Scroll of Agony: The Warsaw Diary Of Chaim A. Kaplan

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Diary by Chaim Aron Kaplan, 1965

Chaim Aron Kaplan's Warsaw diary was first published in English in 1965. In 1999 it was edited and translated by Abraham I. Katsh and published in English as Scroll of Agony: The Warsaw Diary of Chaim A. Kaplan. Originally written in Hebrew, it begins with the invasion of Poland on 1 September 1939 and concludes on 4 August 1942 during the "great action" that started on 22 July 1942, in the course of which more than 300,000 Jews were deported from the Warsaw Ghetto, the great majority of them to Treblinka, where they were gassed on their arrival.

Kaplan's diary is one of many journals and diaries written in the Warsaw Ghetto that have survived. The most famous include the journal of the historian and archivist Emmanuel Ringelblum and the diaries of Abraham Lewin and of the chairman of the Judenrat, Adam Czerniakow . Even in this exalted company, Kaplan's diary has a special place. Alvin H. Rosenfeld has identified a threefold focus in Kaplan's writing: the cruelty of the Nazis, the helplessness and misery of the Jews, and the passivity and acquiescence of the majority of Poles. The most striking aspect to a modern reader, however, is not so much Kaplan's description of Nazi cruelty but his almost uncanny prescience as early as 1939 and 1940 of the fatal consequences of the German invasion of Poland for Polish Jewry and his identification of the central role played by Nazi ideology in sealing their fate. As early as 1 December 1939, Kaplan noted that, although everything the German forces did bore "the imprint of confusion and illogic," nevertheless, "the Nazis are consistent and systematic only with regard to the central concepts behind their actions—that is, the concept of authoritarianism and harshness; and in relation to the Jews—the concept of complete extermination and destruction."

Many of Kaplan's ideas about the origins of Nazi anti-Semitism anticipated those adopted at a later date by Raul Hilberg and others: "Nazism found the primeval matter of religious hatred all prepared as a heritage of the Middle Ages. It merely reinforced it with economic hatred, in which it mixed … bits of ideology … from Houston Stewart Chamberlain, and from other bigots and racists."

Kaplan repeatedly emphasized the ideological basis of the Nazis' persecution of the Jews: "Their barbarism in relation to the Jews is ideological; and here lies the source of the evil. Ideological filth is hard to vanquish." This distinguishes him from most other diarists and memoirists, who tend to highlight the cruel behavior of particular individuals rather than the ideology underlying their actions. It also disproves the argument that Holocaust victims were always too close to the events to be capable of understanding them. Kaplan could not, of course, know with any degree of certainty what was to happen over the next few years, but this did not prevent him from understanding very clearly the essentials of what was really happening to the Jews and also what, barring the miracle of a speedy military defeat of the Nazis, was most likely to happen to them in the near future. In March 1940 Kaplan set out an analysis of German anti-Semitism showing that for the masses it was a hatred of emotion: "They have absorbed their masters' teaching in a concrete corporeal form." For the Nazi leaders, however, "Judaism and Nazism are two world outlooks, neither of which is compatible with the other, and for this reason they cannot live together." Given his understanding of Nazi ideology, Kaplan had no illusions about the true purpose of ghettoization: "[The concentration of Jews] will make it easier for the murderers to destroy them, not one by one but wholesale."

Kaplan employed the literary device of an imaginary friend called Hirsch, who presents the hopeless but realistic aspect of the situation of the Jews in the ghetto. Hirsch pulls no punches. From his first appearance in May 1942, he rails against the illusions of false hope, and his message is simple but devastating: "'Idiots! … Your hope is vain; your trust a broken reed. All of you are already condemned to die, only the date of execution has yet to be set."' There is no patience here with the notion that illusions are a symptom of the will to survive, sheltering people from total despair. Hirsch's prophesies of doom have a biblical flavor, and echoes of the Jeremiah of Lamentations can sometimes be heard in Kaplan's prose.

—Alan Polak