A Cup of Tears: A Diary of the Warsaw Ghetto

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Diary by Abraham Lewin, 1988

Abraham Lewin kept a diary in the Warsaw Ghetto in connection with his activities as a member of the Oneg Shabbes group, an archival project under the direction of Emmanuel Ringelblum . The two hidden archives recovered after the war each included one part of Lewin's diary: "From the Notebooks," written in Yiddish and covering the period from 26 March to 12 June 1942; and "Diary of the Great Deportation," written in Hebrew and covering the period from 22 July 1942 to 16 January 1943. The extant text may be incomplete. The final entry date suggests that Lewin broke off because he was himself deported to his death in the major Aktion that commenced two days later. The diary was interrupted before Lewin could give an account of the resistance of the Jewish Fighting Organization at that time and thereafter in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising that began on 19 April 1943.

The diaries are carefully circumscribed by the designs of an archivist rather than by the desire to articulate personal experience. Typically, Lewin limits his own presence in his narrative while concentrating attention on the stories of his informants. In this approach Lewin fulfills Ringelblum's prescription for "'good' work." "The method," writes Ringelblum in his own diary (Notes from the Warsaw Ghetto, 1958) on 23 May 1942, "[is to] sit down with the informant over a glass of tea, and write up the information afterward." Only the tea appears to be missing. Ringelblum, in turn, has words of praise for Lewin's text: "The clean and compressed style of the diary, its accuracy and precision in relating facts, and its grave contents qualify it as an important literary document." Lewin himself makes the same point about style when he asserts in the midst of the massive deportations of the summer of 1942, "Future generations will not believe it. But this is the unembellished truth, plain and simple." His generally understated tone allows the facts to speak for themselves, thus casting the breaks in his rhetorical restraint into high relief. When Levin allows himself to exclaim, "It is horrific, quite horrific," the pathos of a dignified observer pushed to the edge of his sensibilities is patent. That tone of utter despair is most often evoked when he receives testimony of the killing of children. And when he permits himself to speak in such terms as "annihilation machine" (for example, with respect to Treblinka) or "the war against them" (that is, against the Jews), one recognizes that this, too, is not embellishment but rather the language of accuracy and precision.

The ideal of the unembellished truth guides Lewin's report-age. He is attentive to the difference between rumor and "a very reliable source"; he compiles conflicting viewpoints; and he provides follow-up accounts of incidents. Lewin is especially zealous in seeking out the numbers and names of victims, thereby giving voice to two impulses fundamental to the diary. The numbers speak to the inhuman magnitude of the crime committed against the Jews; the names nevertheless humanize each tragedy. Lewin's dedication to the truth also demands of him an unsentimental view of the Jews themselves. He records moments of mutual aid, but he is also unrelenting in setting down Jewish crimes: the complicity of the Jewish police, above all, as well as the looting in the wake of deportations. In a related note of personal poignancy, having already expressed a hope that no Jews would volunteer to join the labor battalion organized by the Nazis for the removal of the possessions of the deported, Lewin is pained to note that his own daughter Ora was now thus employed.

Lewin's view of Ora's labor points beyond the personal realm to a leitmotif that runs through the diaries and the ghetto. On the one hand, the well-informed and astute Lewin is determined to hold no illusions, to pierce the ruses of the Nazis. But he cannot defend himself entirely from hope—not so much the hope of surviving, which he relinquished almost entirely, especially after the deportation of his beloved wife, Luba (née Hotner), but more the hope that reason itself might be salvaged. As late as 28 December 1942 Lewin can still find it noteworthy that "the Germans killed five men, without carrying out any kind of investigation." He is still hoping that rational inquiry remains an operant principle under the Nazis. If he does not see his hopes fulfilled, he does succeed in making a powerful record of the killings.

—Andrew Bush

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A Cup of Tears: A Diary of the Warsaw Ghetto

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