in the mass – repulsive, tangled. All feelings churning, feverish to the core. Lashed by hundreds of whips of unreasoning activity. Hundreds of deceptive or ridiculous schemes of rescue. And at the other pole, a yielding to the inevitable; a gravitation toward mass death that is no less substantial than the gravitation toward life. Sometimes the two antipodes followed each other in the same being.
The planetary tragedy in which Oyerbakh was entangled may sometimes eclipse her pre-war writing and her knack for gliding deftly between topics. Her pen wandered from psychoanalysis to literary criticism and modernism. She lay the groundwork for a form of feminism that anticipates contemporary calls for intersectionality.
Oyerbakh’s work is only sparingly available in English, with select passages translated by Samuel Kassow and Seymour Levitan (although more are in the works). One can only hope that with the recent push by scholars such as Karolina Szymaniak and Samuel Kassow to put Oyerbakh on the map, her prose will reach more readers soon.
warsaw ghetto uprising
jewish historical institute
Written by Eliza Rose, Nov 2018
Sources: ‘Rachel Auerbach – In Search for Female Public Intellectuals’ by Karolina Szymaniak (Center for Urban History 2016), ‘Pisma z Getta Warszawskiego’ ed. and trans. by Karolina Szymaniak (Żydowski Instytut Historyczny 2016), ‘A Soup Kitchen in the Warsaw Ghetto: From the Memoirs of Rachel Auerbach’ trans. and ed. by Seymour Levitan in ‘Bridges: A Feminist Journal’ (2008), ‘The Warsaw Ghetto: Oyneg Shabes – Ringelblum Archive (Catalog and Guide)’ ed. Robert Moses Shapiro and Tadeusz Epsztein (Indiana University Press 2009), ‘The YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe: Vilnius’, ‘The YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe: Warsaw’