Reprinted from Truthdig
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 communiques, 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.
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.
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.
"But why, why? Why save? Why, to whom, to what is the child being brought back?