Vittel Diary (Pinkas Vitel)

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VITTEL DIARY (Pinkas Vitel)

Diary by Yitzhak Katzenelson, 1964

Yitzhak Katzenelson's Vittel Diary (1972; Pinkas Vitel, 1964) is much more a jeremiad of exceptional power than it is a diary. This work, which was composed in 1943 in Vittel, an internment camp in eastern France, has relatively little to say about life in this comparatively benign place. The greatest horror that Vittel had to offer to the inhabitants was the real and ever-present fear of being declared stateless and deported to a death camp. That is what, in fact, did happen to Katzenelson and his eldest son who was incarcerated in Vittel with him; both were deported to Auschwitz, where they were murdered. In terms of specific and concrete historical information,

Katzenelson's Vittel Diary has quite a lot to say about the destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto, to which he was an eyewitness as well as being involved with the resistance. It should be mentioned that by 1942 Katzenelson was well informed and fully aware of what was happening to European Jewry. He also learned that his wife and two younger sons had been deported to a concentration camp where, he assumed with good reason, they had been separated from each other, stripped naked, and gassed. The overarching structure, theme, and style of this work are informed by Katzenelson's need to give voice to the ineffable anguish and devastation he feels at the loss of the two things he loves most dearly: the Jewish people and his family.

Many interesting themes are developed with exceptional passion and originality in Vittel Diary. Among them is his assessment of the importance and spiritual beauty of Jews and Judaism. His view of Jews makes it even more agonizing for him to witness their destruction. The essential purity and decency of the Jews contrasts with and intensifies the vileness of their persecutors. In an interesting extended argument, he reclaims Jesus as a Jew. He sees Jesus as just one Jew among many just like him and asserts that Christians stole him for their god and ultimately perverted his true spirit: "Christianity seized hold of one of our Jesuses and used him as if he was their own … After seizing one, out of the many Jesuses, they slew him. This dead Jew was converted into a dainty dish, made just as their spirit moved them and to their taste." This brief passage only gives a hint of the argument intended to explain anti-Semitism and Christian iniquity.

As the above passage suggests, Katzenelson, who has witnessed the callous and sadistic murder of large numbers of Jews and who is keenly aware of the nearly completed destruction of European Jewry, seems consumed with a need to identify and condemn all those who are culpable. He refuses to limit the blame to those who are most immediately and conspicuously involved in the murders: "In truth, however, it is the whole wicked German nation which willed and committed the acts of murder and abomination. They ratified all these acts and indeed willed them. The S.S. were the obedient emissaries of the most evil community on earth and they executed their mission most faithfully." Katzenelson's accusations are ultimately leveled against a wide variety of groups and nations, including the Allies, all of whom he sees as either guilty of complicity in or, at best, indifferent to the fate of the Jews. Jews are by no means spared his condemnation. He not only singles out the Jewish police and all those Jews who collaborated with the Nazis but also sees both the Bundists and Aguda as sharing responsibility for the defenselessness and hence the demise of European Jewry. Although these two groups subscribed to antithetical beliefs or ideologies, they were both anti-Zionist, and Katzenelson sees a Jewish home-land as the only means to have escaped the Holocaust. Indeed, had there been a Jewish homeland, no one would have dared to threaten Jews in this way. Katzenelson faults these Jews not only for rejecting a Jewish homeland because it could have served as a safe haven but also because they, and all advocates of assimilation, have alienated Jews from their true culture and being. They have thus made them unable to defend themselves because they lack a knowledge and true appreciation of their identity.

Vittel Diary is unusual, if not unique, in the combination of anguish, knowledge, and insight that the author exhibits in his effort to give voice to and preserve an event of unspeakable horror. Reading this book is an agonizing experience, redeemed only by how successfully Katzenelson captures and preserves his experience of this event. After all, the diary makes quite clear that the author hopes against all hope that somehow some Jews will survive and that the world will remember and care what happened to the rest. Some Jews did survive; and Vittel Diary survived to compel all who read it to care.

—Manfred R. Jacobson