Chronicling Life and Death in the Ghetto of the Jerusalem of Lithuania

By Cecile E. Kuznitz

Published June 27, 2003, issue of June 27, 2003.
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The Last Days of the Jerusalem of Lithuania: Chronicles from the Vilna Ghetto and the Camps, 1939-1944

By Herman Kruk

Edited by Benjamin Harshav and Translated by Barbara Harshav

Yale University Press, 656 pages, $45

* * *

In 1935, the literary critic Shmuel Niger observed, “About no Jewish community, except for Jerusalem, of course, has so much been written as about the Jerusalem of Lithuania.”

Ironically, the single most complete record of Vilna during the Holocaust was created not by a native son, but by Herman Kruk, a librarian and Bundist activist from Warsaw who fled east at the outbreak of World War II. Kruk’s massive wartime writings have finally appeared in English as “The Last Days of the Jerusalem of Lithuania: Chronicles from the Vilna Ghetto and the Camps, 1939-1944,” edited by Benjamin Harshav and translated by Barbara Harshav. The book itself is a testament to the continuing strength of the city’s prewar traditions: It was initiated by Nusach Vilne –– a society of Vilna émigrés, some of whose members are mentioned in its pages –– and cosponsored by the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, which was founded in Vilna and whose longtime librarian, Dina Abramowicz, was Kruk’s assistant in the ghetto library.

The extraordinary record that Kruk compiled reflects his personal reactions to the tragedy unfolding around him, his concerns for family and friends left behind in Warsaw, and his unflinching dedication to the socialist and Yiddishist principles of the Bund. Yet Kruk also set out to compile a pinkes, or chronicle, a comprehensive account of the life of the ghetto as a whole. On the day the Germans entered Vilna, Kruk wrote in his diary, “I shall take pen in hand and write a chronicle of the city… . My chronicle must see, must hear, and must become the mirror and the conscience of the great catastrophe and of the hard times.”

The book is written in diary format, a style that also allows the reader to experience, to the extent possible via the written word, the day-to-day unfolding of the events that would come to be known as the Holocaust. We learn along with Kruk of the rumors –– seemingly implausible at first but increasingly difficult to discount — of the killing fields of Ponar, where over 40,000 Vilna Jews were eventually murdered, and Kruk reports on the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising at the exact moment it was taking place.

Lacking the hindsight to record only true and truly important events, however, Kruk also documents false reports along with world historical events, petty personal quarrels along with deep moral quandaries, periods of relative calm and optimism along with the most crushing horrors. Reading through the 800 pages of his writings is terrifying and tedious, numbing and inspiring in turn, much as the experience of the war itself must have been for those who lived through it.

Kruk was not only the chronicler of the ghetto but an active participant in its public life, founding the ghetto library and chairing the ghetto museum. Nevertheless, he was deeply ambivalent about cultural activity carried out, as it necessarily was, under the terms set by the Nazi rulers. When he and the scholar Zelig Kalmanovitch began sorting Vilna’s looted libraries at the behest of the Nazis, his diary entry asked whether they were “gravediggers or saviors.” After the first theater performance in the ghetto Kruk famously proclaimed, “You don’t make theater in a graveyard,” a slogan printed on flyers distributed throughout the city.

At other times, however, Kruk was awed by the accomplishments of Vilna’s Jews under German terror and moved by a schoolchildren’s concert, a poetry reading by Avrom Sutzkever or a celebration of the 100,000th book borrowed from the ghetto library. He clearly understood the importance of such activities for maintaining Jewish morale, noting that the demand for books increased as each aktion depleted the ghetto population.

How else can we understand, in conditions of crushing poverty, Kruk persuading the Judenrat, or Jewish council, to pay a substantial sum to purchase letters from the Yiddish writer Sholom Aleichem for the ghetto archives? How, when Jews were being worked to death, Kruk made sure to provide the inmates of labor camps with reading material? How, when Jews could be put to death for smuggling bread, the ghetto police tried and punished those with overdue library books?

Even more remarkable was the political life of the ghetto, where a full array of Zionist, Bundist and communist parties continued their internecine battles even as some attempted to join forces to create a united resistance movement. Kruk documented the endless power struggles between Jacob Gens, the head of the Judenrat, and the unofficial ghetto leadership that included Kruk himself. He marveled that a complete school system could be maintained in the ghetto, but as a Bundist, he was incensed when Hebrew language instruction was introduced by one of Gens’s appointees. So dedicated was Kruk to his ideals that in the camps to which he was eventually deported — even after hearing of the liberation of Vilna, and with his own liberation in sight — he was punished for organizing political activity. Shortly afterward, he was killed.

Kruk did not hesitate to criticize his fellow Jews in a time of terrible duress, either for their political views or their perceived moral shortcomings. Indeed, in his detailed portrait, the Holocaust’s victims hardly emerge as the monolithically saintly martyrs familiar from later accounts. Today, memoirs and academic studies of the destruction of European Jewry continue to accumulate at a rapid pace. Yet unlike most works available in English, those composed during the war itself are free of postwar clichés and survivors’ reluctance to criticize those who perished.

As Benjamin Harshav, a distinguished scholar of Jewish literature and a native of Vilna, notes in his introduction, by composing his narrative even as events took place, Kruk conveys an irreproducible sense of immediacy. He captures his own reactions as well as those of his fellow ghetto inmates that would be impossible to replicate later, as the chaos of the outbreak of war was overshadowed in turn by the greater terrors of forced labor, mass shootings and deportations.

This volume includes not only a translation of the 1961 Yiddish edition of Kruk’s diary but many other writings published here for the first time, making it an invaluable source for the scholar as well as the general reader. These include additional diary material, an account of the period from the outbreak of the war until the establishment of the ghetto, fictionalized sketches of ghetto life and Kruk’s surviving writings from the labor camps to which he was deported.

It would have been helpful had the book’s format more clearly identified the various source texts and included an appendix noting where the originals of Kruk’s writings are now housed. The footnotes of the Yiddish edition have simply been translated without updating, leading to anachronisms, and are not distinguished from notes newly added to the English edition. While a bibliography is provided, it omits many important sources on Vilna during the Second World War and even on Kruk himself.

The translation by Barbara Harshav is generally reliable despite some minor mistakes and inconsistencies. Though Benjamin Harshav’s deep personal engagement with the subject is evident and his comments on the various types of narratives employed are enlightening, his introduction is marred by several factual errors and by a strain of tendentiousness that also creeps into his footnotes. For example, he refers to the Orthodox Jews of Vilna as “a rather small minority” possessing “assimilationist tendencies,” both dubious assertions at best.

These minor flaws notwithstanding, this book is both an important historical document and a testament to one man’s determination to use the written word as a weapon. When he first learned of the mass murder of Jews at Ponar, Kruk 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.”

Can the world not scream?

Can history never take revenge?

If the heavens can open up, when should that happen if not today?

In his last entry, composed the day before he was shot, Kruk spoke of his efforts to preserve his writings so that they would survive even if he did not. It is our duty to respect his final wish by hearing his cry.

Cecile E. Kuznitz is an assistant professor of history at Bard College.

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