Togbukh Fun Vilner Geto

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Diary by Herman Kruk, 1961

When Nazi Germany attacked the U.S.S.R. on 22 June 1941, Herman Kruk, a Warsaw refugee, vacillated for a moment. He considered if he should flee from the advancing Nazi hordes with the retreating Red Army or remain in Vilna, the Jerusalem of Lithuania, in whose unique Jewish society he had already become an active participant. Kruk cast his lot with that of Vilna Jewry. The first four pages of his diary from this period are missing. The first entry that has come down to us is dated 23 June 1941: "I shall remain [in Vilna]. And immediately I decide definitively: if I have chosen to remain and to become a victim of fascism, I will take my pen in hand and write a chronicle of a city … The Jews will be forced into the ghetto—I will record all of this. My chronicle has to see, has to hear and has to become the mirror and the conscience of this great catastrophe and of this difficult time."

From the moment the Germans entered Vilna, Kruk devoted himself without reservation to the dangerous task of secretly recording, on a daily basis, all he heard, saw, and learned of the life, struggle, suffering, and destruction of Vilna Jewry. It required great strength of character to record the most shattering acts of degradation, torture, and slaughter as they were happening. Kruk was empowered by an unflinching sense of historical responsibility to future generations to carry out his mission. He had no illusions. The diary attests to his foreboding of his own imminent death as well as of the imminent destruction of the surviving remnant of Vilna Jewry. At least ten times he writes that in case of his death the diary should be given to his brother, Pinkhos Schwartz in New York City, or to his surviving ideological comrades. Kruk found in his diary his refuge from the Nazi hell, "the hashish of my life in the ghetto."

Kruk's diary provides an authentic, detailed eyewitness account of the history of the Vilna ghetto from its inception until his last surviving entry, dated 14 July 1943, a month before the ghetto's final liquidation. (The succeeding pages of the diary have been lost.) He was particularly well placed to obtain access to the largest number of sources of information. The Vilna ghetto's underground resistance organization, FPO (Fareynikte Partizaner Organizatsye; United Partisan Organization), used the ghetto library, administered by Kruk, as a center of operations and supplied Kruk with information, as did his own party, the Jewish Labor Bund, especially through his friend Grisha Jaszunski, the bund's representative on the Judenrat. Jaszunski had an illegal, hidden radio in the ghetto. (Kruk himself was the first chairman of the underground bund committee in the ghetto.) At a later date the German-appointed "ghetto head," Jacob Gens, supplied Kruk with information. Kruk also met with Jews who left the Vilna ghetto to visit the smaller ghettos and labor camps in the vicinity, as well as with Jews from such points who entered the Vilna ghetto. He obtained additional information about these places from them. Kruk was sensitive to the changing mood of the ghetto population during the various phases of the Vilna ghetto's existence: during sudden deportations and massacre, in expectation of oncoming threatening events, during the pain and drudgery of daily life, and during the special moments of spiritual exaltation produced by the cultural activity and creativity that flourished in the ghetto. The diary is especially rich in its detailed account of the ghetto's cultural life, since the author played a central role in this area as vice chairman of the Union of Writers and Artists and as head of the ghetto library, art museum, and cultural center.

Kruk was an extremely conscientious chronicler. If he felt that he had insufficient information in a particular entry, he promised to expand it at a later date after culling additional facts. If he learned that he had recorded incorrect information, he returned to the entry and struck out the error. Kruk displayed a high degree of objectivity in his writing. He countered his own subjectivity concerning certain issues by including opposing opinions on the subjects.

When Kruk began his Vilna diary, he wrote it in one copy. About a month after the Vilna Jewry was forced into the ghetto, Kruk reopened the library of the Hevrah Mefitsei Haskalah on Strashun Street as the ghetto library. There he began to dictate his daily entries to his secretary, Rokhl Mendelsund Kowarsky. From that time onward she typed the diary in three copies. The poet Abraham Sutzkever says that one copy was kept in the library, a second was sent out of the ghetto to a friend of Kruk who was a Roman Catholic priest, and the third, with its appended documents, was deposited in a metal container in a bunker on Shavl Street. When Sutzkever returned to liberated Vilna in July 1944, he searched for Kruk's hidden ghetto diary. The bunker had been blown up and the metal container was empty, but scattered pages of the diary were strewn throughout the bunker. Sutzkever rescued 380 pages from Soviet Vilna and had them smuggled out to the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York. In 1959, when the YIVO Institute was in the midst of preparing the surviving sections of the diary for publication, an additional 130 pages were found in the archives of Yad Vashem in Jerusalem and were integrated into the text. Documents that Kruk had appended to various pages but that had been lost were found in the YIVO Institute's Vilna Ghetto Archive, known as the Kaczerginski-Sutzkever Collection. The diary was published in Yiddish in 1961 under the title Togbukh fun Vilner geto ("Diary of the Vilna Ghetto").

—Eugene Orenstein