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"The time of horrors I leave for future worlds. I write because I must write—a consolation in my time of horror. For future generations I leave it as a trace."
For five horrifying years, the librarian Herman Kruk recorded his own experiences and those of others, determinedly documenting the life and daily resistance of European Jews in the deepening shadow of imminent death. This unique chronicle includes all recovered pages of Kruk's diaries and provides a powerful eyewitness account of the annihilation of the Jewish community of Vilna. The widely scattered pages of the diaries, collected here for the first time, have been meticulously deciphered, translated, and annotated for this volume.
Kruk describes events both public and private in entries that start in September 1939, when he fled the German attack on Warsaw and became a refugee in Vilna, the "Jerusalem of Lithuania." His diaries go on to recount the two tragic years of the Vilna Ghetto and a subsequent year in death camps in Estonia. Kruk penned his final diary entry on September 17, 1944, managing to bury the small, loose pages of his manuscript just hours before he and other camp inmates were shot to death.
Kruk's writings make real the personal and global tragedy of the Vilna Jews and their courageous efforts to maintain an ideological, social, and cultural life even as their world was being destroyed. The diaries record the reality of daily ghetto and camp life, rumors about the world war raging outside the walls, reactions to the endless persecution, and stories of instances in which Lithuanian peasants tried to save Jews from death. To read Kruk's day-by-day account of the unfolding of the Holocaust is to gain a powerful understanding of the gradual, relentless dicovery of the Nazis' fatal intent, to recognize the horror of the abyss, and yet to discern possibilities for human courage and perseverance.
Benjamin Harshav is J. & H. Blaustein Professor of Hebrew and Comparative Literature, Yale University. Barbara Harshav has translated more than twenty-five books of fiction and nonfiction from French, German, Hebrew, and Yiddish into English. She teaches translation theory and practice at Yale University.
News Releases & Announcements
YIVO to Celebrate Publication of Herman Kruk's Diaries:
"The pages of his diaries were recovered from hiding places after the war, assembled and published in the original Yiddish by YIVO in 1961," Dr. Carl J. Rheins, Executive Director of YIVO stated. "This English edition, which contains new material not previously published, is even more powerful and potent. We hope that all who remember or treasure the lost Jerusalem of Lithuania will join to mark this historical milestone."
Concurrently, in cooperation with the Vilna Gaon Jewish State Museum of Lithuania, an exhibition of The Last Days of the Jerusalem of Lithuania: Documents of the Vilna Ghetto will open at YIVO. This unique collection of 16 authentic posters from the Vilna Ghetto, displayed for the first time in any American museum or academic institution, reflects the multi-faceted cultural activities of the Jewish community as it resisted dehumanization and death.
The reception and opening will take place on Tuesday, September 24, 2002, from 4:00-6:00 PM, at YIVO in the Center for Jewish History, 15 West 16th Street in Manhattan. Please call to make a reservation: 917-606-8200.
Among the speakers at this event will be:
Founded in 1925, in Vilna, Poland, as the Yiddish Scientific Institute, YIVO is dedicated to the history and culture of Ashkenazic Jewry and to its influence in the Americas. Headquartered in New York City since 1940, today YIVO is a preeminent resource center for East European Jewish Studies; Yiddish language, literature and folklore; and the American Jewish immigrant experience.
The Last Days of the Jerusalem of Lithuania: Chronicles from the Vilna Ghetto and the Camps, 1939-1944 by Herman Kruk
The new English-language edition, published with assistance from the Nusach Vilne Society, has been edited by Professor Benjamin Harshav, Blaustein Professor of Hebrew and Comparative Literature at Yale University, and translated by Barbara Harshav. Special thanks are in order to YIVO's Roberta Newman and Dr. Paul (Hershl) Glasser for their assistance in editing and standardization of place name spellings.
Kruk, who organized and oversaw the library of the Vilna Ghetto, also played an active role in several of the ghetto's social welfare and cultural organizations. He was recruited to serve the "Einsatzstab des Reichsleiter Alfred Rosenberg," which plundered YIVO and other Jewish libraries for treasures the Nazis hoped to use in a Frankfurt-based "Institute for the Study of the Jewish Question." But Kruk, along with poet Abraham Sutzkever and others, secretly worked to rescue and hide many rare books and artifacts from the Nazis.
"[Kruk's] insights into the dilemmas faced by the ghetto's leadership on the one hand, and the resistance movement on the other...[and] the deep commitment to the preservation of Jewish culture, make this diary one of the essentials documents from that tragic era," noted Yehuda Bauer.
Like Emanuel Ringelblum in the Warsaw Ghetto, Kruk was a resolute chronicler of day-to-day life under the Nazis, with full awareness that he might not live until the war's end. He hoped that his diary would survive to reveal the horrors of that time to future generations. In September 1943, during the liquidation of the Vilna Ghetto, Kruk was deported to the Klooga camp in Estonia, where he continued to write his journal under increasingly worsening circumstances. He was taken to another Estonian camp, Lagedi, on August 22, 1944, and murdered there, on September 18, 1944, shortly before the Soviet liberation.
The pages from his diaries were recovered from hiding places after the war, assembled and published in the original Yiddish by YIVO in 1961. These were among the first full-length diaries of life in the Nazi-created ghettos to be released.
The Last Days of Jerusalem of Lithuania retains many of the painstakingly researched notations of the original edition, but also adds new material, including never-before-published excerpts of Kruk's diaries from 1939-1941 and from his last days in the Estonian camps. The book also contains some 30 illustrations, mostly drawn from the YIVO Archives.
Herman Kruk. A refugee from Warsaw, Kruk
decided, on the very first day of the Soviet
city…my chronicle must see, must hear and must become the mirror and the conscience
of the great catastrophe and of the hard times'. Before the war, Kruk had been a
prominent Bundist, the director of the party's Grosser library in Warsaw. Thoroughgoing
and methodical, he had turned out many articles on libraries and on the problems of
working-class culture. The serious librarian turned into a serious diarist. Had Kruk been a
well-known author or a prominent intellectual, his diary might have had less value. Kruk
was not a great writer. But he was a careful observer. He had his political biases and
made no effort to hide them. But his diary would provide more information about the
Vilna ghetto than any other single source.
Using the ghetto library he directed as cover and as a base, Kruk methodically
collected documents and noted what he saw. He could move outside the ghetto because
he was part of a group of Jews (also including Avrom Sutzkever, Shmerke Kaczerginski,
and Zelig Kalmanovich) that the Germans ordered to cull the great collections of the
YIVO and of Vilna's famed Strashun library for valuable books that would be shipped to
Germany to show the remains of an extinct culture. Of course Kruk approached this job
with deep ambivalence. In his diary entry of 19 February 1942, he wrote that
'Kalmanovich and I don't know if we are gravediggers or saviors' (life under the
Germans was full of insoluble dilemmas, great and small, and this job was no exception.
Kruk believed that the best way to save rare books was to hide them in Vilna.
Kalmanovich had a hunch that it would be better to hand them over to the Germans. And
he was right. After the war it was the books shipped to Germany that formed the core of
YIVO's library in New York). Able to move around the city, Kruk's vantage point was
not limited to the ghetto. He provided valuable insights about Polish and Lithuanian
attitudes toward Jews. He also admitted that the great ally of the Bund, the Polish
Socialist Party (PPS) showed little interest in helping the Jews of Vilna.
The 20,000 Jews in the Vilna ghetto continued the cultural traditions that had
made their city famous in the Jewish world. Crammed into a tiny space, residents
attended concerts and song recitals, heard poetry readings and watched theater
productions, and avidly read the books of the ghetto library. This all happened after the
stabilization which began in January 1942. By that time, the vast majority of Vilna Jews
had been shot in the pits of Ponar and most of the Jewish leadership of the city had
already been exterminated. In those circumstances, many political activists reacted with
anger and disbelief when Jacob Gens ordered the formation of a ghetto theater. Herman
Kruk complained, on 17 January 1942, that 'you don't make theater in a graveyard.' But
the theater was an unexpected success. In his diary entry of 8 March of that year, Kruk
admitted that 'life is stronger than anything. In the Vilna ghetto life begins to pulse again.
Under the overcoat of Ponar a life creeps out that strives for a better morning. The
boycotted concerts prevail. The halls are full. The literary evenings burst their seams and
cannot hold the large number that comes here.'
Each ghetto in Eastern Europe had its own specific identity and its own particular
problems and potential controversies—and the Vilna ghetto was no exception. The ghetto
harbored a well-organized and relatively well-armed fighting organization—which failed,
at a critical point—to secure the support of the ghetto inhabitants. The commandant of
the Vilna ghetto, Jacob Gens, was a complex individual whom survivors of the ghetto, on
the whole, remember with a certain grudging respect. No one will deny that compared to
many other ghettos, the Vilna ghetto developed an extraordinary cultural life. After the
war, ghetto survivor and physician Mark Dvorzhetsky hailed the theater and cabarets as a
sign of psychological resistance. They helped fight depression and encouraged a will to
live. From the cabaret came one of the most popular songs in the ghetto, sung to a
ragtime beat: 'Moyshe halt zikh, nisht farlir zikh, un gedenk men darf aroys' (Moyshe
hold on, don't lose it, remember, we have to get out of here). But that did not keep
Shloyme Belis, a native Vilna Jew and literary critic, from charging that the ghetto's rich
culture was a 'narcotic' that made Jews forget the urgent need for armed resistance. And
in a diary entry of 19 July 1942, Kalmanovich, a leader of the YIVO and the person
whom Avrom Sutzkever called 'the prophet of the ghetto' used the example of Vilna to
call into question the entire value and future of the Yiddish secular culture that had so
marked the city:
When God decided to destroy Jewish Vilna, perhaps he had a purpose--to
hasten the redemption, warn those who can still be warned, tell them that there
is no hope in the Diaspora. Jewish Vilna was a model, an example for a
Jewish community with its own unique culture in the Diaspora. But many, too
many did not see the dangers that lurked in this culture. And now the temple
destroyed. . . . One didn't need the present khurbn to predict the destruction of
Vilna Jewry. (Zelig Kalmanovich, 'Togbukh fun Vilner Geto', entry of July
19, 1942; YIVO Bleter, New Series, Volume III.
Kruk's diary will not lay these controversies to rest. But it will serve as a
powerful reminder that glib post-war ruminations about choices and decisions taken by
Jews under Nazi occupation are of limited value at best. It is diaries like these, with their
daily notations and their lack of foreknowledge, that best convey how it actually felt to
live under the Germans, where moments of sheer terror would give way to 'normalcy'
and even a little hope. In July 1941, after Kruk first heard the first accounts of survivors
from the shooting pits of Ponar, he wrote: 'I don't know if I will ever live to see these
lines but if anyone anywhere comes upon them, I want him to know that this is my last
wish: Let the words someday reach the living world and let people know about it from
eyewitness accounts. Can the world not scream? . . .' By contrast, on 7 September he
writes that 'the heart stops with grief. But everything around here runs like a magic
wheel, a kaleidoscope where you can't catch everything all at once. There you must not
grieve too long. To ponder for long means to be late. (In the meantime a representative of
the Judenrat suggests that I take care of the Mefitsei Haskole library and get permission
to occupy one of the library rooms).'
While Yehoshua Sobol in his play
moralist who held those around him to high standards, the Kruk that emerges in the diary
is a much more complicated figure who reflected the dilemmas faced by the Jews of
Vilna. Over time, Kruk dropped his opposition to the theater. And if he never actually
became a supporter of Gens, the diary does record an occasional glimmer of admiration
for a man who was trying to play an impossible game. Unfortunately we will never know
what Kruk thought about the dramatic events of 16 July 1943 when the ghetto inhabitants
supported Gens in his demand that Itzik Vittenberg, the communist commander of the
United Partisan Organization (FPO), give himself in to avoid an immediate liquidation of
the ghetto. Reluctantly the FPO told its commander to surrender. Those pages were either
lost or destroyed by those who found the diary after the war. In 1944, fearful of an
NKVD investigation of the entire matter, Avrom Sutzkever took these sensitive sections
and filed them away. They then disappeared.
Like many others in the ghettos, Kruk clung to his pre-war ideals and politics as a
moral compass in the midst of despair, confusion, and fear. Thus Kruk opposed armed
resistance in the Vilna ghetto except as a last resort—because it might endanger 'the last
metropolis of the Bund in Poland' (this was in 1943!). Several months before its final
liquidation, Kruk railed against the Hebraization of the ghetto schools. Had Kruk
survived the war and written his memoirs, it is highly unlikely that he would have
recorded these particular concerns. And this is another reason why diaries are so
important. As Ringelblum implied, it was precisely in wartime that Jews had to write
down what they were experiencing—immediately and without delay. In a time of
upheaval when a war-time week would see more change than a peacetime year, what
seemed important on one day could quickly pale before the horrors to come. Whole
aspects of Jewish life and experience could be permanently forgotten, unless diarists
carefully recorded them.
In September 1943, Kruk was sent to concentration camps in Estonia, but he kept
writing until the very end. In Klooga and in Lagedi, Kruk noted that Vilna had finally
been liberated. He even allowed himself to hope that he might survive. But it was not to
be. On 18 September 1944--one day before the Red Army entered Lagedi--the Germans
piled him and all the other Jews on rows of logs, shot them in the neck, and set the pyres
on fire. The day before, Kruk made his last entry, and buried his journal in front of six
witnesses. One of them survived and retrieved the diary.
Barbara Harshav's translation of this material is excellent. Benjamin Harshav
merits the highest praise for his introduction and for the painstaking editing of this
collection. The 1961 Yiddish edition of Kruk's diary, edited by Kruk's brother Pin?h?as
Schwartz, contains a great deal of important material but omits many other writings that
Kruk compiled between 1939 and 1944: poems, accounts of the 1939–1941 period, and
fictionalized reportages and short stories. Much of this material was written in an almost
decipherable script. Professor Harshav deserves the gratitude of all serious students of
East European Jewry for his decision to include this additional material and for tracking
down missing pages of the Vilna diary. One can quibble with some of the explanatory
footnotes--for example the assertion that Orthodox Jews in Vilna were assimilationists.
But this should not detract from the enormous value of this long-awaited book.
SAMUEL D. KASSOW
Trinity College, Hartford, CT