The Diary of the Vilna Ghetto: June 1941-April 1943 (Yomano Shel Na'ar Mi-Vilnah: Yuni 1941-April 1943)
THE DIARY OF THE VILNA GHETTO: JUNE 1941-April 1943 (Yomano shel na'ar mi-Vilnah: Yuni 1941-April 1943)
Diary by Yitskhok Rudashevski, 1968
Portions of the diary that Yitskhok Rudashevski kept in the Vilna ghetto were first published in 1953 in their original Yiddish in volume 15 of the Yiddish journal Di Goldene Keyt (The Golden Chain). A Hebrew translation of the diary was published in 1968, and the complete English edition appeared in 1973 under the title The Diary of the Vilna Ghetto: June 1941-April 1943.
Before the war Vilna had been a major center of Jewish learning. Even after the Nazi invasion, the Vilna ghetto continued to be a place where Jews engaged in the study of letters as long as they were alive. Despite his young age—he was 13 at the time of the Nazi onslaught—Yitskhok was heavily involved in learning. He belonged to a circle of Yiddish writers, for example, and declared that "ghetto folklore which is amazingly cultivated in blood, and which is scattered over the little streets, must be collected and cherished as a treasure for the future." He recorded the establishment of a Jewish historical society in the ghetto on 10 November 1942, and he was careful to note the literary celebration on 13 December 1942 that was held in honor of the circulation of the 100,000th book from the ghetto library, adding, "The book unites us with the future, the book unites us with the world."
As he wrote his own book, then, Yitskhok exhibited a deep understanding of the significance of the book for history and for humanity. To be sure, he saw a definitive connection between the status of the book and the status of the human being. "Into what kind of helpless, broken creature can man be transformed?" he asks. Of course, in Vilna the Jews were not just broken, they were murdered—primarily at Ponary—and Yitskhok's diary bears witness to the meaning of Ponary from beginning to end. In the fall of 1941 he wrote, "Ponar[y]—the word with a wound written in blood … Ponar[y] is the same as a nightmare, a nightmare which accompanies the gray strand of our ghetto-days." And in one of the diary's last entries, dated 5 April 1943, he noted, "Around 5,000 persons were not taken to Kovno as promised but transported by train to Ponar[y] where they were shot."
Like many Holocaust diaries, Yitskhok's also chronicles the assault on the holy within the human as that assault is carried out on the holy days. On Yom Kippur 1941, for example, he recorded the uprooting of several thousand people from the ghetto and added, "These people never came back." The Yom Kippur roundup was followed by one of many pogroms, whereupon he wrote, "The old synagogue courtyard is pogromized. Phylacteries, religious books, rags are scattered under one's feet." And on Yom Kippur 1942 he affirmed that, even though he was not religious, "This holiday drenched in blood and sorrow which is solemnized in the ghetto, now penetrates my heart." The holiday penetrated his heart because the holiness of the holiday manifested itself through the human beings who embraced it, and those human beings had been murdered.
Yitskhok's youth found eloquent expression in his longing for a place in the world; indeed, that is one reason books were so dear to him. The more intense the destruction of the world, the more intense the longing. Seeing how ruined lives paralleled ruined families, homes, and buildings, he cried out, "How much tragedy and anguish is mirrored in every shattered brick, in every dark crack, in every bit of plaster with a piece of wallpaper." As a natural longing for a sense of place, his longing is also a yearning for nature. He joined a nature group and declared, "We are not cut off from nature in spirit." And in the spring of 1943, the year of his death, he wrote, "I revel in the spring breeze, catch the spring rays and my heart is full of strange yearning." Those who have been young know that yearning. Reading Yitskhok's diary, one realizes that even such yearning was subject to annihilation.
Hauntingly prescient, Yitskhok's diary ends with the words, "We may be fated for the worst." The question confronting the reader who comes to the end of this testimony is, "What will be the fate of his diary?"