Rachel Auerbach and the Soup Kitchen in the Warsaw Ghetto is one of a series of Hebrew films produced this year as part of the ongoing project “Visual Learning Space—Films for Holocaust Education” (Toolbox). The five films comprising this series document the covert activities of the Oneg Shabbat archivists, telling the tale of the Jewish residents of the Warsaw Ghetto from the first-person perspective of the archivists themselves. The current film focuses on journalist and intellectual, Rachel Auerbach, who in addition to running a soup kitchen in the Warsaw Ghetto, documented the happenings in the Ghetto, its residents and their hunger. The perspective presented by Auerbach is unique, not only because it provides a female perspective but also because she was one of the few members of Oneg Shabbat who survived the Holocaust. She was thus able to continue her documentary work after the Holocaust, reaching new conclusions about the great tragedy which befell the Jewish people, benefitting from the passage of time and the hindsight it afforded.
Besides their importance for documenting the plight of the Jews as it occurred, the activities of Oneg Shabbat also constituted a form of resistance. As Jews were forbidden from documenting the events taking place around them, they were forced to act covertly. Each member was entrusted with a subject which he or she was required to report upon, submitting to the archive a description of the events which had transpired. The fact that most writers did not know each other—a necessity if the group’s secrecy was to be maintained—did not stop them from creating an almost complete picture of developments taking place within the Warsaw Ghetto. The members of the archive referred to themselves as the “Goldene Keit” (the golden chain): each member represented a link in a chain of the broader network of archivists operating within the Ghetto. "Naturally," Rachel Auerbach chose to document “events taking place in the kitchen.”
- What roles do city or state archives generally assume? What are they in charge of? Conversely, what was the significance of the underground archive operating within the Ghetto?
The film opens with Rachel Auerbach introducing a subject discussed by many: how can one write about the Holocaust? Is it possible to conceptualize an event that the world had never known? Can any words “properly express what happened?” Auerbach insists on documenting the events—to compose an indictment against the murderers. In her view, this is why she survived—to recount and to testify—a task she took on until her last breath.
- In your opinion, why has the issue of conceptualizing the Holocaust been the subject of so much discussion?
Like many of the members of Oneg Shabbat, Rachel Auerbach had two jobs—managing the Ghetto’s soup kitchen, and documenting. Like her co-members, Auerbach was a victim of the Nazi regime. Despite suffering herself from the ravages of hunger, she managed the soup kitchen, feeding the poor, refugees and thousands of starving people. Auerbach was not an external observer reporting on a humanitarian crisis. She was a member of a team of writers who experienced themselves the destruction of Polish Jewry, who chose to chronicle the events of the Holocaust from a first-person perspective, and in real-time.
- What is the difference between documenting a tragedy in the first person and documenting developments externally as an outside observer?
- According to Auerbach, the kitchen failed to save the lives of the Ghetto’s residents; its main contribution was “preparing the residents for their deaths.” Nevertheless, the kitchen opposed and defied the Nazi dehumanization of the Jews. Its overt and most basic goal was to provide tens of thousands of food portions (which eventually would amount to nothing more than a daily serving of soup), to help the Ghetto’s residents cope with starvation. But it also provided something more: strengthening the social ties of those who entered its doors, it provided spiritual sustenance. The soup kitchens became a social hub in the Ghetto. Educational and cultural events were held within them, and later they would become the planning centers of resistance against the Nazis. The positive goals for which the kitchens were founded led to a human dynamic that influenced and strengthened all who entered them.
- What additional Jewish activities opposed the Nazi regime’s dehumanization of the Jews?
Rachel Auerbach’s documentary activities extended over three time periods: documentation during the events themselves (lists with dates); documentary summaries of the events with Auerbach’s own conclusions; and testimony with a good amount of hindsight which allowed her to reach new conclusions from a different vantage point years later.
- What are the differences between documenting events as they occur and testifying from a chronological distance, as reflected in the writing of Rachel Auerbach.
The task of testifying, which Auerbach, a survivor, took on over the years came with new conclusions that only years of hindsight can provide. This is a new message which is important for Auerbach to impart. Its import is not limited to history; it extends to the communal fabric of the Jewish residents of the Warsaw Ghetto and Jewish society as a whole.
- Why did Rachel Auerbach’s conclusions require years of hindsight? What was the nature of these conclusions?