There is a long and deep-rooted tradition among Jews of recording their persecutions.
During the Crusades and at the time of the Chmielnicki
massacres in 1648-1649
, Jews graphically recorded these afflictions for
posterity. But never has so much been written by Jews who were condemned by a
ruthless and remorseless persecutor as during the Shoah
. Literally hundreds of people
maintained records of daily
life under Nazi occupation. Sometimes these were collective and organized, such
as the Oneg Shabbat
Archive in Warsaw
the Chronicle of the Lodz Ghetto
, or the Archive of the
. Other individuals
maintained personal diaries recording the horrors of daily life –
in Kovno (Kaunas)
in Vilna (Vilnius)
to name only a few. An unknown number these diaries were lost, along with their authors. Among those
works which survived was the diary of Chaim Aron Kaplan.
The importance of these works cannot be overstated. Written at the time of the
events described, or shortly afterwards, they have an immediacy and reality
that survivors, sometimes writing years later, were not always able to
recreate. They provide an authentic and reliable source of the daily anxieties,
deprivations and torments through which their authors lived. None does this to
greater effect than the diary of Chaim Kaplan.
Chaim Aron Kaplan was born in Horodyszcze
, then part of the Russian Empire, and today the town of
in Belarus. He
received a Talmudical education at the famous Yeshiva
and later studied at the Government Pedagogical Institute in Vilna
In about 1902
he settled in Warsaw
where he founded an elementary Hebrew school, of which he was principal for the
next forty years. He visited the United States in 1921
and Palestine in 1936
, and published a number of
books, including a Passover Haggadah
for children. He began his first diary in
, and the initial entry of his wartime record, on the very first day of the
Second World War, contains a frighteningly accurate prediction of the horrors to come:
1 September 1939: ... This war will indeed bring destruction upon human
civilization. But this is a civilization which merits annihilation and
destruction. There is no doubt that Hitlerian Nazism will ultimately be
defeated, for in the end the civilized nations will rise up to defend the
liberty which the German barbarians seek to steal from mankind. However, I
doubt that we will live through this carnage. The bombs filled with lethal gas
will poison every living being, or we will starve because there will be no
means of livelihood ...
The following edited extracts from the diary can provide no more than a brief
introduction to Kaplan’s eloquent style and his determination to retain
objectivity despite the harrowing nature of the events he describes. Only by
reading the diary in its entirety can this be fully appreciated.
26 October 1939: In our scroll of agony, not one small detail can be
omitted. Even though we are now undergoing terrible tribulations and the sun
has grown dark for us at noon, we have not lost our hope that the era of light
will surely come. Our existence as a people will not be destroyed, but the
Jewish community will live on. Therefore, every entry is more precious than
gold, so long as it is written down as it happens, without exaggerations and
12 February 1940: No day goes by in which dozens of Jewish families are not
impoverished. The stores are already empty, as they were looted
immediately…This was the first stage. As soon as it ended the second stage
began: the looting of apartments…At first they used to come on the pretext of
“searching for arms”…As time passed, there was no longer a need for formal
pretext; they simply come and take not only gold, silver, jewellery, and
precious stones, but also pillows and blankets, and often linens, clothing,
furs, and even furniture ...
2 May 1940: ... Jewish passers-by are aware of every appearance of a car
whose occupants are the servants of the Führer. When they first notice it from
a distance, a flight begins, an escape into the doorways of the houses. In a
single instant the street takes on the appearance of a graveyard. In every
place they go there is silence, and you won’t find a single living soul on the
street. Thousands flee, but many are caught. Fear reigns in every corner ...
27 August 1940: ... I am afraid that the impressions of this terrible era will
be lost because they have not been adequately recorded. I risk my life with my
writing, but my abilities are limited; I don’t know all the facts; those that I
do know may not be sufficiently clear; and many of them I write on the basis of
rumours whose accuracy I cannot guarantee. But for the sake of truth, I do not
require individual facts, but rather the manifestations which are the fruits of
a great many facts that leave their impression on the people’s opinions, on
their mood and morale ...
12 October 1940: ... At last the ghetto edict has gone into effect. For the
time being it will be an open ghetto, but there is no doubt that in short order
it will be closed. In Lodz the ghetto edict was not carried out all
at once, but rather step by step, and many signs indicate that it will be the
same in Warsaw ... 120,000
people will be driven out of their homes and will have to find sanctuary and
shelter within the walls. Where will we put this great mass of people? Most of
them are wealthy, accustomed to beautiful apartments and lives of comfort, and
they will be totally impoverished from now on ...
31 January 1941: Today 3,000 new exiles from
Pruszkow and other Polish cities
entered the Warsaw Ghetto and it was our obligation to
furnish a new shelter for the unfortunates ... The exiles were driven out of their
beds before dawn…Without a penny in their pockets or a covering for the women,
children, old people, and invalids – sometimes without shoes on their feet or
staffs in their hands – they were forced to leave their homes and possessions
and the graves of their ancestors, and go – whither? And in terrible, fierce,
9 October 1941: ... In normal times burial was in the hands of the Jewish
community, undertaken by the Judenrat…Not so now. Wherever you turn you see
offices for burial arrangements. In front of each stands the black wagon, in
sight of all. This is the “quick aid” for human beings who died of starvation
and typhus and who now number many tens of thousands…This death traffic makes
no impression on anyone. Death has become a tangible matter…At times it is
difficult to distinguish who is pushing whom, the living the dead, or vice
versa. The dead have lost their traditional importance and sanctity…In a
slaughterhouse the carcasses of the slaughtered calves are handled more
carefully than are human beings in the Warsaw cemetery
in the year 1941 ...
7 November 1941: On Karmelicka Street
the congestion grows worse from day to day. Crossing this thoroughfare, which joins two ghettos, you feel
that you have been catapulted into a pot that is boiling over. People push and
shove and elbow you until you are forced to step down to the cobble-stoned
gutter. There is a great confusion of pedestrians, street vendors, overloaded
porters, carriages and delivery carts, beggars and all sorts of creatures whose
proximity you cannot bear for fear of lice. The fear of lice obsesses all of
us, for the tiny creatures are the carriers of typhus.
15 January 1942: The cold is so intense that my fingers are often too numb
to hold a pen. There is no coal for heating and electricity is sporadic or
nonexistent. In the oppressive dark and unbearable cold you mind stops
functioning. Yet even in such a state of despair the human spirit is variable.
The call for a free tomorrow rings in your ears and penetrates the bleakness in
your heart. At such a moment one’s love of life reawakens. Having come this far
I must make the effort to go on to the end of the spectacle It is hard to
foretell who will live and who will die, and it is especially hard to depart
from this earth without knowing the final outcome ...
1 April 1942: ... Hunger rules the ghetto. Anyone who says that living human
beings walk the ghetto streets is mistaken; they are all skeletons! Except for
the very few who can afford to enjoy life even in these evil days, most of us
have become unrecognizable to our friends. About 60% of the ghetto suffers from
hunger in the literal sense of the word. About 30% are half-starved and what
they do eat is harmful to the body. The rest eat and drink and enjoy themselves
“for tomorrow we may die” ...
7 April 1942: We tremble at the mention of
Lublin ... An entire community of
44,000 Jews was plucked out by the roots and slaughtered or dispersed…Thousands
of Jews were rounded up and led – where? Nobody knows…According to rumour they
were taken to Rawa Ruska and were electrocuted there ...
16 May 1942: ... Menachem Kipnis
died – an author, singer, and poet, who acquired great fame in his lifetime ... What was unusual about his death
was that he did not die like everyone else here, of hunger and privation. On
the contrary…he died of a stroke. This is a good death because it is a quick
one. In the ghetto everyone wishes a quick death for himself because death from
hunger is a slow one; its final agony is long and its sufferings great ...
16 June 1942: ... A catastrophe will befall us at the hands of the Nazis and
they will wreak their vengeance on us for their final downfall. The process of
physical destruction of Polish Jewry has already begun…Not a day goes by that
the Nazis do not conduct a slaughter ... The rumours that reach us from the
provincial towns are worse than the tidings of Job ...
10 July 1942: ... It has been decreed and decided in Nazi ruling circles to
bring systematic physical destruction upon the Jews of the General Government…The
killing of thousands of people has turned into a business that employs many
hands. After the souls expire, they strip the corpses. Their clothing, shirts,
and shoes are not wasted, but are collected in piles upon piles and turned over
for disinfection, mending, and repairs. Hundreds of Jews are employed in these tasks ...
22 July 1942: I haven’t the strength to hold a pen in my hand. I’m
broken, shattered ... A whole community of 400,000 people condemned to exile ...
30 July 1942: The seventh day of the expulsion. Living funerals pass
before the windows of my apartment – cattle trucks or coal wagons full of
candidates for expulsion and exile, carrying small bundles under their arms.
Their cries and shrieks and wails, which rent the very heavens and filled the
whole area with noise, have already stopped. Most of the deportees seem resigned to their fate ...
The final entry in the diary is dated 4 August 1942
If my life ends – what will become of my diary?
Chaim Kaplan and his wife are believed to have perished in Treblinka
either shortly after his final entry, or in December 1942
. Before his deportation, Kaplan entrusted
his diary to a Jewish friend named Rubinsztejn
, who was a forced labourer working
daily outside the ghetto. Rubinsztejn
smuggled the notebooks out singly
and passed each one to Wladyslaw Wojcek
, a Pole living in the small
village of Liw
, near Warsaw
subsequently emigrated to the United States in
, taking the notebooks, mainly covering pre-war years, with him. There the
diaries were purchased by Abraham I. Katsh
Cultural Foundation Library of Judaica and Hebraica. Other volumes were
acquired by the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw
, the Mordechai Anielewicz
Institute in Israel. It was only in 1972
the first comprehensive edition of the diary was published.
Kaplan, Chaim A.: Scroll of Agony – The Warsaw Diary of Chaim A. Kaplan
. Indiana University Press,
Bloomington and Indianapolis, 1999
Gutman, Israel, ed.: Encyclopedia of the Holocaust
. Macmillan Publishing Company, New York, 1990
© ARC (http://www.deathcamps.org) 2006