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Diaries and Memoirs as a Historical Source - The Diary and Memoir of a Rabbi at the “Konin House of Bondage”

Esther Farbstein

  1. Mendel Piekarz, “On Testimony Literature as a Historical Source in the Perpetration of the `Final Solution,’’’ Kivunnim 20 (August 1983) (Hebrew), pp. 129-157 (Piekarz, “Literature”).
  2. Ghetto Fighters’ House Archives, 3293/E 4 (GFHA). This file includes the documents attached to the diary and further testimonies, documents, and letters, including an article by the donor of the letters, Yisrael David Beit-Halevy, and the studies of Zvi Shner, who was the first to uncover this source and identify its author. The file was gathered and expanded by Eva Feldenkreis, who helped locate further material. Under the title, ”The Documentation Enterprise of the Rabbi from Sanniki’’ (Shner, “Documentation Enterprise’’), Zvi Shner revealed the diary, segments of “The Story of Koil,’’ and “Scroll of the Konin House of Bondage.’’ See Ghetto Fighters’ House News, 4-5 (16-17) (September 1956), pp. 12-25 (GFH News). I consider this article a continuation of and complementary to the publication of Rabbi Aharonson’s “documentation enterprise.’’ The complete diary was published by Yehoshua Eibschitz in Zakhor (1981), pp. 17-49 (Zakhor), and recently in ‘Aley Merorot (Bene Berak: published by the family, Summer 1996), which contains all of Rabbi Aharonson’s writings on the Holocaust. The diary was re-proofed against the original, and the pagination used in this article corresponds to that in the book. The preface to the book (pp. 8-10) presents a detailed account of the provenance of the diary pages.
  3. Pinkas Hakehillot; Encyclopedia of Jewish Communities: Poland, vol. I, The Communities of Lodz and Its Region (Hebrew) (Jerusalem: Yad Vashem, 1976), pp. 235-238. About 40 percent of the Jews of Konin were deported at the onset of the Nazi occupation to Ostrowiec; the rest were banished in July 1940 and October 1941. They were taken to Grodziec and Rzgów—“rural ghettos’’ — and the nearby town of Zagórów, from where most of them were sent to the Lublin area via Lodz and murdered in 1942 in a forest near Józefów and in the Kazimierz forests; ibid., p. 237. See also Memorial Book Konin (Tel Aviv: Association of Konin Jews in Israel, 1968) (Yiddish and Hebrew) (Konin Book), especially Shmuel Ben Zion Mottl, ``The Uprising in the Konin Camp,’’ pp. 622-624. See also Theo Richmond, Konin, a Quest (London: Jonathan Cape, 1995) (Richmond, Konin).
  4. GFHA 3293/E 4 and ‘Aley Merorot, p. 122. The document was first published by Zvi Shner , “Documentation Enterprise.”
  5. GFHA 3293/E 4 and ‘Aley Merorot, p.122. The document was first published in GFH News, 5-6 (April 1954), pp. 26-27.
  6. The original document is in the possession of the family and was first published in Zakhor,; ‘Aley Merorot, pp. 323-331. As I formed a close relationship with members of the author’s family, I discovered further writings from the end of the war up to the author’s death in 1993. It is both enriching and interesting to compare these later writings, too; their circumstances and dates are important elements in such a comparison.
  7. GFHA 3293/E 4 and ‘Aley Merorot, appendixes, pp. 320-322. Avraham Zajf’s letter, written on August 12, 1943, was first published in Dappim le-heker ha-shoah, Collection A (JanuaryApril 1951), pp. 170-172. Feibish Kamlazh’s will was translated and first published in shner, “Documantation Enterprise”, p. 25. The letters were evidently sent to the Pole to whom the diary was given for safekeeping. On the basis of the addresses given him by the two authors, Zajf’s letter reached his sister-in-law, Dr. Celina Stutter of Haifa, and was also addressed to his sister, Miriam Bloch.
  8. Shner, “Documentation Enterprise, “ p. 27.
  9. Yehoshua Moshe Aharonson, Memoirs, manuscript (Yiddish), Yad Vashem Archives (YVA) M–I/E - 2529. For the purpose of this article, the material was examined in the original, which was sometimes cited for the sake of precision. The pagination noted is usually from the book ‘Aley Merorot. The translator, Yehoshua Eibschitz, one of the most prominent documenters of religious Jewry during the Holocaust and the editor of Zakhor, was a personal friend of the author’s. His translation was of much assistance to me.
  10. Ephraim Oshry, Book of Responsa Mi-Ma’amakim (“Out of the Depths”) (New York: privately published, 1959-1980), 5 vols. (Hebrew). An abridged version was published in English, as Responsa from the Holocaust (New York: Judaica Press, 1983).
  11. Yehoshua Moshe Aharonson, Yeshuat Moshe (Tel Aviv, 1967), preface.
  12. Podchlebnik survived the Holocaust and testified at the Eichmann trial. See his testimony in Israel Ministry of Justice, The Trial of Adolf Eichmann; Record of the Proceedings in the District Court of Jerusalem, 9 vols. (Jerusalem: The Trust for the Publication of the Proceedings of the Eichmann Trial, 1992-1995), vol. III, pp. 1189-1192 (Eichmann Proceedings). In his testimony at the trial, he related that he had been taken to Chelmno in late 1941. The account of the castle, the inscriptions, the trucks, the forest, and the horrific experience of burying his wife and children correspond to the account in “The Story of Koil.” Another prisoner, Jakob Grojanowski, escaped with him. The escapees evidently forwarded the information to towns in the Warthegau area of western Poland several weeks after the murders in Chelmno began. Grojanowski escaped from Chelmno on January 19, 1942, evidently reached the Warsaw ghetto in February 1942, and gave his testimony to the Ringelblum archivists. On the basis of this testimony, given in Yiddish, the Ringelblum archives produced reports in Polish and German on what was happening in Chelmno. The Polish-language report was addressed to the mission of the Polish Government-in-exile in London, and information to this effect was indeed forwarded to London. The German version was meant for distribution among the German population, in the hope that this would lead to a response. Whether this was done is unknown. Grojanowski himself did not survive. His testimony and the reports are in the possession of the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw (copy in YVA, JM/2713). The material was translated into Hebrew by Elisheva Shaul, “Taking of Testimony from the Forced Undertaker Jakob Grojanowski, Izbice-Kolo-Chelmno,” Yalkut Moreshet 35 (April 1983), pp. 101-122. A comparison of the accounts in the two documents — Grojanowski’s testimony as documented by the Oneg Shabbat archivists in Warsaw, and Podchlebnik’s testimony as documented by Aharonson — suggests that they correspond, although a general and textual comparison would require an in-depth study.
  13. There are minute differences: Diary (‘Aley Merorot, pp. 105-107): Name of the boy: Michael Danziger of Podembiec, aged 16. Reason for punishment: picked two unripe apples along the path that they took.   Memoir (original, pp. 74-75, ‘Aley Merorot, pp. 142-143): Name of the boy: Podembewski, aged 18. The error evidently is because of his hometown, Podembiec.   Reason for punishment: approached a Polish home to ask for food.
  14. Diary: ‘Aley Merorot, pp. 119-120. Memoir: original, p. 106, ‘Aley Merorot, p. 171.
  15. ‘Aley Merorot, pp. 161-165. See also Esther Farbstein, “The Four Cubits of Halakha — in the Writings of a Community Rabbi during the Holocaust,” Part B, “Questions from the Valley of Deepest Darkness,” Sinai, Vol. 118 (Spring 1996) (Hebrew), pp. 43-70. The article analyzes this issue in the writings and contrasts it with other sources.
  16. The seder is the ceremony and celebration that opens the Passover holiday, marking the liberation and departure of the ancient Israelites from bondage in Egypt. The Haggadah is the book of texts and prayers recited and sung at the seder. The kiddush opens the seder with a blessing on wine, and concludes with the sheheheyanu benediction, praising God: “who has kept us alive and preserved us and enabled us to reach this moment.”
  17. See also Avraham Barkai, “Between East and West: Jews from Germany in the Lodz Ghetto,” Yad Vashem Studies 16 (1984), pp. 272-332. The article describes the historical background and the encounter from the points of view of both local and Western Jews.
  18. The difficulty in parting from the German identity surfaces in another part of the diary: the account of a dialogue between a Jew named Yehoshua Soianz from Cologne and the commandant on the first day of the Succoth holiday in autumn 1942, when three ill Jews, including Soianz, were taken away. The commandant shouted at him, “Hold your tongue, you’re going to your homeland.’’ And the Jew answered: “My homeland is in Cologne, Germany.” The commandant replied: “The lovely streets of Cologne have already been cleansed of Jews.”
  19. There is an interesting parallelism between this account and an event that took place in the Budzyn camp. One of the inmates in Budzyn was Bauchwitz, a Jew from Stettin, Germany, whose family had converted to Christianity when he was six years old. The commandant sentenced him to hang for not having informed on a prisoner who had escaped in order to prevent the killing of another ten people. Bauchwitz asked the commander to fulfill his last request: ``I was a German officer in the First World War and I fought at Verdun. Of my entire battalion, only a few survived. And I was awarded the Iron Cross First Class. For this reason...I ask that I should be shot and not hanged.’’ To this, the Wachtmeister replied, “Whether you have the Iron Cross First Class or not, whether you were an officer or not, in my eyes you are a stinking Jew, and you will be hanged.” With that, Bauchwitz climbed to the gallows and asked whether he had the right to say a few words to the assembly of Jews; this the commander allowed him. The condemned man said, “I was born a Jew, and all that I remember of my Judaism is one prayer — in fact, only the opening words of that prayer, and they are: ‘God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob’, and that is all I remember. But I want to and I am going to die as a Jew - and I ask you Jews to say Kaddish for me.’ And we did.’’ Thus Bauchwitz resumed his identity on the verge of his death. From the testimony of Prof. David Wdowinski, Eichmann Proceedings, vol. III, p. 1234. Dan Michman cited this testimony as an example of those who returned to their identity on the verge of their death, in the sense of Psalms 90:3 — “You return man to dust; You decreed, ‘Return, you mortals!’’’ Dan Michman, “Rightly Have You Humbled Me,” Mileit (Tel Aviv: Open University, 1983) (Hebrew), pp. 341-350.
  20. Memoir, manuscript, pp. 54-55.
  21. Yehoshua Moshe Aharonson, “Chelmno,” in I. M. Biderman, ed., Pinkas Gostynin (New York and Tel Aviv: Gostynin Memorial Book Committees, 1960), (Yiddish), pp. 311-314. The account corresponds to what additional sources tell us about some Judenrat leaders’ attitude toward labor for the Germans. For example: “The heads of the Judenrat placed their trust in labor; they believed that considerations of logic and utility would eventually defeat ‘Judeophobia’ and lust for murder.” Yisrael Gutman, “The Concept of Labor in Judenrat Policy,’’ in Yisrael Gutman and Cynthia J. Haft, eds., Patterns of Jewish Leadership in Nazi Europe 1933-1945 (Jerusalem: Yad Vashem, 1979), pp. 151-180. Moshe Merin, chairman of the central Judenrat of Upper Silesia, was one of those who adhered to this perception of the events and devised his policies accordingly, as did Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski in the Lodz ghetto, Jakob Gens in Vilna, and Ephraim Barasz in Bialystok. Apprehension about ``causing a panic’’ is reminiscent of the response of other leaders, such as Rabbi Leo Baeck in Theresienstadt.
  22. Shner, Documentation Enterprise, p. 23.
  23. Rabbi David Borenstein, great-grandson of the Kotzker Rebbe, was born in 1876 and ordained as a rebbe in 1926. He established his Hasidic court in Lodz, where he also founded a yeshiva. When the city was occupied, he was transferred to Warsaw, where officially he worked in Schultz’s factory. Unable to endure the conditions of starvation, he died in the ghetto after Succoth in 1941. See Pinkas Sochaczew (Sochaczow) (Jerusalem: Organization of Sochaczew Emigrés in Israel, 1962), pp. 636-638. Rabbi Aharonson had been a member of the Sochaczew Hasidic sect since his youth, and his relationship with his rebbe grew more intense during his stay in Warsaw (when the war broke out). When refugees from the surrounding towns came to Sanniki on Purim and described how their towns had been liquidated, the rabbi decided to attempt to communicate this information to his rebbe.
  24. The expression, borrowed from Jewish sources, is quoted in this context and thus is free of the connotations that became attached to it when it became common coin.
  25. Mottl, “The Uprising in the Konin Camp”. The memoir was written at a time when refugees in the DP camps had begun to discuss rebellion and “Jewish honor,” but, as was stated, the diary mentioned Warsaw, and the essay “Why We Did Not Fight for our Lives,” which is part of the diary section, contains references to “rebellion’’ and “honor”.
  26. See also Yedioth Ahronoth, April 27, 1995 (Holocaust Memorial Day).
  27. Zajf’s letter, written on August 12, states: “Tomorrow [the people] will be taken out for execution.” Indeed, Friday fell on August 13. Mottl (Konin Book, p. 623) mistakenly cites the date as August 9. Richmond, too, examined the date in other sources and concluded that the suicide occurred on August 13, 1943. See Richmond, Konin, especially p. 324, fn. 7.
  28. Gershon and Shmuel Mottl, letter from the DP camp in Germany to the brother of Avraham Zajf, GFHA, 175/E8, and testimony of Shmuel Mottl, YVA, 03/3661 (Shmuel Mottl). See also Mottl’s memoir in Konin Book, pp. 622-624.
  29. The Shulhan ‘Arukh is the code of Jewish law, codified in Israel in the 16th century by Rabbi Joseph Caro. Yoreh De’ah is one of its four parts.
  30. See Farbstein, ``Four Cubits,’’ Part B, pp. 43-70.
  31. See, for example, the statements by Shmuel Mottl. The author also created the personal impression of being the epitome of precision and order, as well as a man who demanded that others be precise and avoid overstatement. This attitude was shared by Zvi Shner, who interviewed the rabbi, and Yehoshua Eibschitz, his partner in chairing the editorial board of Zakhor. I spoke with several people who had known him, and they noted that whenever Holocaust events were mentioned in an overstated, bombastic fashion, he responded with outrage and demanded that matters be treated exactly as they had occurred. His notepad of writings when he functioned as rabbi after the war gives further evidence of how strict and precise he was.
  32. See Yisrael Gutman, “Adam Czerniakow—the Man and his Diary,” in Yisrael Gutman and Livia Rothkirchen, eds., The Catastrophe of European Jewry; Antecedents - History - Reflections (Jerusalem: Yad Vashem, 1976), pp. 451-489, and especially pp. 451-452; and Meir Dworzecki, ``Vilna Ghetto Diaries,’’ Mordechai Eliav, ed., Studies in Holocaust Research (Ramat Gan: Bar Ilan University, 1979) (Hebrew), pp. 79-112, and especially pp. 79-80; Chaim A. Kaplan, The Warsaw Diary of Chaim A. Kaplan (New York: Collier, 1973), especially p. 13; Joseph Kermish, “Diary Entries of Hersh Wasser,” Yad Vashem Studies 15 (1983), pp. 201-209; Amos Goldberg, “The Holocaust Diaries—the Story of the Helpless,” Bishvil ha-Zikkaron 13 (Spring 1996) (Hebrew), pp. 4-12.
  33. Piekarz, “Literature.”
  34. See G. A. Passmore, “The Objectivity of History,” in Avraham Weinryb, ed., Historical Thinking B (Tel Aviv: Open University, 1987) (Hebrew), pp. 328-329.
  35. Concerning the halakhic discourse, see Esther Farbstein, “Four Cubits,”’ Part A, pp. 55-80; ‘Aley Merorot, pp. 242-244.
  36. A. Firan, “What are the Historians Trying to Do?”’ in Avraham Weinryb, ed., Historical Thinking A (Tel Aviv: Open University, 1985), pp. 235-260.