In his 2012 book Golden Harvest, Polish historian Jan Gross takes as his departure point a curious photograph. A large group of people, men and women, pose in the open air. Many of them have shovels in their hands and what look like human bones are arrayed on the ground in front of them. They are residents of the area around the former Treblinka extermination camp, and the time is soon after the end of the war. Unmarked and unprotected by the government, Treblinka was the site of years of continuous digging and excavation by people like these, in search of treasure. As Gross wrote in Tablet: “Both in Bełżec and in Treblinka it was common practice to take skulls home in order to check them out later, and ‘in peace.’” A gold tooth was the emblematic lucky find.
At the end of the war, before the Soviets arrived, the Germans liquidated Treblinka, destroying the evidence of their crime and plowing the remains into the ground. Writer Rokhl Oyerbakh (1903-1976) surveyed the site of the camp in November 1945. She went as part of a Polish historical commission and produced a book called In the Fields of Treblinka. In the chapter “The Polish Colorado or About the Gold Rush in Treblinka,” Oyerbakh recalls how the Jews deported to Treblinka were encouraged to gather whatever remaining valuables they had to bring with them. We must remember, she wrote, how the murder of the Jews was “first of all, a pillage-murder. The exploitation for gold and valuables.”
The pillage, however, didn’t end with the war. Where there was a corpse still wearing clothes, wrote Oyerbakh, lay the hope of an unsearched pocket. Where there was an unburned Jewish body, there also lay the hope of a mouth from which the German Verterfassung division had not extracted its gold teeth. Oyerbakh called them human jackals and hyenas, those who came to seek oytsres bagrobene (buried treasure) in the fields of Treblinka.
Oyerbakh’s use of “buried treasure” rings with the deepest, bitterest irony. The idea of “buried treasure” remains a powerful one in our culture, though usually in its hopeful, excited register. Buried treasure, however, taps into much more than childish fantasies of pirate booty—or the desperate greed of postwar scavengers.
Archaeologist Cornelius Holtorf argues that part of the modern appeal of archaeology is that it taps into ancient beliefs about what lies “underground” and the means of obtaining it. The perception of hidden depths can make us feel unstable on the surface. Freud analogized psychoanalysis to archaeological excavation of the human soul. Digging into the earth can take us back in time and reveal ancient cities, while excavation can also produce valuable metals and minerals. Underneath is where dead bodies reside and the “underworld” is where dead souls reside. The underneath, of course, is also a source of danger, of things that should be forgotten, or allowed to rest.
Gross’ Treblinka photo is disturbing on its face; after all, it depicts the continuing assault on Jewish bodies, even after death. But it also taps into the powerful imagery Holtorf describes in his book. Violating graves is an almost universal taboo. Dead bodies belong down there, not up here. And rather than properly marking the past with appropriate signage and modicum of respect, Treblinka was allowed to remain a liminal space, a grotesque parody of the normal order, a place where wealth could be extracted from human remains. Like the ground at Treblinka, the recent past was subject to a continuous, violent churning that resisted integration into collective memory.
After the war, Rokhl Oyerbakh—often referred to in English as Rachel Auerbach—was one of three surviving members of the Warsaw Ghetto’s Oyneg Shabes secret archival project. The archive, led by historian Emanuel Ringelblum, aspired to leave a record to speak for the people, and the world, being murdered. Ringelblum, Oyerbakh, and their associates, gathered tens of thousands of pages, documenting the breadth of Jewish life in Poland as well as the depth of crimes of the Germans.
The archive now lay buried deep under the landscape of Warsaw’s destruction. Before she could even begin to search for the hidden document caches, though, she had to convince others of their importance. It wasn’t easy. As Sam Kassow writes in Who Will Write Our History, “There was so little money, the dimensions of the disaster were just beginning to sink in, and traumatized survivors had other priorities.”
At a remembrance evening in Warsaw in 1946, Oyerbakh spoke once again of the importance of finding the archive (as quoted in Who Will Write Our History): “Remember … there is a national treasure under the ruins. The Ringelblum archive is there. We cannot rest until we dig up the archive … Even if there are five stories of ruins we have to find the archive.”
Two caches of buried documents were eventually found; a third remains buried.
That tension, between buried secrets, and the will to uncover them, is central to understanding the life of Oyerbakh. Her drive to dig was animated not by adventurism or profit, but a belief that the archive was necessary for national healing. It was understandable that others wanted to let the past remain buried, to remain on stable ground. But Oyerbakh could not, despite the great personal cost she paid.
Before the war, Oyerbakh was known for her sophisticated and wide-ranging literary criticism. After the war, she was single-mindedly committed to the legacy of the Oyneg Shabes archive, and the project of witnessing and testimony. While her focus may have narrowed considerably after the war, her legacy is anything but one-dimensional, reaching into historical documentation, cinema, journalism, and practical collection work at Yad Vashem, as well as the production of her own memoirs. But during her lifetime, various factors combined to marginalize her and her work, and she lacked students or children to preserve her memory after her death.
She established the testimony collection department at the newly founded Yad Vashem. Almost immediately, she came into conflict with its leaders, who wanted to pursue a broad mandate of research on Jewish persecution. They were trained historians, most of whom had not experienced the war in Europe. She was not a historian and moreover, she felt the work she was doing could only be done by other survivors.
Historians of that time privileged documents over witness testimony, leading to perpetrator-centered histories of the Holocaust, like Raul Hilberg’s, from which Jewish voices and perspectives had been erased. Oyerbakh (and her survivor colleagues) believed eyewitness testimony belonged alongside document-centered historiography. The leadership’s antipathy toward Oyerbakh and her department’s work at one point even led to her being (temporarily) removed.
Oyerbakh was closely involved with the Eichmann trial and saw it as a moment of personal vindication. She understood the Oyneg Shabes archive as an indictment against the Germans. The magnitude of their crimes could only be understood in relation to the vibrancy of the world they destroyed. The prosecution, however, believed an emphasis on Jewish life, and resilience, would undercut the criminal allegations. Yet again, her role in historic events was marginalized both by the process and the men guiding it.
In the past few years, however, there has been a shift in thinking about Oyerbakh and her place in modern Jewish history. The Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies at Yale recently convened an extraordinary conference dedicated to Oyerbakh’s extraordinary life: “The Bridge Between Wartime and Postwar Testimony.” Archive director Stephen Naron was inspired in part by an earlier, smaller workshop dedicated to reading Oyerbakh’s work, which he attended in Israel.
Naron told me, “After a visit to Yad Vashem, I received a copy of Oyerbakh’s oral testimony guidelines, an 18-page Hebrew document drafted in 1962. … When I read it, and this was no surprise to me really, it was so clear how her motivations for recording testimony, her methodology … foreshadowed the work the Fortunoff Archive would start in New Haven in 1979.”
Before the war, Oyerbakh was primarily a journalist, working in both Polish and Yiddish, with strong anti-assimilationist leanings. In 1933, she moved to the capital of the Yiddish literary world, Warsaw. She possessed a prescient, feminist analysis, and her journalism frequently dealt with women writers and gender and discrimination. Her critical mind, and feminist consciousness, however, didn’t make it any easier for her to deal with the entrenched sexism of the Yiddish literary world.
Making matters worse, Oyerbakh’s “great romance” was with the poet Itzik Manger. Indeed, for many years, if she was recalled at all, it was often in this capacity. She herself wondered if her career had been damaged by the popular perception of her as, in the derogatory Yiddish slang, a literarishe baylage (literary supplement), i.e., a groupie. But Oyerbakh’s relationship with the erratic Manger was much more than a fling between a famous poet and an admirer. Oyerbakh and Manger were intellectual equals and Oyerbakh put a great deal of her own energy into Manger’s work, helping him with his manuscripts and business dealings. In return, Manger, a violent alcoholic, beat and slandered her.
Perhaps if Oyerbakh had written poetry or novels she might have been sooner “rediscovered” by later generations. Instead, her great literary work was done in connection with the Oyneg Shabes archive. Perhaps her best-known work is Yizkor, 1943, her mourning cry after the great deportation of the ghetto. For decades, she worked and reworked material she had written in the ghetto. When she died in 1976, she left a bequest to Yad Vashem, which led to the posthumous publication of two important works, Baym Letstn Veg (On the Last Road) in 1977 and Varshaver Tsavoes (Warsaw Testaments) in 1985.
Forty-three years after her death, it feels like Oyerbakh is finally receiving recognition for her life’s work. A number of critical translations of her work are slated to appear in English in 2020, setting the stage for a fuller reappraisal of her career. But I’m haunted by the third, still missing Oyneg Shabes cache. Oyerbakh spent the last 30 years of her life digging deep into the most painful events a human being can imagine, digging for something she would never find.
READ: A couple of important Oyerbakh translations are coming in 2020, but for now, you can find a short piece in Anita Norich’s Discovering Exile and a chapter from her 1974 memoir, Warsaw Testaments, called “The Librarians.”
You can read Af di felder fun treblinke (In the Fields of Treblinka) in Yiddish at the Yiddish Book Center site or listen to the audio recording, read by Sara Dresher, here. Efrat Gal-Ed’s important new biography of Itzik Manger is already out in German and has a chapter about his relationship with Rokhl Oyerbakh. Unfortunately, it’s not out in English yet, but you can read a chapter here.
WATCH: I highly recommend Undzere Kinder, the last Yiddish film made in Poland, for which Oyerbakh wrote the script. You can order it through the National Center for Jewish Film or check their calendar for upcoming public screenings.
LISTEN: The Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies has a podcast called Those Who Were There: Voices from the Holocaust and is the only podcast dedicated to sharing the history of the Holocaust through the first-hand testimonies of survivors and witnesses. The archive has also done something really brilliant with the songs recalled by survivors in their interviews. They asked musicians to interpret, and in some cases, compose new tunes. Give a listen to the wonderful Where Is Our Homeland: Songs from Testimonies in the Fortunoff Video Archive.
ALSO: Czech-American filmmaker Zuzana Justman is a survivor of the Theresienstadt concentration camp and her films focus on the wartime and postwar experience. On Nov. 25, she’ll be at Bohemian National Hall discussing her work. Event is free, but RSVP to firstname.lastname@example.org is strongly encouraged … Two excellent Yiddish events coming up in Philadelphia: Dec. 1, Klezmer and Cocktails will bring together booze, hot klezmer music, and fast and fun Yiddish lessons by none other than your humble columnist. On Dec. 7, the gents of YidLife Crisis will perform at the Jewish New Media Festival at the National Museum of Jewish History. … On Dec. 11, Boston is home to its first Café Yiddishkayt, a salon evening “featuring local artists and musicians, who will perform original Yiddish-inspired music and new interpretations of the classics.”
… Swamp-stomp klezmer faves Litvakus will appear at the 5th Annual Roots ‘n’ Ruckus festival at Jalopy in Red Hook. Dec. 12, 10:30 p.m., 315 Columbia St., Brooklyn. … If Red Hook is too far afield for you, also on Dec. 12, Drom is hosting a pre-Khanike, dream lineup with Golem, Zion 80, and Sharabi. Drom, 85 Avenue A. … The Klezmatics are on tour with their Happy Joyous Hanukkah show, Dec. 1-22 … Yiddish New York , “the nation’s largest Yiddish culture festival,” returns, opening Dec. 21. There’s just too much to say about it, so I urge you to go and take a look at the full schedule. If you can, I’d suggest registering for the entire week, as there is so much incredible music and learning on offer. But, if you can’t spare the full week, you can buy tickets a la carte. Be warned, however, those a la carte tickets will sell out, so get them now. … Over the last three years or so some very important conversations have been happening around gender in the klezmer world, and I’ve been lucky to have lead a couple of those. Building on those conversations is an upcoming two-day conference, the International Network Meeting for Women and Non-Binary People in Yiddish Culture. It’ll be in Germany in September 2020 and registration is now open. I’m very eager to see what comes out of this first of its kind event.
Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.