Jewish writers and scholars, Poland, ca. 1930s. (Left to right) Emanuel Ringelblum, Itsik Manger, Rokhl Oyerbakh; Yankev Shatzky, Ber Horovits, Raphael Mahler, and M. Weinberg. (YIVO)

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Oyerbakh, Rokhl

(also commonly Rachel Auerbach; 1903–1976), writer and essayist in Yiddish and Polish. Rokhl Oyerbakh was born in Lanowitz (mod Ukr., Lanovitsy), a small village in Podolia. Although the family later moved to Lwów, her rural childhood left her with a lifelong love of Yiddish and a deep interest in Jewish folklore. Auerbach studied psychology and philosophy at Lwów University and also collaborated in Tsushtayer, a journal founded by Melech Ravitch to foster Yiddish culture in Galicia, a region where most of the Jewish intelligentsia spoke Polish.

Moving to Warsaw in 1933, Oyerbakh began to publish articles on literature, theater, and psychology in the Polish-language Jewish newspaper Nasz Przegląd and in the Yiddish press. She also became the companion of the Yiddish poet Itsik Manger and later hid many of his manuscripts in the secret Ringelblum archive.

In September 1939, the historian and relief worker Emanuel Ringelblum asked Oyerbakh to help organize soup kitchens in Warsaw. Two years later, he invited her to join his secret underground archive, the Oyneg Shabes. At his behest, she wrote an essay about the soup kitchen at 40 Leszno Street. In this important contribution to the social history of the ghetto, Oyerbakh described her colorful and unpredictable coworkers and the desperate Jews who begged for extra bowls of soup that she could rarely provide. Oyerbakh was in the frontline of the ghetto’s fight against starvation, and she quickly understood that she was waging a losing battle. In addition to her essay on the soup kitchen, Oyerbakh recorded the testimony of Avrom (Yankev) Krzepicki, an escapee from Treblinka who returned to the Warsaw ghetto in September 1942 and later perished. She also kept a diary in Polish.

In March 1943 Oyerbakh escaped to the “Aryan Side” of Warsaw. Adolf and Basia Berman enlisted her as a courier for the Jewish underground. In 1943 and 1944, Oyerbakh wrote some of her most important essays (mostly in Polish). When they were recovered after the war, they became the basis for much of her later writing. “Yizker,” written in Yiddish in 1943, was a particularly gripping elegy on Warsaw Jewry—and the only work of Oyerbakh’s to be translated into English. It contained many of the themes that would mark her postwar books: the importance of the culture that was destroyed; the humanity and specific identity of the victims; the responsibility to remember; and the difficulty of finding appropriate words to convey the enormity of the loss.

After the war, Oyerbakh—one of only three survivors of the Oyneg Shabes staff—helped spearhead the search for the archive, which had been buried by its staff as the ghetto was destroyed. From 1945 until 1950, when she immigrated to Israel, Oyerbakh collected survivor testimonies at the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw, most notably on Treblinka. In Israel, she published valuable memoirs of the Jewish cultural elite in the Warsaw ghetto and of her own experiences. For many years she worked at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, where she organized the collection of Holocaust testimonies and engaged in a heated controversy with historian Ben-Zion Dinur over the role of Yad Vashem and how it should organize Holocaust research. Oyerbakh’s public dispute with Jean-François Steiner in 1967 over his fictional account in Treblinka reflected her determination to fight against what she labeled as distortions and inaccuracies in portrayals of the Holocaust.

Suggested Reading

Rachel Auerbach, Varshever tsavoes: Bagegenishn, aktivitetn, goyroles, 1933–1943 (Tel Aviv, 1974); Rachel Auerbach, Baym letstn veg: In Geto Varshe un oyf der arisher zayt (Tel Aviv, 1977); Rachel Auerbach, “Yizkor,” in The Literature of Destruction: Jewish Responses to Catastrophe, ed. David Roskies (Philadelphia, 1988); Samuel Moyn, A Holocaust Controversy: The Treblinka Affair in Postwar France (Waltham, Mass., 2005).

YIVO Archival Resources

RG 1174, Isaac Metzker, Papers, 1930s-1970s; RG 1258, Philip Friedman, Papers, 1930s-1959.