Humanities Society - Rachel Auerbach, Cultural Genocide and a New Conception of Victims’ Testimonies

Rachel Auerbach and Hersh Wasser
Professor Leora Bilsky Tel Aviv University
Date 08/06/2021 at 18.00 - 08/06/2021 at 19.00 Where Zoom webinar
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Rachel Auerbach and Hersh Wasser

Since the 1990s, international criminal law has struggled to find the proper role for victims in mass atrocities trials. It has gradually moved from viewing victims instrumentally, as supplying eyewitness testimonies for the prosecution, towards recognizing the agency of victims and seeing them as active participants in such trials.

In this lecture Prof. Bilsky returns to the forgotten contribution of a Jewish woman, Rachel Auerbach, an historian, writer and holocaust survivor, to the development of victim-centered trials in the wake of WWII. Auerbach developed her ideas on victims’ testimonies  and cultural genocide as part of a group of Jewish activists in Warsaw ghetto who, under the leadership of historian Immanuel Ringelblum, formed a secret archive, known as The Oneg Shabbes archive.

After the war, Aurebach who was one of three survivors of the archive’s group, went on to translate these ideas into a new praxis of collecting victims’ testimonies, first in the Central Jewish Historical Commission in Poland (CZKH), and later after her emigration to Israel, as director of the testimony unit of Yad Vashem. In anticipation of the Eichmann trial in 1961 Auerbach promoted a new conception of a victims’ centered trial, which the Israeli prosecution partly adopted. However, her ideas and legacy have largely been forgotten and did not receive recognition in the annals of international law.

This talk recovers Rachel Auerbach’s early efforts to re-imagine the role of the victims in Holocaust trials by putting forward a new conception of testimony as resistance to cultural genocide. The talk will also shed light on why women’s contributions to international law are largely forgotten or marginalized, and why even the ‘historical turn’ of international law, and the growing research on the unique contribution of Jewish émigré-lawyers to the development of international law, did not help recover their legacy. 

Leora Bilsky is the the Benno Gitter Chair in Human rights and Holocaust research at the Tel Aviv University Faculty of Law and the director of the Minerva center for human rights. She is the author of Transformative Justice: Israeli Identity on Trial (Michigan University Press, 2003), and The Holocaust, Corporations and the Law: Unfinished Business (Michigan U. Press, 2017) on corporate responsibility for involvement in the Nazi crimes, focusing on the Holocaust restitution litigation of the 1990s. She is currently working on the history of genocide and cultural restitution.

Photo: 'Rachel Auerbach and Hersh Wasser, discovery of part of “Oneg Shabbes” archive, Warsaw, September 1946. © Courtesy of Yad Vashem’

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