The Warsaw Diary of Adam Czerniaków

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Diary by Adam Czerniaków, 1968

The first edition of Adam Czerniaków's notes was published in Hebrew translation, in Jerusalem, in 1968. It was published in English as The Warsaw Diary of Adam Czerniaków in 1979. The notes of the chairman of the Jewish Council in occupied Warsaw consist of eight notebooks, with 1,056 pages in total. They cover the period from September 1939 to 23 July 1942—the second day of the great deportations of the Warsaw Jews to Treblinka, when Czerniaków committed suicide. There were originally nine notebooks, but the fifth one (14 December 1940-22 April 1941) was lost.

Czerniaków kept his notes with surprising consistence—day after day, in a laconic, informative style, focusing on his efforts to improve the situation of the Warsaw Jews. This is the only such reliable source informing about the everyday ghetto administration and of the economic, health, and psychical condition of the people condemned to death. His notes reflect all the phases of exploitation of the Jews and present the picture of the ghetto's stratification: people dying of starvation, diseases, poverty, and lice, as well as rich people and those collaborating with the Germans. Czerniaków writes also about the instances of anti-Semitism among the people of Warsaw.

As the critics (Kersz, Zimand, Fuks) agree, the diary seems to be a collection of notes for the future study on the war history of the Warsaw Jews. Hence their briefness and focus on facts, names, and numbers. It looks as if the author wanted to jot down the essential information while preserving in his memory its interpretation and evaluation. It is also argued that the purpose of gathering the notes could have been to secure the material for the future defense against the possible accusations of collaboration, since it should be remembered that the Germans used the Judenrats for executing their extermination policy. Czerniaków's role was equivocally perceived among the Jews. He met not only with respect of his compatriots but also with unfavorable comments and jokes.

But history is not the only dimension of that unique diary. This is also a document of engineer Czerniaków—a man that history entrusted with an unusual mission, which he was trying to fulfill with sacrifice. It consisted in governing the Jewish community condemned to extermination. The author and the protagonist of the diary is a tragic figure. Seven days a week, often risking his life, he was trying to minimize the cruelty of the German ordinances, believing all the time in the purpose of his effort and the chance to save at least some of the Jews. When his illusions were shuttered, he committed suicide. Thus Czerniaków's diary also should be read as the story of his decision. We know that from the first days in the office he had some cyanide prepared. He was ready to face death any day, especially since he was arrested and beaten by the Gestapo and knew that it could happen again.

Publishers term Czerniaków's notes as a diary, which reflects the manner of their writing on a day-to-day basis. Their utterly reduced private aspect and the lack of introspection and wider commentaries, however, require a more precise title. The publisher from Yad Vashem called Czerniaków's work Joman geto Warsza ("Warsaw Ghetto Diary"), which may suggest its being synonymous to a chronicle. This association is not unauthorized, since the majority of Czerniaków's notes deal with his activity connected with his social role. And it so happens that the history of the chairman of the Jewish Council's efforts overlaps with that of the ghetto. Although the first sentence, "At night I did not sleep from 12 to 5 a.m.," is typical of an intimate diary, the further notes do not follow that generic pattern. This largely results from the fact that his function determined the nature of that record. He knew that the diary could be confiscated and read by the enemy. That is why Czerniaków's notes are governed by the secrecy rule, which involves the lack of commentaries and omission of entire areas of the ghetto life, such as politics, whose revealing could be dangerous not only for the author but also for the community. Also the incessant work imposes the constraint of briefness. He never knew which note would be the last.

The composition and literary values of Czerniaków's diary are frequently emphasized. The critics notice its literariness in the forms of individual notes, in the concealment rule, in the selection of material, and in the use of literary allusions. There is certainly no answer to the question when a given text becomes a piece of literature. In this case, however, literariness is a secondary feature, which can mostly be identified owing to its being placed within the historical and personal context, since in the face of the menace of history, the laconic style or even the regular occurrence of the notes concerning temperature may be perceived by a contemporary reader as literary devices.

—Kazimierz Adamczyk