Words to Outlive Us Eyewitness Accounts from the Warsaw Ghetto

Edited by Michal Grynberg; Translated by Philip Boehm




Trade Paperback

512 Pages



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In the history of the Holocaust, the Warsaw Ghetto stands as the enduring symbol of Jewish suffering and heroism. Never before published, this collective memoir—a mosaic of individual diaries, journals, and reports—follows the fate of the Warsaw Jews from the first bombardments of the Polish capital to the razing of the Jewish district. The life of the ghetto appears here in striking detail: the frantic exchange of apartments as the walls first go up; the daily battle against starvation and disease; the moral ambiguities confronting Jewish bureaucracies under Nazi rule; the ingenuity of smugglers; and the acts of resistance.

Written inside the ghetto or in hiding outside its walls, these extraordinary testimonies preserve voices otherwise consigned to oblivion: a woman doctor whose four-year-old son is deemed a threat to the hideout; a painter determined to complete his mural of Job and his trials; a ten-year-old girl barely eluding blackmailers on the Aryan side of the city. The range of witnesses reflects the diversity of the ghetto itself, from engineers to shopkeepers, from smugglers to members of the Jewish police.

This collection is drawn from twenty-nine testimonies housed in the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw. In only a few cases is the author's fate known; in others, we lack even a name. The stories of the documents themselves are just as varied: some papers were found in the rubble of the ruined city, in attics or basements; many passed from hand to hand before finally reaching the archives. Only a fraction of the authors actually delivered their manuscripts to the archives after the war.

Stunning in their immediacy, the urgent accounts recorded here provide much more than invaluable historical detail: they challenge us to imagine the unimaginable.


Praise for Words to Outlive Us

"One comes away from the book stunned by the remarkable energy and willingness to resist that so many demonstrated but haunted by the recognition of how little that resistance availed."—The New Yorker

"World to Outlive Us tells the story in a new way, with riveting immediacy, through a collection of 29 personal records assembled in Warsaw's Jewish Historical Institute and now available for the first time outside Poland, in English translation . . . The Diary of Anne Frank was a poignant solo piece for cello. Words to Outlive Us is a work of full orchestral anguish . . . Themes, sometimes of immense moral complexity, thread through the scraps and diaries."—Lance Morrow, Time magazine

"Unlike the many retrospective testimonies that emerged from the Holocaust, the rare voices in this collection reach us with wrenching immediacy from the very center of the storm. Unflinchingly direct, these remarkable texts record the realities of life and death in the Warsaw Ghetto: the painful ambiguities of human relations in a Nazi-governed universe, the gradual habituation to atrocity, and the inexorable progress—despite a heroic effort of resistance—toward mass annihilation. Heartbreaking and urgent, this is surely one of the most important documents on the Holocaust to be published in recent years."—Eva Hoffman, author of Shtetl

"The literary quality of the testimonies [in Words to Outlive Us] is highlighted by editor Michael Grynberg's almost novelistic approach to his text, which he terms a 'collective memoir': He has selected brief passages from the testimonials and arranged them by subject matter into long sections . . . One has at times an almost theatrical sense of the many narrators stepping out individually from the darkness, each telling a piece of his or her story and then stepping back again . . . In the end, of course, the important thing about these testimonials is not how they are written but that they exist at all. Still, their diverse forms show that literalism is not necessarily a prerequisite for writing about the Holocaust."—Ruth Franklin, Los Angeles Times Book Review

"An incredible volume, miraculously rescued for posterity. As we know, truth lies in the details, and one certainly gets details from these breathtaking narratives of life and death, treason, loyalty, and heroism in the Warsaw Ghetto. No matter whether we wish to remember or to forget, a book of such compelling power forces us to confront what is possible on this earth."—Egon Schwartz, Rosa May Distinguished Professor of Humanities, Emeritus, Washington University in St. Louis, and author of Refuge: Chronicle of a Flight from Hitler

"Among Holocaust literature, these precious narratives come closest to telling us how it was in these dark times. These memoirs will not only be among the last of their kind, but among the most important."—Marek Web, Chief Archivist, YIVO, and editor of Poyln: Jewish Life in the Old Country

"An extraordinary collection of diaries, letters, and journals from the Warsaw ghetto . . . Most of the material assembled here by the late Polish historian Grynberg dates from 1939 to the destruction of the ghetto in June 1943; many of the testimonials were recovered from makeshift time capsules buried by the secret Oneg Shabbat documentary project, while others were delivered to the Jewish Historical Institute after the war. The documents are as diverse as the population, some pious, some cynical, some resigned, and they are altogether remarkable . . . Grim and transfixing documentation of life in hell, providing an indispensable record for historians and making an invaluable addition to the English-language literature of the Holocaust."—Kirkus Reviews

"This powerful testament of witnesses to the Warsaw Ghetto is a small piece of the late editor's lifework of preserving the record of German atrocities. At the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw, Grynberg gathered and organized thousands of personal accounts. These writings from 29 people must have had the most visceral impact because the majority of these descriptions were made contemporaneously, not after the war. This first appearance in English requires their placement in every Holocaust library. Editorially, they are split up among the milestones of the ghetto, from its establishment in 1940 to the deportations of 1942 to the uprising of 1943 to the liberation of 1945. These descriptions are almost unbearable to read; infused as they are with scenes of unspeakable depravity, they nevertheless exhibit a sense of heroism, of the chroniclers' determination that memory of the enormity enveloping them might not vanish with their own deaths. Many of the 29 in fact did not survive, but their words are indelible."—Gilbert Taylor, Booklist

20"The 29 never-before-published diaries, letters and personal accounts in the late historian Grynberg's vital collection offer a devastating portrait of life in the Warsaw Ghetto between 1940 and 1943. Less than 1% of the almost 500,000 Jews confined there survived the disease, malnutrition and deportation to concentration camps; a handful of the contributors escaped the ghetto by navigating the sewer system to the Aryan side of Warsaw. Historian Emanuel Ringelblum's noted journals provided an exhaustive, firsthand record of the Warsaw Ghetto, but these skillfully translated records by shopkeepers and doctors, dentists and schoolgirls are more powerful. Ghetto residents write of needing to get permission to bake matzoh, longing for the patter of autumn rain or hiding in a room with 200 stifling, hot, dirty, stinking people; two cases of full-blown tuberculosis; one of measles. Several of the diarists are members of the Jewish police, who express the agony of trying to provide for their families while collaborating with the enemy. The diversity of the contributors' cultural and economic backgrounds adds to the mural of a variegated Jewish Warsaw during Nazi occupation; mostly translated from Polish, the different voices include assimilationists, traditionalists, communists, socialists and Zionists. Some are despairing; others, like the brilliant Helena Midler, whose parodic Bunker Weekly stuck out its tongue at hardship, find ways to laugh. Many of the accounts note the meticulous planning behind the Nazis' dizzying regulations, and the editor adds relevant data, including maps and detailed rosters of laborers. If one can read only one book on the Warsaw Ghetto, this is it."—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

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The late Michal Grynberg, an associate of the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw, devoted decades of his life to compiling and publishing firsthand accounts from ghettos throughout Poland.
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  • Edited by Michal Grynberg; Translated by Philip Boehm

  • The late Michal Grynberg, an associate of the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw, and a noted Polish scholar of the Holocaust, devoted decades of his life to compiling and publishing firsthand accounts from ghettos throughout Poland.

    Philip Boehm is the author of numerous translations from Polish and German, including works by Franz Kafka, Ida Fink, and Christoph Hein. Based in St. Louis, he is also a playwright and theater director.