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Chaim Kaplan
Chaim Kaplan
"The time may come when these words will be published… Listen, and you
will hear."
(Chaim Kaplan - 20 February 1940)

From; The Terrible Choice
Some Contemporary Jewish Responses to the Holocaust

There is a
long and deep-rooted tradition among Jews of recording
their persecutions. During the Crusades and at the time of the
Chmielnicki massacres in 1648-1649, Jews graphically recorded these
afflictions for posterity. But never has so much been written by Jews
who were condemned by a ruthless and remorseless persecutor as during
the Shoah. Literally hundreds of people maintained records of daily
life under Nazi occupation. Sometimes these were collective and
organized, such as the Oneg Shabbat Archive in Warsaw, the Chronicle
of the Lodz Ghetto, or the Archive of the Bialystok Ghetto. Other
individuals maintained personal diaries or journals recording the
horrors of daily life – Emanuel Ringelblum in Warsaw, Avraham Tory in
Kovno, Herman Kruk in Vilna, to name only a few. An unknown number
these diaries were lost, along with their authors. Among those works
which survived was the diary of Chaim Aron Kaplan.

The importance of these works cannot be overstated. Written at the
time of the events described, or shortly afterwards, they have an
immediacy and reality that survivors, sometimes writing years later,
were not always able to recreate. They provide an authentic and
reliable source of the daily anxieties, deprivations and torments
through which their authors lived. None does this to greater effect
than the diary of Chaim Kaplan.

Chaim Aron Kaplan was born in Horodyszcze in 1880, then part of the
Russian Empire, and today the town of Gorodishche in Belarus. He
attended cheder (Hebrew classes) as a boy and received a traditional
education, going on to study at the famous Yeshivas of Mir, Minsk and
Lida, before continuing his studies at the government pedagogical
institute for teachers in Vilna. In 1900, Kaplan became involved in
the secular Jewish school movement and moved to Warsaw, where, in
1905, he founded a secular Hebrew elementary school which he ran for
the next thirty-four years. He visited the United States in 1921 and
produced a number of books, including a Hebrew Grammar in 1926,
followed two years later by a Passover Haggadah for children. The
latter work included a lengthy introduction on Passover customs among
Jewish communities around the world, and was also published in Warsaw
in Hebrew, Yiddish, and Polish as well as being reprinted after the
war in a Hebrew edition. Kaplan visited Palestine in 1936 with the
intention of settling there. His two children had emigrated earlier,
and Kaplan hoped to join them, but he was unable to obtain a position
and returned to Warsaw.

He began his first diary in 1933, and the initial entry of his wartime
record, on the very first day of the Second World War, contains a
frighteningly accurate prediction of the horrors to come:

"…This war will indeed bring destruction upon human civilization. But
this is a civilization which merits annihilation and destruction.
There is no doubt that Hitlerian Nazism will ultimately be defeated,
for in the end the civilized nations will rise up to defend the
liberty which the German barbarians seek to steal from mankind.
However, I doubt that we will live through this carnage. The bombs
filled with lethal gas will poison every living being, or we will
starve because there will be no means of livelihood…" (1 September

It was by no means the last of his unerringly precise predictions. On
Hitler's declaration of war with the United States, he wrote: "Over
the radio today came the declaration that `behind Roosevelt stands
world Jewry.' As always, no matter what the trouble, the Jews are
responsible. Henceforth, the stupid Nazis will insist that Germany is
at war with world Jewry. They will say that on the one hand is
Bolshevist Russia which was created by Jews, and on the other is
plutocratic America, which is controlled by Jews." (12 December 1941).

Kaplan's diary is notable for its insight into the nature of Nazi
anti-Semitism, as well as its frank and astute observations about the
Warsaw Jewish community, the Judenrat and Jewish police, and the
recording of Nazi policies, amongst many other things. From the very
beginning of the Nazi occupation, Kaplan sought to uncover a larger
overall aim out of the host of unpredictable and malicious decrees
imposed by the conquerors. Kaplan sensed the disastrous implication of
initial Nazi edicts at an extraordinarily early stage of the
occupation: "A long, long time will pass before our lives become
liveable again". (7 September 1939), and "We are at the mercy of
shameless murderers." (4 October 1939). When the Judenrat was ordered
to conduct a full census of the Jewish population less than a month
after the Nazi occupation of Warsaw, Kaplan commented: "For what
purpose? Nobody knows. But it is certain it is not for the benefit of
the Jews. Our hearts tell us that a catastrophe for the Jewry of
Poland is hidden in this demand" (16 October 1939). By the end of
October 1939, Kaplan suspected the worst, writing, "Blatant signs
prove that some terrible catastrophe, unequalled in Jewish history, is
in store for Polish Jewry" (25 October 1939). He further commented,
"Under the cloak of black-marketeering they will utterly destroy us "
(27 October1939).

Kaplan understood almost immediately that "in the eyes of the
conquerors we are outside the category of human beings… The plan in
general shows no pity towards the Jews " (28 October 1939). He
lamented: "It is hard to watch the death of an entire community…" (23
November 1939). One week later, Kaplan foresaw that "the liquidation
of Polish Jewry is in full force… The concept of complete
extermination and destruction" was to be applied to the Jews (1
December 1939). In projecting German intentions, Kaplan's ability to
read Hitler's thoughts was uncanny: "`Many projects have been
undertaken by me [Hitler] which no statesman would have dared to think
possible, and they were successful. In the destruction of the Jews as
well, I will show wonders that my predecessors never imagined.'" (9
February 1940). By 6 July 1940, with the fall of France his pessimism
grew: "… If the war drags on we are doomed to destruction… A new line
of attack has appeared lately… The Jews caused [the war] in order to
bring destruction on the Reich… There are more terrible rumours of
cruel edicts… The agenda includes a ghetto, degradation to the point
of strangulation."

Any extracts from the diary can provide no more than a brief
introduction to Kaplan's eloquent style and his determination to
retain objectivity despite the harrowing nature of the events he
describes. Only by reading the diary in its entirety can this be fully
appreciated. But however terrible the circumstances, belief in some
kind of salvation is never entirely absent: "Even though we are now
undergoing terrible tribulations and the sun has grown dark for us at
noon, we have not lost our hope that the era of light will surely
come. Our existence as a people will not be destroyed, but the Jewish
community will live on." (26 October 1939); "A nation which for
thousands of years said daily, `And even if he tarries, I will await
the coming of the Messiah every day,' will not weaken in its hope,
which has been a balm of life and has strengthened it in its miserable
survival." (30 January 1940); "The cold is so intense that my fingers
are often too numb to hold a pen. There is no coal for heating and
electricity is sporadic or nonexistent. In the oppressive dark and
unbearable cold you mind stops functioning. Yet even in such a state
of despair the human spirit is variable. The call for a free tomorrow
rings in your ears and penetrates the bleakness in your heart. At such
a moment one's love of life reawakens. Having come this far I must
make the effort to go on to the end of the spectacle." (15 January

There is defiance of a merciless enemy too: "… With my own eyes I saw
the `badge of shame'… It is a yellow patch on which it is written
`Jude', sewn to one of the coat lapels… I advised that each Jew add,
next to the word `Jude', the words `Mein Stolz' [my pride]." (17
November 1939); "The words of the prophet have almost come true: `No
weapon that is formed against thee shall prosper.'" (26 January 1940).
And, on occasion, even a glimpse of gallows humour: " A Polish Jew
says: `It is enough that I won't eat after I die. Then I'll have no
other choice, But as long as I'm alive, let them make any law they
like, as long as they don't ban eating.'" (9 May 1940).

He was appalled by the prospect of the creation of a ghetto: "What has
today brought us? Nothing less than a Jewish ghetto! A ghetto in
Jewish Warsaw! Who could have believed it?" (5 November 1939). The
establishment of the ghetto was deferred; the reprieve was temporary:
"At almost every intersection that does not have trolley tracks, the
Judenrat is putting up… a thick dividing wall which leaves no room to
pass…" (18 May 1940); "We sense in all our being that we are drawing
near a fateful hour in our history." (20 June 1940); "There is no
formal ghetto in Warsaw for the time being, but in practice a ghetto
exists." (27 June 1940); "The business of the ghetto is cropping up
again… It is a prolonged agony, a lingering death." (26 September
1940). Then the dreaded day arrived: "…At last the ghetto edict has
gone into effect. For the time being it will be an open ghetto, but
there is no doubt that in short order it will be closed…120,000 people
will be driven out of their homes and will have to find sanctuary and
shelter within the walls. Where will we put this great mass of people?
Most of them are wealthy, accustomed to beautiful apartments and lives
of comfort, and they will be totally impoverished from now on…" (12
October 1940). Still, there was a morsel of hope, as he speculated:
"Will it be a closed ghetto?… A closed ghetto means gradual death. An
open ghetto is only a halfway catastrophe." (24 October 1940), only to
have his worst fears realised: "… In all the thoroughfares leading to
the `Aryan' quarters, high walls are being erected… Before our eyes a
dungeon is being built in which half a million men, women, and
children will be imprisoned, no one knows for how long." (10 November
1940); and finally: "What we dreaded most has come to us… We went to
bed in the `Jewish quarter', and the next morning we awoke in a closed
Jewish ghetto, a ghetto in every detail." (17 November 1940).

With the creation of the ghetto, Kaplan devoted many of his diary
entries to describing the anguish of everyday life. He had no
illusions – "I am completely broken… A community of half a million
people is doomed to die, and awaits execution of their sentence." (26
November 1940); "All along the sidewalks, on days of cold so fierce as
to be unendurable, entire families bundled up in rags wander about,
not begging, but merely moaning with heartrending voices." (18 January
1941); "It is hard to endure the agony of Polish Jewry." (27 February
1941); "In reality, we don't have a ghetto, but rather a madhouse. We
are imprisoned within the walls and cut off from the entire outside
world." (11 March 1941); "The members of the ghetto condemned to die,
want to enjoy life as long as breath remains within them… Of all the
beauties of nature only one remnant is to be found in [our] possession
– the blue sky over our heads." (17 June 1942).

Kaplan was particularly dismayed by the insensitive treatment of the
dead, so at odds with the teachings of Judaism: "Every great man or
leader of his people who passes on in these evil times is carried to
his grave alone, with his death and burial unknown to anyone. (6
August 1940);

"No one pays any attention to funerals… no one turns to watch… or pays
any attention to the fact that in the coffin which goes by… lies one
of the victims of starvation. Sometimes several corpses are placed in
one coffin… And there is one madman in the ghetto who runs after every
coffin, shouting: `Did the departed leave his bread card?'" (13 March
1941). Kaplan returned to this theme a few months later: "In normal
times burial was in the hands of the Jewish community, undertaken by
the Judenrat…Not so now. Wherever you turn you see offices for burial
arrangements. In front of each stands the black wagon, in sight of
all. This is the "quick aid" for human beings who died of starvation
and typhus and who now number many tens of thousands…This death
traffic makes no impression on anyone. Death has become a tangible
matter… The dead have lost their traditional importance and
sanctity…In a slaughterhouse the carcasses of the slaughtered calves
are handled more carefully than are human beings in the Warsaw
cemetery in the year 1941…" (9 October 1941).

The torment of hunger and the dread of disease were Kaplan's constant
companions in the ghetto: "Can we survive? That is the question
everyone asks… Logic would indicate that we are going to starve to
death." (25 January 1941); "Death from starvation has become a
commonplace in the ghetto… The road from life to death is a short one
these days." (6 March 1942); "…Hunger rules the ghetto. Anyone who
says that living human beings walk the ghetto streets is mistaken;
they are all skeletons! Except for the very few who can afford to
enjoy life even in these evil days, most of us have become
unrecognizable to our friends." (1 April 1942). "… When anyone dies,
the cause must be typhus. The number of fatalities is enormous. Some
families have lost half their number… But God plays no favourites. The
poor rally and recover, while the rich succumb and die." (10 October
1941); "The Warsaw ghetto suffers 10,000 deaths per month. At this
rate, in fifty months our entire ghetto will die out." (18 October

The overcrowded ghetto streets were a source of perpetual anxiety: "On
Karmelicka Street the congestion grows worse from day to day. Crossing
this thoroughfare, which joins two ghettos, you feel that you have
been catapulted into a pot that is boiling over. People push and shove
and elbow you until you are forced to step down to the cobble-stoned
gutter. There is a great confusion of pedestrians, street vendors,
overloaded porters, carriages and delivery carts, beggars and all
sorts of creatures whose proximity you cannot bear for fear of lice.
The fear of lice obsesses all of us, for the tiny creatures are the
carriers of typhus." (7 November 1941). A merciful death could come as
a blessed relief from the horrors of everyday life: "…Menachem Kipnis
died – an author, singer, and poet, who acquired great fame in his
lifetime…What was unusual about his death was that he did not die like
everyone else here, of hunger and privation. On the contrary…he died
of a stroke. This is a good death because it is a quick one. In the
ghetto everyone wishes a quick death for himself because death from
hunger is a slow one; its final agony is long and its sufferings
great…" (16 May 1942).

Kaplan's diary entries reflect the dreadful confirmation of what had
initially been whispered rumours of Nazi genocide: "Terrible rumours
reach us from the country. Dozens of Jewish towns have been burned,
wiped off the face pf the earth." (8 November 1939). He harboured no
doubt that "in the event of war with Russia…we are lost…the Jews will
immediately become the target of revenge" (13 March 1941). A year
later, when the war between Germany and the Soviet Union had arrived,
he wrote: "It is reported that the Führer has decided to rid Europe of
our whole people by simply having them shot to death… You just take
thousands of people to the outskirts of a city and shoot to kill; that
is all… In Vilna 40,000 Jews were shot to death… Had [Hitler] not
stated that if war erupted in Europe, the Jewish race would be
annihilated? This process has begun and will continue until the end is
achieved." (2 February 1942). Worse was to come: "I was told by an
acquaintance of mine who has seen the official documents that
thousands of Jews have been killed by poison gas. It was an experiment
to test its effectiveness." (23 February 1942).

By spring 1942, the details became more specific: "We tremble at the
mention of Lublin…An entire community of 44,000 Jews was plucked out
by the roots and slaughtered or dispersed…Thousands of Jews were
rounded up and led – where? Nobody knows…According to rumour they were
taken to Rawa Ruska and were electrocuted there…" (7 April 1942); "The
deportees are transported as prisoners in tightly sealed freight cars…
until they come to the place of execution, where they are killed…
About 40,000 Jews of Lublin have disappeared, and no one knows their
burial place… But there is no doubt that they are no longer alive." (
3 June 1942); "…A catastrophe will befall us at the hands of the Nazis
and they will wreak their vengeance on us for their final downfall.
The process of physical destruction of Polish Jewry has already
begun…Not a day goes by that the Nazis do not conduct a slaughter…The
rumours that reach us from the provincial towns are worse than the
tidings of Job…" (16 June 1942); "Every day Polish Jewry is being
brought to slaughter. It is estimated… that three-quarters of a
million Polish Jews have already passed from this earth… Some of them
are sent to a labour camp, where they survive for a month at the
outside… Some are shot; some are burned; some are poisoned with lethal
gas; some are electrocuted." (25 June 1942); "…It has been decreed and
decided in Nazi ruling circles to bring systematic physical
destruction upon the Jews of the General Government…The killing of
thousands of people has turned into a business that employs many
hands. After the souls expire, they strip the corpses. Their clothing,
shirts, and shoes are not wasted, but are collected in piles upon
piles and turned over for disinfection, mending, and repairs. Hundreds
of Jews are employed in these tasks…" (10 July 1942).

Kaplan recorded people's bewilderment and confusion as the end of the
ghetto approached, the dashed hopes of survival and the terror of
deportation: "There is an instinctive feeling that some terrible
catastrophe is drawing near for the Warsaw ghetto, though no one can
determine its time or details."(20 June 1942). There was a brief
moment of optimism: "The ghetto is quiet. All the terrible rumours are
false… When the rumours reached the ears of the Nazis, they were
angry." (20 July 1942). But then came the announcement of the
"resettlement": "I haven't the strength to hold a pen in my hand. I'm
broken, shattered…A whole community of 400,000 people condemned to
exile…" (22 July 1942). And the anguish of mass transportation: "The
seventh day of the expulsion. Living funerals pass before the windows
of my apartment – cattle trucks or coal wagons full of candidates for
expulsion and exile, carrying small bundles under their arms. Their
cries and shrieks and wails, which rent the very heavens and filled
the whole area with noise, have already stopped. Most of the deportees
seem resigned to their fate…" (30 July 1942). And finally: "Jewish
Warsaw is in its death throes. A whole community is going to its
death!" (2 August 1942)

Kaplan realised the historic value of his diary, but was plagued by
doubts about whether he was adequately recording events, and if so,
whether he, or it, would survive: "I sense within me the magnitude of
this hour, and my responsibility towards it… I am sure that Providence
sent me to fulfil this mission. My record will serve as source
material for the future historian." (16 January 1940); "I am afraid
that the impressions of this terrible era will be lost because they
have not been adequately recorded." (27 August 1940); "This journal is
my life, my friend and ally. I would be lost without it… In keeping
this diary I find spiritual rest. That is enough for me." (13 November
1941); "Some of my friends and acquaintances who know the secret of my
diary urge me, in their despair, to stop writing. `Why? For what
purpose? Will you live to see it published?'... And yet in spite of it
all I refuse to listen to them. I feel that continuing this diary… is
a historical mission which must not be abandoned." (26 July 1942); "My
utmost concern is for hiding my diary so that it will be preserved for
future generations." (31 July 1942). The final entry in the diary is
dated 4 August 1942: "If my life ends – what will become of my diary?"

Emanuel Ringelblum, that other great chronicler of the destruction of
Warsaw Jewry, knew of Kaplan's diary: "Several times I implored Kaplan
to let me preserve his diary, assuring him that after the war he would
get it back. The most he agreed was to have me copy the manuscript,
but that was a physical impossibility because of the hardships."
Ringelblum considered the diary to be an important and accurate
depiction of ghetto life.

Chaim Kaplan and his wife are believed to have perished in Treblinka
either shortly after his final diary entry, or in December 1942 or
January 1943. Before his deportation, Kaplan entrusted his diary to a
Jewish friend named Rubinsztejn, who was a forced labourer working
daily outside the ghetto. Rubinsztejn smuggled the notebooks out
singly and passed each one to Wladyslaw Wojcek, a Pole living in the
small village of Liw, near Warsaw. Wojcek subsequently immigrated to
the United States in 1962, taking the notebooks, mainly covering
pre-war years, with him. There the diaries were purchased by Abraham
I. Katsh for the New York University Jewish Cultural Foundation
Library of Judaica and Hebraica. Other volumes were acquired by the
Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw and by Moreshet, the Mordechai
Anielewicz Memorial Institute in Israel. The diary first appeared in
English in 1965 and one year later was published in Israel in the
original Hebrew. It was only in 1972 that the first comprehensive
edition of the diary was published.

Three months after the war had begun, Kaplan sensing what lay ahead
and what was required, had recorded what many would regard as his own

"Who will write of our troubles and who will immortalize them? Where
is the folk poet of Polish Jewry, who will gather all the tragedy in
our lives and perpetuate and guard it in the reliquary of his tears?"
(30 November 1939)



Kaplan, Chaim A. – Scroll of Agony – The Warsaw Diary of Chaim A.
Kaplan – Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis, 1999.

Gutman, Israel, ed. Encyclopedia of the Holocaust, Macmillan
Publishing Company, New York, 1990.