The Librarians

As a writer, Rachel Auerbach (Rokhl Oyerbakh) is best known for her memoirs of the Warsaw Ghetto. Shortly after the German occupation of Poland, she joined historian Emanuel Ringelblum’s secret Oyneg Shabes group, which was dedicated to documenting daily life in the ghetto. When Ringelblum asked her to establish and manage a folkskikh, a soup kitchen for refugees, she chronicled her experiences on what she called “the front lines of hunger” and composed a monograph on the subject that was included in the Ringelblum Archive. In 1943, she escaped to the “Aryan side” of Warsaw, where she continued to record what she knew of her wide network of friends and colleagues in the cultural community—the writers, artists, musicians, and actors who perished—and to set down what she had witnessed during the “action,” the great roundup and deportation of the ghetto population in the summer of 1942. After the war she was founder and, for a long time, director of the Gvies eydes (oral testimony) section of the Yad Vashem memorial.

Auerbach wrote and published in Polish, Hebrew, and Yiddish. Her last two works in Yiddish, memoirs published in the 1970s, incorporated passages from her earlier writing but with a new evaluation of her experiences in the ghetto. During the war she felt despair about the real usefulness of the soup kitchens, but from the perspective of her later years, she saw their great communal and moral value as a part of the immense Jewish effort of resistance.

It is clear that she saw the librarians in exactly those terms—that in this place, under these circumstances, Leyb Shur and Bashe Berman were determined to sustain the psychic energy and communal identity of the ghetto. “The Librarians” is a chapter from Auerbach’s 1974 memoir Varshever tsavoes (Warsaw Testaments).

 

They were two: Leyb Shur, founder of the Vilna publishing house Tomor, the unrecognized saint of the world of Yiddish books, and Bashe Berman, later known as “Pani Basia” (1) when she worked with the organization that helped  Jews hiding on the Aryan side.

Bashe Berman had been a librarian at the Koszikowa Street branch of the Warsaw Public Library. Books in Yiddish had been her particular interest even before the war, and under the auspices of Cekabe (2), she published a work titled A Numbering System for the Yiddish Libraries of Warsaw. In the ghetto she and Leyb Shur took on a special assignment.

Other Jewish volunteer workers in the ghetto racked their brains to provide clothes, bread, and shelter for the ever-larger hordes of impoverished, homeless Jews. Bashe Berman and Leyb Shur were concerned with providing psychological nourishment. They were the first to realize how important books would be in the struggle against despair.

It may seem absurd to say that people needed books when they had nothing to eat and their lives were so uncertain. And yet it was altogether different, both for Jews and non-Jews. There has rarely been such a mass hunger for books as there was in Poland during the German occupation, a hunger stirred partly by the impulse to forget the constant danger, the melancholy reality; partly by the drive to release psychic energies, to strengthen one’s fearfully oppressed sense of self.

And what applies to grown-ups applies even more emphatically to children. Especially to the Jewish child in the ghetto.

The ghetto child, robbed of the world—the river, the green trees, freedom of movement—could win all this back through the magic of the printed word.

* * *

Both Bashe Berman and Leyb Shur began their work as early as 1940.

In the very first months of the occupation a regulation was issued forbidding Jews to use the public libraries. By spring 1940 all public, and most private, lending libraries in the Jewish quarter were closed. Jewish Warsaw, which before the war had fifty libraries with over a quarter of a million books, was left without reading material. Illegally and unofficially, however, the Jewish community immediately began to fight the psychic impoverishment the enemy thought to impose by separating them from books.

Leyb Shur began by gathering together the partly dispersed “Grosser” library. He obtained—I don’t recall how—a mandate to do this work. In addition, he began to gather gifts from private individuals. With the undeflectable determination of a Litvak, the devotion and fanaticism of a true idealist, he threw himself into his work, and within the first months after the ghetto was enclosed, perhaps even before that, Shur was not only collecting books in his briefcase but he was also delivering them to his “subscribers.” He provided quite a large number of people with books on loan.

His second dream—a shyer, more secret one—was to publish at least one book in the ghetto, an edition of a few copies done on a typewriter to be published in typescript by the firm Tomor.

In spring 1941 the Judenrat (3) was empowered to grant permits to lending libraries, limiting them to Yiddish and Polish books. Leyb Shur worked on obtaining a permit to take over the treasure of books in the Lebn lending library on Dzielna Street. It had been shut down before the war by the Polish government on suspicion of serving as a front for communist activities. As if in defiance, this locked local with its huge collection of books survived the bombs and fires of 1939.

By then Shur was weak and thin, with yellow cushions under his eyes—the first signs of abscesses from hunger. Yet Shur didn’t look for a way of making a living or receiving financial support from the leaders of the Judenrat or the (Jewish) Self- Help Agency (4). If a friend offered him a packet of food from a Joint (5) warehouse, he took it. If the writer of these lines invited him into the folk kitchen for a bowl of soup (6) he came in and ate. But he never spoke about his situation. All his time and thoughts were devoted to his dream: despite everything, at this time and in these circumstances to establish a great Jewish library.

And this dream started to come true.

He collected the books in a three-room apartment on Leszno 56 that he shared with his colleague, Borukh Makhlis, a former printer for the Warsaw Yiddish daily Moment. In Makhlis he had a sworn friend and assistant in his activities. Shur called a library card a book’s “birth certificate” and had his own system of cataloging. With immense dedication, the two of them cataloged dozens of volumes daily, glued on the appropriate numbers and check-out slips, and transformed random heaps of partly injured books into a well-ordered cultural treasure, full of the world’s wisdom and knowledge. Every wall of all three rooms of their apartment was clothed from floor to ceiling with shelves, of which every board and every screw was the fruit of endless chasing around, requests, special favors, gifts, and subsidies.

A selection of books had been put into order and set out on the shelves, and some chosen individuals were already able to come and borrow or exchange a book. I was among them. One day I left the kitchen on Leszno 40 a bit earlier than usual and stopped at Leszno 56 to wish Shur a mazel-tov for his achievement. We very much needed to encourage each other in those days and weeks before the terror—a time of talk, rumor, new proclamations, and nightly murders of listed persons—for that was their (the Nazis’) tactic: to terrorize and murder and at the same time to offer concessions, issue passes, and lull our wakefulness for the already-determined murderous attacks.

* * *

Not all the boxes were unpacked. Shur and Makhlis weren’t yet finished with their inventory and sorting of the books; they hadn’t yet managed to plan the quiet—perhaps secret—opening celebration, which they’d decided despite everything to hold, at least as a symbolic gesture; the officially sanctioned ghetto lending library hadn’t yet begun to function as a public institution when the deportations began.

Leyb Shur was a first-class printer and mechanic. Despite his age and gray hair he might have gotten a job working on machines in one shop7 or another. But he didn’t make the effort to do so. Disregarding the turmoil and their worry for themselves and their families, his friends tried to set things up for him, but Shur didn’t respond to these offers.

August 5, the fifteenth day of the “action.” On that day all residents of Leszno Street not employed by the Többens firm (8) were required to vacate their apartments because all of Leszno, from Zelazne to Karmalicka, was now to be used exclusively as workshops and living quarters for Többens workers.

Early that Wednesday morning Shur’s colleague and friend Makhlis got up while it was still practically dark. He went to the kitchen, put a light under the teakettle, set out the glasses on the table, and only then called Shur. Not getting an answer, he went to Shur’s room to wake him and saw him standing by one of the bookcases, an unusually high one, with his head thrown back, looking up. Once again he didn’t answer, and when Makhlis came closer, he saw what had happened: Shur had hung himself.

Terribly shaken, Makhlis ran to me a few buildings away at Leszno 66. He banged his head on the doorposts, weeping and yelling. He knew of my genuine friendship with Shur and his daily visits to the kitchen. I have to confess that I failed to measure up to his expectations. I didn’t go with him to Shur’s funeral or help him find someone who would possibly take the books. The hour of the “action” had come. Leszno might be blockaded at any moment. What could we do for a friend after his death if we hadn’t been able to help him while he was alive?

That was the way we were in those days. The most terrifying events were our daily bread, and we responded with monotonous dullness. Sunk in a kind of psychotic narcosis, we suffered bloody horrors and reacted with a hardly noticeable tremor to the deepest cuts into the living body, to the loss of our identity.

There were people who were amazed to hear that Shur had taken his own life. They were jealous that he had found the courage to do it. They understood it was partly that he broke because of his library, which he couldn’t have transferred to another place. Yet they considered the step he took a proud and courageous act. “Such an old man, such a white dove, and he did it?” They were jealous that he already had it behind him, the ugly useless struggle.

* * *

Who accompanied Shur to his eternal rest? Was anyone at the burial? What happened to Borukh Makhlis, his friend? I never saw him again or heard anything about either of them after that.

The newly billeted Többens slaves who moved into the apartment of the two printer friends didn’t waste much time worrying about the problem that had perhaps driven Shur from the world—how to evacuate the library. They made short work of the books—got rid of them through the windows directly onto the piles of garbage below. In fact, there were too many books even for the garbage cans and garbage heaps of the three courtyards of Leszno 56. So the books lay there in the rain and the dust, in all the farthest corners.

After quite a long while, in the course of August and the first days of September—up to the time when the rest of the ghetto Jews were marched out to the great selection—the caretakers of our kitchen at Leszno 40, Joseph Erlich and his new friend, would take a handcart to go for flour from the mill at Leszno 56, and every time they went, they brought back whole heaps of books. And so Yiddish books began to pile up underfoot in the kitchen at Leszno 40 as well.

Waiting for coffee or a bowl of soup, the Többens slaves would take a book in hand, stroke the cover, flip the pages, look into it, and lay it aside with a sigh.

They were no longer able to invite anyone even to a moment of forgetfulness, these abandoned books in the hands of these people abandoned by God.

* * *

But setting aside for the time being the days that were the beginning of the end of the ghetto, I want to tell what Bashe Berman accomplished and afterward lost.

Winter and summer 1940. Bashe was working with groups that provided clothing to the refugees. Others collected clothing and bedclothes. Bashe collected books for the refugee children. And so that it would look more legitimate, this was called a project of gathering toys and storybooks. Children of families who lived in the city before the war had their own storybooks. A book exchange was organized among well-to-do households, and certain building committees had children’s corners. The most unfairly treated and unfortunate was the child of the refugee points (9)—the orphaned, exiled child of the children’s houses.

Like Leyb Shur, Bashe Berman carried a valise full of books with her and provided homeless children with books from her wandering library.

November 1940: the ghetto was being readied. The Public Library, Bashe’s former employer, had to evacuate its quarters at Leszno 67. Bashe made efforts in the name of Centos (10) to obtain this local. She legalized it as part of the organization for children’s get-togethers, which was run successfully by Klima Fussverk (later well known on the Aryan side as “Bagusza”).

Bashe’s work had to be disguised. The two rooms were decorated with frescoes of paper cutouts. Dolls, toy animals, and a variety of other toys were set out on  the shelves. On the tables there were picture books with colored illustrations. All of this to give the institution a less serious, more playful appearance, to make it seem that much less than it was. Under this cover there was a treasure of children’s literature in Yiddish and Polish. The books came from the same sources that Shur had found. In fact Shur himself was one of the most important contributors. He regularly separated out of his collection the material that was suited to children and youth.

“We have to help Bashe,” he would exclaim. “We have to help her!” He encouraged Bashe’s activities heart and soul and spread the word about the children’s library.

Another warm friend and supporter of Bashe’s work was the well-known child psychologist Rosa Simkhovitch. When she died in the fall of 1940, the children’s library was named after her.

 

* * *

The library at Leszno 67 flourished.

In a short time it reached more than seven hundred child subscribers. Often the children weren’t used to reading Yiddish or didn’t know the Hebrew alphabet at all. Bashe had her own method of winning them over to Yiddish books.

She would lend them two books each—one in Polish, the other in Yiddish. For many of the children, the Yiddish books were a revelation, a key to their moods. Some developed an exceptional love of stories in Yiddish.

From time to time the library organized readings from Yiddish books by the children themselves, and there were lectures about Yiddish literature for assimilated teachers. The patriots of Yiddish culture would meet here at modest get-togethers. We felt so close to each other in this home for Jewish children and Yiddish books. It was here I last saw Rosa Simkhovitch before she died and Menakhem Linder the last time before he was shot. I can still hear him humming along to the tune of “Don and Donna” as it was being performed at the children’s library.

Bashe’s most important assistants were the children themselves: Shulamis Bratshteyn, the seventeen-year-old daughter of a well-known Włocławek community volunteer and friend of YIVO, and the even-younger girls, Tobtshe Keytel, Royzele Shvartsberg, and Paula Blazer. One was thirteen, the other two fifteen.

Whenever Bashe mentioned their names after the war, her face lit with a sad smile. Even after they died, she smiled when she thought of them—they were so sweet, young, and full of charm.

* * *

The most important work of the library was to provide reading matter to the poorest and least-fortunate children. This included the children in the dormitories, half dormitories, and hospitals established during the war and even the children in quarantine, where families suffering from typhus would be held for weeks at a time. These were the tragic curiosities of ghetto life reflected through the prism of a children’s library.

For sanitary reasons, Bashe put together special loan packages for the children at the refugee points. Among other such packages, she had a special set of books for children who suffered from scabies.

Despite all the efforts of their teachers and caregivers, the children at some of the refugee points lived in frightful circumstances. Most of them had nothing warm to put on in the winter, no boots. There was no fuel to warm the rooms. But read they did, these children! They sent delegates outfitted in the few warm things that belonged to everyone to exchange books.

They would come on stipulated days—children with the characteristic look and bad smell of the refugee points, most of them with the shaved heads of the eternal sanitary inspections that plagued these institutions, with faces already showing signs of abscessed cushions under their eyes. They came with endless practicality and seriousness to “take care of” books, stretching their skinny arms out for books, the precious remedy to their dire need.

At certain refugee points where the children couldn’t read on their own because of the cold in the unheated rooms, collective readings would be organized. Bashe would remind the caregiver of the half dormitory on Wolnosc 16, Przepiorka, that it was time for a reading. The teacher read and the children huddled close to each other under the covers, and with longing in their faces they listened to a story about a journey, an adventure that took place under a faraway sky in the warm lands of Asia or Africa.

One famous client of Basia’s was a passionate book swallower named Meyerl. Once he returned a book with lice crawling around on the pages. No one at the library got angry at Meyerl for this. He certainly wasn’t to blame that there were lice crawling on his book just as there were on his starved body. It was simply clear that the library had to find a way to disinfect books.

* * *

As it turned out, the books of the children’s library played a role at the time of the actions.

Bashe told me after the war that even in the first days of the roundups there were children who wouldn’t give up borrowing books. They came to Leszno 67 during lending hours to exchange books. And so the library served its clients one more time—for the last time. Among them was a little girl named Simtshe, who was very bold. She wasn’t afraid to go out on the streets. “My father works at Többens!” she boasted, and showed an identity card.

What these identity cards were worth, we know. The books that were taken out on that day were never returned. How many of them were packed into the small bundles prepared for the children to take on the trip “to the east”? How many of them later lay scattered around on the ground at Treblinka, along with the daily and holiday prayer books in the large rucksacks?

I see as if he were before me now a boy during one of the blockades on Leszno. His father has been in jail for weeks. His mother has decided to travel “willingly” to the Umschlagplatz (11) with her child, hoping to get to relatives in Brześć, and she is gathering provisions for the trip from the neighbors in the courtyard of Leszno 66. All around there is the uproar, the bizarre madness of a blockade. But the twelve-year-old boy, immersed in his newly discovered worlds, lost and swept away, is standing in the corner of the courtyard, not hearing or seeing what is happening around him. He is reading a tattered book with a red binding.

 

***

1. “Pani Basia”: Mrs. Basia (Polish). Bashe Berman and her husband escaped from the ghetto in September 1942 and helped establish an undercover organization that assisted Jews hiding on the “Aryan side,” i.e., in occupied Warsaw outside the ghetto walls.

2. CEntrala KAs BEzprocentowych (Cekabe) was a Jewish credit union that offered interest-free loans.

3. Judenrat: Jewish council set up by the Germans to administer the ghetto.

4. (Jewish) Self-Help Agency (Juedische Sociale Selbsthilfe): agency that took welfare collections, organized soup kitchens, and provided other assistance to the ghetto populace.

5. Joint: Joint Distribution Committee, founded in the United States at the outbreak of World War I to aid Jews in Palestine. It later provided assistance to European Jewish refugees.

6. Folk kitchens: soup kitchens serving minimal portions of soup once a day.

7. Shop: ghetto workplace established by the Germans to support their war effort.

8.  Többens firm: one of the most important of the ghetto shops. “Action”: Aktion (German), roundup of the ghetto populace for systematic selection and forced deportation.                                     

9. Points: mass living quarters for homeless refugees.

10. Centos (Centrale Opieki nad Sierotami): center for assistance to orphan children.

11. Umschlagplatz: transshipment station, railroad siding first used for unloading officially sanctioned provisions for the ghetto, later used as a collection point for deportations “east”—to Treblinka and other camps of the Lublin district.

 

* * *

SEYMOUR LEVITAN of Vancouver was educated at the University of Pennsylvania and Simon Fraser University. His translations of Yiddish poems, stories, and memoirs have appeared in numerous anthologies and journals, and he lectures widely on both translation and Yiddish literature. He is the 2008 winner of the Louis Rosenberg Award of the Association of Canadian Jewish Studies.

Paper Roses, his selection and translation of Rokhl Korn’s poetry, won the Robert Payne Award from Columbia University’s Translation Center in 1988. The following translations will be included in a forthcoming McGill-Queen’s University Press edition of the selected poems of Rokhl Korn, edited by Esther Frank and selected and translated by Levitan.

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