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The Last Days of the Jerusalem of Lithuania: Chronicles from the Vilna Ghetto and the Camps 1939-44 
by Herman Kruk, edited by Benjamin Harshav, translated by Barbara Harshav.
Yale, 732 pp., £30, November 2002, 0 300 04494 1
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Herman Kruk was a man of 42 and the director of the Yiddishist Grosser Library at the Cultural League in Warsaw when war broke out and he, along with other Jewish men who were in danger of being snatched off the streets, fled the city. After a month of wandering, hiding and failing to escape to the East, he arrived in Vilna, then under Lithuanian control, along with twenty thousand other Jewish refugees from Poland. Vilna already had a Jewish population of sixty thousand, with a thriving modern secular culture. The Yivo, a research institute in the Jewish humanities and social sciences, an academy of language and centre of cultural policy whose governing board included Sigmund Freud, had been founded there in 1925. It moved to New York during the war, and was responsible for compiling, editing and translating Kruk’s diaries into Yiddish.

Written in Vilna before the Ghetto came into being, then throughout its existence and, later, in the labour camps of Estonia until the day before the Russians liberated them, Kruk’s extraordinarily conscientious daily witnessing is always coloured by the hindsight the reader brings to it. Like Anne Frank, Kruk had no knowledge either of his own future or of Hitler’s intentions towards the Jews (information comes erratically as rumour, often wrong), but unlike Frank, Kruk was a political activist, overwhelmingly concerned as a member of the Socialist Jewish Bund about the destruction of the intricate social and cultural life of European Jewry built up over the previous thousand years. His private fears, the loss of his family, friends and comrades, the terrors of the unknown occasionally break through – ‘Two years ago, I still had my normal social activity, my job, my home and my wife next to me, my brother, his child and all my near and dear ones . . . I didn’t yet think how soon I would be a refugee and didn’t understand the situation. Now I understand, I understand’ – but in general he subordinates them to his passionate interest in saving or mourning an entire people and its way of life. For him, and his Party, the Jewish Diaspora is the Jewish homeland; the idea of doikeyt (‘here-ness’) expresses the feasibility of creating an autonomous Jewish culture within Poland while still being citizens of the Polish state. He never lost his faith: his belief that socialism and culture would rally and unite all groups against the forces of Fascism. In the daily concerns of his diary, he seems often to be more opposed to right-wing Zionists in the ghetto than to the German enemy, because he believed that the Yiddish Diaspora was already a Jewish nation and already in the process of being destroyed by ghettoisation and anti-semitic decrees. His aim was for the nation of Eastern European Jewry to survive and continue. As the editor of this volume, Benjamin Harshav, explains, there was a dense network of Jewish activities in Eastern Europe:

competing ideologies and political parties, youth movements and sports clubs, literature in several languages, publishing and translations of world literature into Yiddish and Hebrew, newspapers and libraries, separate Jewish trade unions and educational systems – a secular, modern, European-type, autonomous Jewish nation, though without power over any territory, that emerged in the 19th and 20th centuries and perished in the Holocaust.

What makes Kruk’s diary so unusual is that it is an account of another holocaust, not often in the forefront of the personal histories written by those who survived the devastation, and certainly not given its rightful due by those Israelis who claimed and continue to claim the Holocaust as an imperative for the military occupation of Palestine and the devastation of the freedom, livelihood and culture of its people. Harshav suggests that there were two holocausts, which a trick of language rendered into a single catastrophe. Prewar Eastern European Jews lost their way of life as well as their lives. In Yiddish culture the Holocaust was called by the Hebrew word Churban meaning ‘total ruin, destruction’. It was the term for the destruction of the First and Second Temples in Biblical Palestine, and was used to describe the extermination of Jewish communities in the past. It was not by accident, Harshav writes, ‘that the Zionist establishment in Israel did not want to dignify the death of European Jewry with the term that denoted the end of a Jewish independent nation in the past’. Shoah, the Israeli Hebrew word used in preference to Churban, means ‘a natural disaster, an external catastrophe rather than a pivotal historical event in the life of a nation’. Although over time it came internationally to assume the other meaning, this discrepancy between the Yiddish Diaspora and Hebrew-promoting Zionists is a thread that runs through Kruk’s diary. He never allowed his political position on the nature and place of Jewish identity – on the loss of history – to be overshadowed by the fear and suffering he also considered it his duty to recount.

Kruk describes the early days of Vilna as it filled up with refugees: a community overwhelmed by terrified people who have lost their homes and families, and then organising itself to provide aid to the refugees – elementary living space and food, but also textbooks for the collapsing school system. ‘Nevertheless, the general mood of the faculty is good. They all believe that the school will develop again and show new achievements. And they all believe in the attachment of the Jewish masses to the Yiddish language.’ Where the Orthodox Jews had God to turn to or blame, Kruk had socialism and his belief in the Jewish masses.

Two years later, in June 1941, when Vilna was under the control of the Soviets, the Germans invaded the city. Again the Jews tried to escape, but Kruk remained. His decision to stay was the result of weariness and fatalism, but also the beginnings of a determination to endure, along with a reason for doing so.

No more strength to take the walking stick in hand and set out again on the road . . . The heavy shoes are off, the rucksack is unpacked – I’m staying . . . And right away, I made another decision: if I’m staying anyway and if I’m going to be a victim of Fascism, I shall take pen in hand and write a chronicle of a city. Clearly, Vilna may also be captured. The Germans will turn the city Fascist. Jews will go into the Ghetto – I shall record it all. My chronicle must see, must hear and must become the mirror and the conscience of the great catastrophe and of the hard times.

(Given this determination, the remarkable survival of the diary and its value as a historical source, it is a great pity that the publishers of this first English-language edition couldn’t have honoured it with a sewn rather than a glued binding. My copy separated from its spine and broke in half while I was in the middle of reading it.)

By the time the Jews were forced into the Ghetto in September 1941, forty thousand Jews from Vilna and its surroundings had been killed by the Germans. The remainder were concentrated into two Ghettos – the smaller of which was soon liquidated and its inhabitants executed. Where four thousand Jews had lived on seven streets, there were now 29,000 (according to Kruk’s estimate), trying to find shelter, food and a living. Instantly, he says, an apartment became a street, and a street a whole city. But within days of their confinement, Kruk is telling of the formation of the Judenrat, to administrate the Ghetto, the beginning of the Post Office, the distribution of bread cards, the work of doctors and nurses on the streets and the organising powers of emerging criminals and traders. Kruk himself was originally made deputy chief of the Jewish Police but resigned, refusing to work with the chief, Jacob Gens, whom he quotes as declaring: ‘Beatings. We have to have beatings, otherwise they won’t listen to us.’ Already the bureaucracy of the Ghetto could see a narrowing of the distinction between collaboration and survival. Gens was to become the leader of the Judenrat and import his friends onto the committee, which leads Kruk to complain about the way the Jewish Ghetto authorities act against their own people, with Jacob Gens as a continuing villainous and cowardly presence. Gens had been an active Zionist Revisionist Party member, a right-wing group, thought of by the Left as Fascist before the war because of its contact with Mussolini’s Italy. (It had a paramilitary brown-shirt youth movement, known as Betar, hostile to the Diaspora and socialism, whose last commander was Menachem Begin; he, like Kruk, had fled to Vilna in 1939, but unlike him was detained by the Soviets and then made his way to Israel, where he fought with the Zionist underground and eventually became a militantly right-wing prime minister, a precursor of the present one.) The Judenrat and Jewish police were responsible for making the selections of Jews for transportation or death as demanded by the Germans. Gens’s justification for complying was that he saved more Jews than he sent to their death – perhaps true in the short term, but in Kruk’s (and hindsight’s) view, he simply made it possible for the German plans to proceed more smoothly. Kruk expresses his contempt for Gens and his party with heavy sarcasm. On 1 January 1942, he notes:

Il Duce of the Ghetto, the Revisionist police chief Gens, held a New Year’s Eve party, attended by 25 persons, in his apartment. At 12 o’clock at night, Il Duce took the floor and said that despite the hard year this was and despite his hard work, he recalls how he stood at the gate and saw Jews taken away . . . nevertheless, he thinks he has done important work . . . What this important work consists of, we have written about quite often. Who knows how many more times we will have to write about it.

Gens’s important work is the selection and rounding up of Jews. ‘In fact,’ Kruk continues, ‘Gens spoke, the women cried, and what the chief said was received with great “understanding”.’ Gens’s wife ‘admitted to some women that she knew that people have great resentment for her husband, that he is suspected of ugly things. But she “guaranteed” that he is a decent man and is doing important work. And not in vain did she wander like a beaten dog outside the Ghetto walls whenever she knew an Aktion was going on in the Ghetto.’

Kruk is deeply concerned when edicts come from Gens about the Ghetto schools and their ‘reformed programme’ reinforcing the study of Hebrew and the special study of the geography of Palestine, along with Bible studies and the introduction of Hebrew in primary schools and kindergartens. A leading article in the official Ghetto magazine, Kruk notes, ‘says that Yiddish study is a Vilna speciality, that Vilna has not gone along with the Jewish nationalist stream etc’. Even in the Ghetto, even facing the death of their children, feelings are fierce on the issue of nationalism. ‘Friend Kozik will not allow his child’s head to be confused by teaching him Hebrew . . . Now he shows me the letter where it says that his son must study Hebrew, and he asks me what to do. I advise him to remain silent because this is how the matter has been received here – one is silent.’

Kruk’s is first a diary of political life, and although it merges into increasingly urgent questions of survival, he never loses sight of the demolition of the culture he prizes. He was ambivalent about the Communist partisans inside the Ghetto and those who ran off to fight with organised groups in the dense forests of the area. He admired their action and their bravery, but he feared for the survival of the overall group: the diminishing society of the Vilna Ghetto which was all that remained of Eastern European Jewish culture. Sometimes he knew that the death of Jewry was inevitable, and then he agreed with the secret arming of the Ghetto: ‘Recently everything has pointed toward one thing – tremble for tomorrow . . . No, we will not be taken like sheep! No, we will not let them.’ It is better, he concluded, to die fighting the Germans than to be led away and shot. But he wavered. His fear, even at the very end, that an uprising would cause the entire Ghetto to be liquidated, that something might happen, that liberation would come, overrode his support for the partisans, and he counselled patience. His realistic despair (‘Where to flee? Where can you flee? . . . Thus the Vilna Jewish masses are waiting in line. The noose is thrown around their necks and they wait for the hangman to come and pull it’) alternated with the Yiddish saying, ‘You can’t know a thing,’ the title of a play put on in the Ghetto, which the translator notes as implying among other things: ‘Who knows? You never know. Don’t be so sure, it may still turn out well.’ In March 1943, Kruk writes: ‘I’m still alive and want to live – a lot – and hope to get out of here and perhaps enjoy my near and dear ones – those, of course, who are alive . . . Maybe, maybe.’

It is this inextinguishable but faint hope – where there’s hope there’s life? – that causes Kruk still to think, each time something murderous happens to tell him the truth about the Germans’ intentions, that if only the Jews endured they would survive. The prize of Jewish survival in Europe was everything, and it included the simple possibility of personal survival. Fatalistic heroism always took second place in this dilemma. And in a way he was right: liberation was just around the corner. He might have survived, the Jews might have survived and the chance of living was better than the certainty of dying. At each stage there was a resistance to believing the truth that was slowly emerging – for why wouldn’t human beings resist the truth of the Final Solution? The meaning of Ponar – a nearby forest – grows fearfully in Kruk’s account. At first just whispers and wild surmise, and then more definite information, until finally a handful of escapees return to the Ghetto (to what future?) and tell the facts about the tens of thousands who were supposedly taken away to work camps, but were actually marched into mass graves in a clearing of the forest and shot. In the Estonian work camps Kruk was sent to, the Allies got closer and the Germans knew the end was coming. Kruk indicated that he was aware of their likely reaction. ‘The Germans themselves are terribly depressed and confess that they are jealous of the Jews. “Soon you will be liberated. And our lot is bad. They will slaughter us with no mercy.”’

Even so, he did not run, as others did, to join the partisans in the forests. He waited, maybe with hope, maybe because he wanted to see things through to the end – or perhaps simply with that disbelief in one’s own death that flutters around us all under all circumstances. With each Allied success, Kruk asked if it was good or bad for the Jews. Each triumph that brought liberation closer was also potentially lethal to the Ghetto and the camps. Such assessments of events were also a feature of life in the Ghetto. When people were taken away in transports, when local shtetls were liquidated and more Jews crammed into the Ghetto, when an order for uniforms came in and meant another two months’ work for the tailoring workshop, the response was always to wonder what it meant for the whole community’s likely fate. An order surely was good – they would not be executed for two months at least; the meaning of the influx from the surrounding area was unknowable – were they concentrating the Jews to kill them all or because they needed them in one place for labouring? Even an Aktion was seen in this way. When eighty old and infirm Jews were taken off and shot, people asked each other if it was good or bad for the Ghetto. Endurance includes becoming inured. ‘The Ghetto grows more tired and, especially, more indifferent from day to day. Just recently 67 Jews of Biala Waka have fallen on the altar of our time. The Ghetto had many loved ones there but went through the case as if nothing had happened. People swallowed it, and life goes on . . . The Ghetto is cold and indifferent to everything.’

Survival was not all of it, however. In Klooga, Kruk’s first camp in Estonia, which lacked washing facilities and beds for workers who tried to live on 330 grammes of bread a day, an idea emerged to set up a meeting-group of intellectuals.

Gathered around a full table, covered with a white tablecloth and self-brewed coffee, the assembled people tearfully honoured their fallen colleagues and praised the great event of being able to sit together, look at the white tablecloth, and talk to each other like human beings . . . And the human beings suddenly felt like humans! . . . True, all of them were hungry . . . but all those intellectuals devoured the fine table, the white tablecloth, the festive gathering, and the atmosphere, which was so far from Klooga and even farther from reality.

Everything here is built on sand . . . The fear of meeting. The great risk and small return . . . All of it was pointed out: the group of intellectuals would die before it was even born.

Though he would not risk the loss of the remnants of culture that was the Vilna Ghetto, Kruk took risks with his own life. His Ghetto job was salvaging material from the Vilna libraries for the Rosenberg Task Force, which planned to ship the books back to Germany for that most Wonderland of proposed German institutions, the centre whose aim was Judenforschung ohne Juden – the Study of Jewry without Jews. He used his freedom of movement to steal and smuggle Jewish secular and religious texts to safe hideouts, where some of them were to survive the war. Without alerting the German head of the task force, Kruk ran a small cultural resistance movement of his own. He was also in charge of the Ghetto library and declared a public holiday to celebrate when the hundred-thousandth book had been taken out. And, of course, he kept his diary, even under the impossible conditions of the work camps, after a 16-hour, undernourished day building defences for the German front line. ‘I bury the manuscripts in Lagedi, in a barrack . . . right across from the guard’s house. Six persons are present at the burial.’ This was part of Kruk’s last entry on 17 September 1944, the day before he and all the other inmates of the camp were shot and their bodies burned on a pyre of logs they themselves had been forced to build. The following day the Red Army reached the area and the only survivor among the six witnesses dug up Kruk’s buried diary.

After the war the notion of a Jewish Diaspora as a legitimate and vivid trans-European culture died. Now all that remained of the old Diaspora was a useful excuse which militant nationalist Israelis appropriated for their own use.

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