Surviving the Holocaust: The Kovno Ghetto Diary (Geto Yom-Yom: Yoman Umismakhim Mi-Geto Kovnah)

views updated

SURVIVING THE HOLOCAUST: THE KOVNO GHETTO DIARY (Geto yom-yom: Yoman umismakhim mi-Geto Kovnah)

Diary by Avraham Tory, 1988

Surviving the Holocaust by Avraham Tory is one of the most detailed and significant of the ghetto diaries to survive the war, described as "a document of major importance." Buried in a cellar, some of it was lost, but the bulk was recovered shortly after the liberation of Kovno in August 1944. Written in Yiddish, it was first published in Hebrew translation in 1988 and in English in 1990.

The first diary entry is written at midnight 22 June 1941, the day of the German invasion of Soviet Russia. For the remaining months of 1941 the entries are sparse. During 1942 Tory wrote brief entries on a regular basis, most of a paragraph or less in length. The bulk of the diary covers 1943, the last period of the ghetto's existence. The longer diary entries begin in January 1943, providing almost a daily record to August; there are less frequent entries until October, when regular entries cease. Most of the 1943 entries are in the range of 500-1,500 words, some being more than 3,000 words in length. There is one lengthy entry for January 1944 detailing the testimony of an escapee from the Ninth Fort who had been engaged for months in the task of destroying evidence of Nazi crimes, burning bodies previously left buried.

The English edition, translated by Jerzy Michalowicz, edited by Martin Gilbert, with textual and historical notes by Dina Porat, contains a number of other sources interspersed with diary entries in chronological order. Such additional sources include originals of German orders, council notices, the Last Testament of Dr. Elchanan Elkes, a few memoirs written by Tory during 1944-45 after his liberation, and a brief account written in 1988 detailing the successful attempt to hide the presence of typhus from the Germans. There are also 49 photographs, 12 portraits, facsimile pages of the diary, and nine maps.

The chief feature of the diary is its penetrating insight into daily life covering a period of more than two years, not only within the ghetto but also beyond as Tory exercised a freedom available to few to travel among the non-Jewish population.

The diary provides day-to-day accounts of life in periods of relative quiet and extended accounts of times of crisis. We learn of the thought processes of those trapped, of rumors that spread like wildfire, of rationalizations and denials of those desperate to find reassurance. A detailed memoir written in 1944 recalls the "action" of 28 October 1941. First, the Council of Elders is instructed to order all residents to assemble at 6:00 in the morning. Tortured argument over compliance ensues, ultimately resolved by rabbinical authority. A daylong process of selection, seemingly interminable, follows, to separate 10,000 from the ghetto population of 27,000. The next morning those spared watch the doomed. Isolated overnight, they are formed into columns, from first to last taking six hours to march past the ghetto boundary en route to the killing site in the Ninth Fort.

Detailed conversations and interactions with those placed in authority are recorded, as are German decrees. Religious observance is to cease. Those who die in the ghetto are to be buried without identification names on the graves. Hearses are not to be pulled by horses. The six cows in the ghetto may be kept, but milk produced is to be surrendered. Books are to be handed over to the Organisation for the Confiscation of Jewish Books. Pregnancy—the bearing of Jewish children—is outlawed.

The attempts to make sense of events in the outside world are noted. One source of information is the radio kept by the underground. Other information comes from the Lithuanian population, Jews managing to travel from ghetto to ghetto, survivors of massacres seeking shelter, the engine driver of a trainload of Jews unloaded at Ponar, escapees from the Ninth Fort. And then there is the evidence of the senses: a returning party of Gestapo killers, "their machine guns and combat rifles … blackened with burned cordite … bloodstains on their clothing and on their weapons."

We are introduced to individuals numbered in the hundreds—so many that the book calls out for, but does not contain, a biographical guide. They include Dr. Elkes, Oberjude (Chief Jew); Chaim Yellin (Yelin), leader of partisan groups; Joseph Caspi, Zionist, anti-Bolshevik, associate of the Gestapo, exempted from the wearing of the yellow badge, allowed to live in the city and carry firearms; a Christian woman married to a Jew who opts to share his fate, walking through the ghetto with the yellow badge on her clothing, golden crucifix around her neck; Irena Adamovich, Polish Catholic courier who in July 1942 brought news of massacres and of the extermination camps of Belzec, Sobibor, and Majdanek.

In the midst of terrible days the will to live remains undiminished. Tory writes that "despite the seven chambers of hell that the Jews have gone through, our spirit has not been ended or crushed." In July 1943 Zionists celebrated the birthday of Theodor Herzl, rising to their feet to sing the "Hatikvah," hearts filled with joy, tears flowing, crying aloud, "Our hope is not yet lost."

—Andrew Markus