Exposing the ‘Truth’ of Life at Warsaw

“Scream the truth at the world, so the world may know all,” Dawid Gruber, 19, wrote in his final testament.

The place was the Warsaw Ghetto, the time August 1942, and Gruber placed his testament with thousands of other papers and documents on daily life under Nazi rule into 10 tin boxes and buried them in the cellar of the Borochow School.

Gruber’s last desperate cry has become the title of an exhibition, “Scream the Truth at the World: Emanuel Ringelblum and the Hidden Archives of the Warsaw Ghetto,” which opens Feb. 19 at the University of Judaism.

In a time of interactive, multimedia museums, there may not be much obvious drama in displays of ration coupons, mortality statistics, schedules of classes, official notices of executions, candy wrappers, armbands, and densely written letters in Yiddish, Polish, Hebrew and German.

But with the least imagination and historical memory, the tragedy and courage inherent in these papers, and how they were saved for posterity, evoke powerful emotions.

Within a week after Hitler’s troops entered Warsaw, the German Security Police set up the first Judenrat (Jewish council) and within a month issued an edict for the first forced labor draft.

Day by day, the Nazis tightened the noose around the necks of Warsaw’s Jewry, from such petty deprivations as forbidding them access to public parks to mass executions of hostages.

In late 1940, the ghetto was established, but still with access to the Polish part of the city. In November of the following year, 11 miles of wall surrounding the ghetto were completed, cutting off up to 500,000 Jews from the outside world.

In the same month, Ringelblum, a 40-year-old historian, teacher and social worker, organized a group of some 60 academicians, journalists and artists to record life and death in the ghetto.

Members met regularly on Saturdays and as a code name the group chose Oyneg Shabbes (Oneg Shabbat), or Sabbath Delight.

Initially, the participants hoped that their journals, reports and memorabilia would be the basis of their future books and scholarly works after the war.

When it became clear that the Nazis were bent on the extermination of all Jews, a truth the outside world refused to accept, they decided to leave the archive as a legacy for posterity.

A second portion of the archives was buried later in two milk cans. This and the earlier cache were found and dug up in 1946 and 1950, respectively, thanks to directions from one of the surviving Oyneg Shabbes members.

A third cache, buried in a location that later became the site of the Chinese embassy in Warsaw, was never found even though the Chinese permitted an extensive digging effort.

What surprises is that amidst the degradation, starvation, forced labor, mass executions and deportations, the Jews of the ghetto did not give up in utter despair but retained a semblance of “normal” life:

• Some 50 newspapers and bulletins in Yiddish, Polish and Hebrew were published between 1940 and 1942;

• Socialist, Communist, Zionist, Bundist and Orthodox parties continued their political activities and heated infighting;

• Small Jewish factories produced sugar, candy and metal products for the Polish market;

• Authorized and clandestine secular and religious instruction never ceased, nor did worship services, including those for 2,000 converts to Christianity, who maintained their own church in the ghetto;

• An astonishing 63 cabarets and nightclubs flourished in 1940 and 1941, attended by Poles and even Germans before the ghetto was sealed off. Until the end, there were theater, concert and revue performances by some of the most talented Jewish artists in Poland. Curtain time was usually between noon and 5 p.m. to beat the evening curfew;

• Polish gentiles, despite their general anti-Semitic reputation, often risked their lives by setting up an underground organization to aid Jews, funneling information and some food into the ghetto, and hiding Jews;

All of this came to an end in April and May 1943, when some 750 ill-armed and starving men and women of the Jewish Fighting Organization (ZOB) and the Revisionist Jewish Military Union (ZZW) battled 2,000 German troops in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.

The furious Nazis leveled the ghetto to the ground, although about 80 Jewish fighters escaped through sewers and formed a partisan group in the forest.

Ringelblum himself was persuaded to escape from the ghetto shortly before the uprising, but returned to be with his wife and son. He survived the fighting, was sent to a forced labor camp, escaped again, and with his family and 35 other Jews was hidden in a bunker on the “Aryan” side of Warsaw by a Christian Pole.

An informer betrayed the bunker’s location to the Germans and all the Jews and their Polish protector were taken to the ruins of the ghetto and executed.

In American novelist John Hersey’s “The Wall,” Ringelblum is the obvious model for the book’s narrator, Noach Levinson. In 1999, UNESCO published its “Memory of the World Register” and included three Polish contributions: the astronomical observations of Nicholas Copernicus, the compositions of Frederic Chopin, and the archives of Emanuel Ringelblum.

The “Scream the Truth” exhibition, culled from the Ringelblum archive’s 30,000 pages, plus photographs, drawings and watercolors, was organized by the Jewish Historical Institute of Warsaw and the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York and has been a long time coming to Los Angeles. Major supporters of the exhibit are the Taube Foundation for Jewish Life and Culture, American Society for Jewish Heritage in Poland and the Polish Consulate in Los Angeles.

It might never have arrived here but for the persistence and dedication of Alex Lauterbach, an 83-year-old retired chemist and business executive living in Encino with his wife, Ann.

Lauterbach, a one-man lobby, fundraiser and project director for the local showing, was born in Krakow and lived in Warsaw when Nazi troops invaded Poland.

His escape stories deserve a book of their own, but he arrived in Los Angeles in the summer of 1941. Always active in the Jewish community, he continues to organize exhibitions and lead other volunteer projects at the University of Judaism, Skirball Cultural Center and Adat Ari El in Valley Village.

Among the aspects of the Warsaw Ghetto history that particularly intrigue him are the constant moral dilemmas faced by its inhabitants.

For instance, at one point the Nazi authorities ordered all Jews to hand in their fur coats to warm German soldiers fighting in Russia. In return, the Nazis offered to release a number of Jewish prisoners, depending on how many fur coats were collected.

“What was the right thing to do?” Lauterbach asks. “Burn the fur coats so as not to help the German army? Or turn them in and free as many Jewish prisoners as possible?”

“Scream the Truth at the World” will be at the University of Judaism’s Platt Gallery from Feb. 19 through May 7. On Feb. 19, there will be a reception from 2-5 p.m. and a program starting at 3 p.m., featuring Holocaust scholar Dr. Michael Berenbaum and Shana Penn, director of the Jewish Heritage Initiative Poland. A concurrent exhibit of woodcuts by the late Polish Israeli artist Jacob Steinhardt will be shown in the adjacent Borstein Gallery. For additional information, call (310) 476-9777, ext. 201.