Review

Review of Warsaw Testament by Rokhl Auerbach, trans­. Kassow

Justine Orlovsky-Schnitzler

War­saw Tes­ta­ment by Rokhl Auer­bach, trans­lat­ed by Samuel Kas­sow (White Goat Press, 2024). 413 pages. $32.95.

On July 26th, 1942, Rokhl Auerbach handed what she believed to be her life’s work—collected writings, interviews, and ephemera, from inside the Warsaw Ghetto—to Emmanuel Ringelblum. Liquidation of the ghetto had begun four days earlier. As part of Oyneg Shabes, Auerbach was one of dozens of Jews racing against time to create a comprehensive record of what transpired behind prison walls. She pinned a note in Yiddish to her stack of materials—expressing, according to historian and translator Samuel Kassow—“fear, anger, despair” (xviii):

I am handing over this unfinished essay to the archive. “The fifth day of the “aktion.” Perhaps such horrors have occurred before in Jewish history. But such shame, never. Jews as tools [of the killers]. I want to stay alive. I am ready to kiss the boots of the worst scoundrel just to see the moment of revenge. REVENGE REVENGE remember.

Here, in Warsaw Testament, Samuel Kassow’s translation of much of Auerbach’s writings, available for the very first time in English—we hold the manifestation of her final hope. Revenge proves to be a far more elusive hope; perhaps, here, we do well to remember the words of Irish revolutionary Bobby Sands: our revenge shall be in the laughter of our children. There is little laughter in Warsaw Testament, but there is life. Living as a Jew, living Jewishly—and being remembered as such, by living Jews—this a bulwark against total annihilation.

Auerbach did survive the Ghetto, and the war—one of only three members of Oyneg Shabes to do so—and immediately threw herself into the task of meaning-making. If there is anything to critique in Auerbach’s records—forgive me, for deigning to do so—it is only that Auerbach believed to tread water was to die. The pace of her life—defined by her experiences during the war—allowed no space for grief.

“How could she find the words to describe what she had seen?” Kassow asks (on behalf of all of us). “In late 1943, she wrote:

The mass murder, the murder of millions of Jews by the Germans, is a fact that speaks for itself. It is very dangerous to add interpretations or analyses to this subject. Anything that is said can quickly turn into hopeless hysteria or endless sobs. One must approach this subject with the greatest caution, in a restrained and factual manner…this has been my intention: not to express but transmit, to note only facts but not to interpret.

“As she quickly realized,” Kassow concludes, “...this mandate was impossible, even for herself” (xiv).

In her note pinned atop her stack of Ghetto writings, Auerbach “…wondered whether her writings would share the same fate as the scribblings of a coal miner trapped in a cave—in whose body would never be found. Would anyone read them; would anyone care?...If she survived, what good would she be to anybody?” (xviii).

This edition of Warsaw Testament, accompanied by selections from a different text, The Last Journey, is a fascinating and difficult read—both thematically, and due to the hybrid nature of Auerbach’s work. I have not read Auerbach’s materials in the original Yiddish; I can only comment on Kassow’s translation insofar as his editorial contextualization—particularly of Auerbach’s life before and after the war—paints a vivid portrait of a woman singularly committed to the survival of not only the Jewish people, but the Jewish narrative.

Notes abound; a comprehensive glossary of people, places, and terms, as well as a detailed timeline, help place each entry. Still, given that Auerbach herself inserted her post-war reflections into her earlier writing—alongside arranging entries thematically, rather than chronologically, readers of Warsaw Testament might find themselves reading selections in short bursts, as I did. This, I believe, does not dampen what is being conveyed. This is a watershed entry into the English canon of Holocaust testimony, unlike virtually anything else. It is hard to review this work, beyond offering gratitude, and marveling at how much transpired between Auerbach’s words going into the first burial of the archive in 1942 and now.

“Books have their own fate,” Auerbach writes in her foreword. She continues:

In the past, I had written that a retrospective moral appraisal of Jewish life in the ghetto would regard only the armed resistance movement as more important than this upsurge of the life of the spirit, of cultural connectivity. Now I realize that armed resistance and cultural activism were not distinct from one another but two sides of the same coin: an affirmation of life in the face of death and part of our struggle for human dignity, beauty, wisdom, strength, and spirit. (xlvii).

Auerbach’s struggles to drum up interest in retrieving the Ringelblum Archive (documented in the preface) underscore the infuriating double standard of Holocaust education: in many ways, the educational landscape is oversaturated with very specific Holocaust narratives, and yet very little Holocaust education is actually effective. Little of it relies on direct Jewish testimony, it is exceptionalized to the point that it seems to have taken place in an alternate universe, and still, we barely scratch the surface. How long have the bulk of Auerbach’s writings sat, untranslated, in the Yad Vashem archives? Less than 51 years have passed since Auerbach assembled her testimonies. How quickly we forget.

Warsaw Testament ends with a somber postscript: a brief meditation on her inability to connect one last time with a friend, Janina Buchholtz-Bukolska, a righteous Gentile who survived the war and remained in Lodz.

“I cannot forgive myself for having put off seeing Janina for so long,” she says, after her intended trip from Tel Aviv to Warsaw in 1966 was stymied by politically-motivated visa restrictions. Buchholtz-Bukolska, when she learned via telegram that Auerbach’s visa application was denied, sought the advice of close friends with some modicum of influence in immigration issues. It was on this business that she slipped and fell down a flight of stairs; she never recovered, and died in 1967. “It was a chance that was lost forever,” she writes, the wound clearly still fresh, “and neither she nor I can feel the joy of meeting each other one more time. May her memory be blessed” (345).

I was struck by these final words—a slight, but meaningful variation on the zichronah lebracha. I have no doubt her memory was a blessing for Auerbach; as Buchholtz-Bukolska was not a Jew, her memory is not referred to as such. It is a subtle linguistic reminder of the way memory can be harnessed, invoked, and carried forward in specifically Jewish ways—or not. Buchholtz-Bukolska is no less worthy of remembrance than anyone else mentioned in Auerbach’s writings, but she is not remembered as a Jew. Auerbach was, above all, an expert in remembrance.

Auerbach carried the weight of collective Jewish narrative on her shoulders, yes, but this is only communicable in the minutiae of the daily lives of individuals; de-anonymizing the masses. These names, these stories—committed to paper in secret, unedited or edited with the hindsight of near total annihilation—are worlds unto themselves. Every person, accounted for. Every person, missed. In this, Warsaw Testament is incomparable.

Joseph Dornan, reviewing “Voices From the Warsaw Ghetto”—a compilation of excerpts from recovered material of Ringelblum Archive edited by David Roskies—writes:

Roskies notes that Oyneg Shabes members were stunned into silence only once — in September 1942, during what became known as the Cauldron, the five most horrific days of the Great Deportation, which sent 300,000 Jews to their deaths, including many Oyneg Shabes members. But they soon resumed and ceaselessly worked until the final destruction of the ghetto in April and May 1943. By then, Warsaw’s Jews had risen up against their Nazi persecutors. “The cattle awoke / And / Bared their teeth,” Szlengel writes in one of the book’s final pieces, the poem “Counterattack.” Meanwhile, Oyneg Shabes members buried the final cache of their archive.

“Who can render the stages of the dying of a people?” writes Rachel Auerbach in “Yizkor, 1943,” the last piece Roskies includes, completed shortly after the ghetto’s final dissolution and several years before the archive documents were recovered after the war. When she wrote these words, Auerbach, one of only two members of Oyneg Shabes to survive, who would dedicate her life to collecting Holocaust witness testimony, was unaware she and her fellow archivists had managed to accomplish this very feat.

It is one thing to have the material physically in the world; it is enough to get it into the hands of those who need it, to ensure it lives in our minds as well as our archives. Fortunately—blessedly—Warsaw Testament has a new lease to get under our skin.

[Editorial note: Warsaw Testament is available for pre-order at this link.]

MLA STYLE
Orlovsky-Schnitzler, Justine. “Review of Warsaw Testament by Rokhl Auerbach, trans­. Kassow.” In geveb, June 2024: https://ingeveb.org/articles/warsaw-testament.
CHICAGO STYLE
Orlovsky-Schnitzler, Justine. “Review of Warsaw Testament by Rokhl Auerbach, trans­. Kassow.” In geveb (June 2024): Accessed Jun 16, 2024.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Justine Orlovsky-Schnitzler

Justine Orlovsky-Schnitzler is a writer, folklorist, and advocate currently working in reproductive justice.