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Witness for the Prosecution

THE LAST DAYS OF THE JERUSALEM OF LITHUANIA: Chronicles From the Vilna Ghetto and the Camps, 1939-1944, By Herman Kruk, Edited by Benjamin Harshav, Translated from the Yiddish by Barbara Harshav, Yale University Press: 732 pp., $45

September 22, 2002|JAN T. GROSS | Jan T. Gross is the author of "Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland."

Real treasures, as we all know, lie buried. Herman Kruk's diary is a case in point. This seminal document of Holocaust literature, chronicling life in the ghetto of Vilna and in a labor camp in Estonia, was first published in Yiddish in 1961 and has, until now, never been published in English. Its belated publication is a powerful addition to the literature of the Shoah.

Vilna, the Yiddish name for the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius, was a thriving center of Jewish learning and Zionist activity. At the start of World War II, nearly 60,000 Jews lived there. The city had nearly 100 synagogues and six daily Jewish newspapers, as well as the first Yiddish academic institute, known as YIVO. All of this, however, was dismantled and destroyed when the Germans invaded the city in 1941, and by the time Russian troops entered the city in July 1944, only a few thousand of Vilna's Jews who had been subject to Nazi rule were still alive. Poet, diarist, librarian, Kruk did not survive, but his words did.

A member of the Bund, the Jewish Marxist party, Kruk lived in Warsaw until 1939, when he fled the German army and ended up in Vilna. He remained until the remnants of Vilna's Jews were transported to extermination camps in Estonia. He was killed in a mass execution Sept. 18, 1944, one day before the Soviet troops liberated Estonian camps. A chronicler of all that he saw and experienced, Kruk understood the importance of his work:

Neighbors in camp Klooga often ask me

Why do you write in such hard times?--

Why and for whom? ...

... For we won't live to see it anyway.

I know I am condemned and awaiting my turn,

Although deep inside me burrows a hope for a miracle.

Drunk on the pen trembling in my hand,

I record everything for future generations ....

Kruk buried the last installment of his manuscript a day before he was killed. One of the six friends who assisted in the burial survived and returned soon afterward to retrieve the document.

Kruk's writing comes to light after more than half a century lost in Soviet, YIVO and Israeli archives. YIVO had published a significant part of it in 1961. That it was hidden from the sight of most people interested in the subject makes the painstaking efforts of Benjamin and Barbara Harshav all the more valuable. Even so, at more than 700 pages, "The Last Days of the Jerusalem of Lithuania" will leave its readers eager for the next edition, for not only was Kruk an archivist but, in addition to keeping a diary, he collected documents. Some of these were unfortunately lost, and it is the inevitable frustration of this volume to read in a footnote that a copy of a document that Kruk had attached here or there can be found only in the YIVO's Kaczerginski-Sutzkever Collection. The subject matter is trying, and we should not be teased so by the volume's editors and publishers, for we are dealing here with unique testimony about the Holocaust, and all relevant documents ought to be published in an annex, a companion volume if need be. But this is my only complaint, a strange one, I admit: I couldn't get enough of this bulky masterpiece.

As Benjamin Harshav explains in his excellent introduction, Kruk's narrative runs in three parallel strands: The author puts together an objective record and documents the unfolding story but also gives his personal take on events and people and leaves for us a portrait of the Bundist milieu in the Vilna ghetto. Even though an "outsider"--a Warsaw Bundist in a Vilna ghetto, administered by a Jewish Council and controlled by revisionists (that is, right-wing Zionists)--Kruk has a privileged vantage point from which to observe and record. He ran one of the busiest, most frequented and loved institutions in the Vilna ghetto: the Strashun Library. People knew about his project and were bringing him stories and material.

What does he write about? All of ghetto life and death is there, each daily entry divided into small, independently titled segments. In an Israeli archive, Harshav discovered a manuscript of 100 pages, "Kruk's own detailed table of contents ... often including ten or twenty topics recorded in one day."

Take, for example, Segment 8 of the Oct. 29, 1942 entry (16 segments in all): "Walk to the Right in the Street--The police calls to the attention of the general ghetto population that, regardless of all previous warnings, people in the ghetto are not very careful about keeping to the right when walking in the street. Because ghetto sidewalks are very narrow, the order to stay strictly on the right is more than justified--it is a necessity of ghetto life. In the future, they will be stricter and will punish people for not walking on the right side."

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