Trunk, Isaiah

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TRUNK, ISAIAH (Yesha'ah ; 1905–1981), historian in Poland and U.S. Trunk was the last major representative of the Eastern European Jewish historians who were trained before the Holocaust and worked primarily in Yiddish.

Born in Kutno, Poland, he was a descendant of the Trunk rabbinical family of that city. He received his master's degree in history from the University of Warsaw in 1929, and joined the Warsaw "Circle of Young Historians" (later a branch of yivo) led by Emanuel Ringelblum and Rafael Mahler. He taught history and Latin for the Central Yiddish School Organization in Bialystok and Warsaw until the German invasion of 1939. During World War II, he took refuge in the Soviet Union, and returned to Poland in 1946, serving as a leader of the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw from 1948 to 1950. Trunk lived in Israel from 1951 to 1953 and helped to found the research archives at Ghetto Fighters House. In 1953, he became director of the Peretz-Shul in Calgary, Canada. In 1954, he settled permanently in New York City, where he became a research associate and, later, chief archivist at yivo.

Trunk's works reflect three areas of interest. In accordance with the research program of Ringelblum and Mahler, his earliest works are histories of Jewish communities in Poland, based on archival sources, including A yidishe kehile in Poyln baym sof 18tnyorhundert: Kutno (1934), Geshikhte fun di yidn in Plotsk, 1237–1567 (1939), and monographs on Polish-Jewish history published in the leading Yiddish journals of pre-war Poland. A common feature is his emphasis on the "internal" aspects of Jewish life, including the economic, legal, cultural, religious, and social organization of Jewish communities.

After World War ii, Trunk focused on Jewish life during the Holocaust. His research concerned daily life in the ghettos of German-occupied Europe and problems of health, education, social life, self-government, and resistance. These are exemplified by his "Shtudye tsu der geshikhte fun yidn in 'varteland' in der t'kufe fun umkum, 1939–1944" (1948) and Lodzsher geto: a historishe un sotsyologishe shtudye (1962).

Trunk is best known for his comprehensive study of imposed Jewish governing bodies, Judenrat: The Jewish Councils in Eastern Europe Under Nazi Occupation (1972), which won the 1973 National Book Award for history. Here, Trunk extended his research to continue a project commenced by his colleague Philip Friedman, who died in 1960. Trunk based his work on archival records of Jewish councils, Nazi government documents, and questionnaires of ghetto survivors. He dealt with the contentious moral issue of whether the Councils were complicit, from the time of their initial planning of ghetto life, in aiding in the destruction of Jews within their realms. Trunk found the actions of most Council leaders to rest on sound, but inapplicable, historical experience. He concluded that Jewish survival would not have been greater if Jews had refused to participate in the Councils. He wrote this work at a time when Hannah Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil had charged that Jewish leadership enabled the Germans to annihilate the Jews.

This book was the subject of a symposium in 1975 in which the leading Holocaust historians of the time debated the role of the Councils (see bibl.: Bauer). Trunk also compiled and edited a collection of survivors' accounts in Jewish Responses to Nazi Persecution (1979). Additional Holocaust studies appeared in Yiddish and Hebrew journals and encyclopedias.

Trunk's third area of interest was Jewish historiography. He published studies of Russian-Jewish historiography and the role of yivo in Jewish historiography as well as critical appreciations of many Eastern European Jewish historians of his and the preceding generation, including Simon Dubnov, Meir Balaban, Ringelblum, Mahler, and Friedman.

Trunk compiled three collections of his Yiddish historical essays: Geshtaltn un gesheenishn (1962), Shtudyes in yidisher geshikhte in poyln (1963), and Geshtaltn un gesheenishn [naye serye] (1983). His personal papers may be found in the yivo special collections.


lnyl, 4 (1961) 128–30; Y. Kermish (preface), in: Y. Trunk, Geshtaltn un Gesheenishn [naye serye] (1983), 7–16; Imposed Governing Bodies Under Nazi Rule: yivo Colloquium (1972); Y. Bauer and N. Rotenstreich (eds.), The Holocaust as Historical Experience (1981).

[Mark L. Smith (2nd ed.)]