Calel (Calek) Perechodnik was a Jewish policeman in the Otwock ghetto. Within his role, he took part in an Aktion (forced deportation) in which 8,000 of the city's Jews were deported, among them his wife Anna and daughter Athalie. Calek, certain they would be safe, took them out of the hiding place in which they had been located, and led them to the deportation square, where they were put on trains and sent to the Treblinka extermination camp. Calek remained alone, consumed by guilt and, after several months spent in hiding on the Aryan side of Warsaw, penned a combination of a confession, a ringing indictment, and a diary - which he dedicated to his wife and daughter. The text Calek wrote is one of the most graphic, honest, and jarring texts produced during the Holocaust period.
Featured guest: Dr. Amos Goldberg, Professor at the Department of Jewish History and Contemporary Jewry at the Hebrew University, and head of the Research Institute for Contemporary Jewry. Author of Trauma in First Person: Diary Writing during the Holocaust, 2017.
"Diary of a Jewish Policeman in the Ghetto" - Transcription:
Narrator: “I am Calek Perechodnik, an engineer of agronomy, a Jew of average intelligence... This is not a literary work; I have neither the ability nor the ambition to attempt one. It is not a history of Polish Jewry. It is a memoir of a Jew and his family. To be precise, this is a confession about my lifetime, a sincere and true confession. Alas, I don't believe in divine absolution, and as far as others are concerned, only my wife could – although she shouldn't – absolve me. However, she is no longer among the living… Please consider this memoir to be my deathbed confession. I harbor no illusions. I know that sooner or later I will share the fate of all the Jews of Poland.”
Nate: Calek Perechodnik wrote his diary over the course of three months, from May to August 1943, while in hiding on the Aryan side of Warsaw. In his diary, Calek describes in detail the ordeal that he and his family endured under German occupation. He describes life in the ghetto, his own wrongdoings as a Jewish policeman, the “Great Deportation” that took place in Otwock, the liquidation of the ghetto and how he was separated from his wife, Anka, and his daughter, Athalie. In this episode of “On the Holocaust” we will present the story of one of the most honest, graphic, moving diaries that survived the Holocaust: Am I A Murderer?: Testament Of A Jewish Ghetto Policeman, the diary of Calek Perechodnik. I’m your host Nate Nelson. Let’s begin.
Prof. Goldberg: My name is Amos Goldberg. I am a Professor at the Department of Jewish History and Contemporary Jewry at the Hebrew University, and also currently head the Research Institute for Contemporary Jewry. My main area of interest is the study of the Jews in the Holocaust and I also focus on memory – what today is called multi-directional or intersectional memory – relating to the Holocaust and other events.
Nate: Prof. Amos Goldberg, who will join us during this discussion, conducted a comprehensive study on the topic of Jewish writings during the Holocaust, which was published in his book Trauma in First Person: Diary Writing During the Holocaust.
Prof. Goldberg: What we have here is not a diary in the strict sense of the word, since Perechodnik did not enter a daily entry, but rather wrote over a period of time while in hiding in 1943, describing his life up to that time in Otwock, a town not far from Warsaw. But still, it is a diary, one that is very different from most of the writings with which I am familiar from that period. It is the diary of a person who held a very unique position. He was part of the Jewish police force in his town, and he experienced a tragedy that few have lived to describe, because he handed over his beloved daughter and wife with his own hands. He made the mistake of removing them from hiding and bringing them to the Umschlagplatz, and from there they were sent to Treblinka. These two realities – the fact that he was a policeman who participated in the rounding up of the Jews and their deportation in August 1942, and the fact that he personally played a role in sending his daughter and wife to their deaths – together with his very truthful and honest personality, produce a text that is unparalleled in its self-criticism and in its social criticism.
Nate: Bezalel (Calek) Perechodnik was born in 1916 in Otwock near Warsaw. In August 1938 he married Anna Nosfeld (Anka) and two years later their daughter Athalie – Atushka – was born. Calek was an ardent Zionist who identified ideologically with the Beitar Movement, but at the beginning of his diary he explains that he did not try to immigrate to Mandatory Palestine out of consideration for his wife Anka, whose life growing up had been less comfortable than his, and because he did not feel that there was any danger to the Jewish community in Poland at the time. He believed that as long as he fulfilled his responsibilities as a citizen of Poland, he and his family would be safe, on solid ground. Nevertheless, they did have plans to purchase land in Palestine in the future, where Calek would be able to work as an agronomist. The war that broke out in September 1939 ended all those hopes.
About a year later, in November 1940, an announcement was made that the Jews of Otwock must take all their property and gather in the ghetto area of the town. After a few weeks,, it was fenced in, and leaving it became punishable by death. In February 1941, Calek enlisted in the Jewish police force established in the ghetto; he wanted to avoid being sent to labor camps, since the rumors were that they were harsh places where prisoners were treated brutally. The task assigned to him as part of his police service was to collect the daily quota of bread from the Jewish bakers and distribute it to the commanders and officers of the ghetto police.
Narrator: New Year's Eve 1942. We are standing at the beginning of the most cursed year in world history, a year that wiped out all the achievements of human culture, a year that sanctioned the wildest instincts of human sadism.
Prof. Goldberg: It is clear that he made inquiries to clarify a lot of details. He was hiding in Warsaw where he had access to communication; there was a network that connected those in hiding. So it is clear that he’s very knowledgeable. His research adds to what he knows from personal experience. This is the situation that he’s in. On the one hand, he already knows a lot, and he manages to create some distance from his personal experiences by means of his writing. On the other hand, he is entirely submerged in the ongoing events.
Perhaps this is what shocks us, that he is writing in the present tense about events that happened a year or two years earlier. He is still experiencing his grief, trauma, and loss, his self-blame and his shame in a most authentic and primal manner. The result is a diary that is, on the one hand, analytical and descriptive, but on the other hand, very much in the present. He hasn’t moved away from that place, and he isn’t actually writing about it in retrospect. He’s still living the experience of persecution, he’s still living the experience of loss, he’s still living the experience of guilt, he’s still living the experience of self-blame, he’s still living the experience of rage, the endless rage that he has towards Jewish helplessness and towards Polish humiliation and German sadism, all of which he writes about at the beginning of the diary. His rage is still visceral, yet somehow he manages to curb it enough to create a literary distance; but, as you say, the reader is with him there. And he is there. He is not in hiding. When he describes the aktion - the forced deportation - he is in the aktion.
Narrator: First come vague rumors, rumors that the Jews refuse to believe. They refuse, because it's hard not to refuse. Things like this you have to see with your own eyes to believe that they are happening in the twentieth century. For example, that in Slonim, 14,000 Jews, whole families, were gathered in the city square and massacred with machine guns. And I ask you: Can you believe stories like these, told by the people who were there? For innocent men and women to be shot, just like that, in broad daylight?...
After the first news, comes news that’s even worse. In Vilna they killed 60,000 people. In Baranowicze, 20,000. The people do not understand what is happening. They have begun to believe it, but still cannot accept that one day someone will come and murder my two-year-old daughter, who still hardly knows how to speak, only because she was born to a Jewish mother and a Jewish father. Then out of the inability or unwillingness to believe, someone finds an explanation that it is because they were Soviet and fought against the Germans...
Nate: Calek describes the long and difficult process of coming to accept, understand, and internalize what is happening. He talks about “the people” – but he includes himself among them – who at first refuse to believe, then manage to accept the fact that murder is taking place, but still explain to themselves why it won’t happen to them, why it happens there, but it won’t happen here. In April 1942, however, news of deportations began to arrive from Lublin. Lublin, like Otwock, was located in the territories of the General Government administered by the Nazis. Conflicting rumors abounded. On the one hand, there were rumors of deportations, about murders in the streets, and about a labor camp named Majdanek. Still, at that time, they could not yet have heard about the Belzec extermination camp, where the Jews of Lublin were sent starting in March 1942. Calek says that many important questions that perhaps should have been asked were not asked, first, because it was too frightening to know the truth, and second, because the tragedy that had befallen them distracted them from those questions. Again came a German demand to send 400 people to a labor camp. And suddenly the question that preoccupied everyone was not what was happening in Lublin, but which townspeople would be taken? Those who worked in the Judenrat or the Jewish police were protected. Those who had relatives in the Judenrat or in the Jewish police were protected as well. A wealthy person who could afford to pay a bribe was also protected. Suddenly the thing that concerned everyone was how to avoid being included in the list of deportees. What was going on in Lublin was forgotten.
So the police arrest people and release them, arrest them and release them. Eventually 400 people are sent to the Karczew labor camp.
Narrator: July 1942. What are the Germans doing? German intellectuals are facing an impossible problem for ordinary mortals to solve; but, of course, this is not a problem for the German people, who have such a high civilization and culture. Nietzsche’s people... The problem they face is how to murder every single Jew without exception in the entire General Government, while ensuring the following conditions:
A. That it will never occur to the Jews that they have been sentenced to death;
B. That they will not defend themselves;
C. To recruit the smallest number of Germans for this purpose;
D. To ensure that the Jews themselves will help carry out this dirty work.
Nate: Calek goes on to describe in great detail the trap the Jews fell into and the German plan with which we are familiar from our perspective today. He describes how the Germans designed not only a system of deception that prevented the possibility of escape or resistance until it was already too late, but also the effectiveness of its execution. How they envisioned the Final Solution, the industrialized murder, the economic profit, the entire system that allowed the Germans to wage, alongside a total world war, a war for the extermination of the Jewish people as well.
In July 1942, the great deportation began in Warsaw. Calek refers in his diary to the suicide of the Judenrat chairman, Adam Czerniaków. Czerniaków thought, so Calek writes, that his suicide would be a sign to the entire population, and that he hoped the people would realize that something significant was happening so that it would encourage them to take action. But nothing like that took place. Refusal of an order, Calek writes, would be seen as an uprising, and an uprising would mean the entry of the German army, and then the entire Jewish population would pay the price. The first ones to be punished would be the Judenrat officials and the Jewish policemen. And after all, whoever was necessary for the German war effort was protected – the policemen, the Judenrat officials, the doctors, the professionals working in the shops. If even the protected would be punished, there was hardly any choice but to cooperate with the demands of the Germans.
Calek writes at length about the depravity of the Jewish policemen in Warsaw, about the rich who saved themselves, about the value of human life, which becomes three kilos of bread and a kilo of jam. This is what was promised to those who volunteered to come voluntarily to the Umschlagplatz. And the poor came voluntarily.
Prof. Goldberg: In analyzing the role of the Jewish police force, it should be noted that in many instances, it served as a body that maintained order, prevented violence, and upheld some semblance of discipline within the ghetto. At the same time, it also carried out instructions from the Judenrat and from the Germans. So they were really stuck between a rock and a hard place. If we take, for example, the Jewish police force in Warsaw, in the end it was a pretty corrupt organization. It was structurally corrupt because most of the police did not receive a salary, which forced them to earn their living from the bribes or favors or the protection they extorted or received. That was how the force was organized. And at the same time, they performed legitimate and even necessary actions within the ghetto, directing people in the overcrowded streets or collecting taxes from people that should have been paying. So they really were an organization that had two distinct faces. Still, when they participated in carrying out murderous orders of the Germans, such as rounding up Jews for deportation many of the Jews – including Calek himself, who recognizes that he served in such a force – viewed the Jewish police as having crossed a moral line. At the same time, in many cases they were subject to threats against their own lives. Police officers who did not bring the quota of people to the aktion would themselves be deported or would have family members deported. In these most difficult of situations, they found themselves facing very, very complicated moral questions. And yet, Calek Perechodnik feels guilty for being complicit, certainly in the death of his wife and daughter, but in general, for his involvement in the aktion in Otwock and later, also, in the Karczew labor camp where he believes he committed crimes.
Nate: Calek constantly refers to man’s need to protect himself psychologically – to be able to arrange things for himself in a way that makes sense to him – so that he knows “what he must do” in order to be saved. Warsaw is not distant Lublin. Almost everyone has acquaintances and family there. The Jews of Otwock understand that the way to survive is to work for the Germans. Everyone tries to advance initiatives to establish a home workshop. He who has an awl becomes a carpenter. Shoemakers are happy because they are essential workers. In the midst of all this frantic search for jobs, even the aktion in Warsaw is completely forgotten.
At some point there are rumors that a trainload full of planks is about to arrive at the carpentry shop. The Jews begin clearing a lot near the railroad station, cutting down trees, fencing it in so that nothing will be stolen. They are certain that this area is where the planks will be stored and that it will be the source of their survival. They will have work. But the Germans give this lot a completely different role – it becomes the local Umschlagplatz where the Jews of Otwock are imprisoned, and from where they are loaded onto cattle cars and deported.
Calek felt safe because he served in the Jewish police and was friendly with the chief of the Jewish police, Bernard Kronenberg. He also talks about why Jews did not flee to the Aryan side. The fear of being handed over by the Poles was too great and the general sense was that it would be much more difficult to escape from them than from the Ukrainian guards in the ghetto.
Narrator: My wife’s appearance could have been accepted [as non-Jewish] after certain changes, such as dying her hair, and so forth. She begged me, poor thing, to arrange a Polish identification card for her and could not understand my indifference. [...] I ignored her words, and finally refused to listen at all because they were making me agitated. Perhaps, if I had had cash in my pocket to pay for them, I would have done something to get the card, just to be left in peace. But it would have meant selling a suit and a coat with an English weave, and I didn’t want to give them up. Besides, nothing could get through the various axioms in which I believed and which shut my mind to such efforts. Will I ever be able to atone for that? Woe is me!
Nate: It appears that even at this stage, Calek still refused to believe the worst; he still thought that somehow it would pass, that they would manage to survive. Maybe the thought of separating from his wife didn’t really allow him to take this step of acknowledgement. By the time the aktion begins, nothing could be done – it was already too late. Calek did talk to a Polish acquaintance about the possibility of giving his blonde and blue-eyed daughter to his [the Pole’s] family in Lublin. However, Calek testifies that he was complacent and thought the matter was closed, while the wife of that Pole refused to take his daughter out of fear. His acquaintance did not inform Calek that the plan had been canceled... and then... the aktion in Otwock took place.
Narrator: August 19, 1942. The day of extermination has arrived. [...] The Germans had no work at all. They headed to the Jewish police station, where they ordered the gathered crowd to line up, announced that everyone was going to the field to be sorted and then the policemen's families would be released. The police start running around like crazy men, nobody knows what to do. Everyone is worried about their family, about themselves, and everyone runs aimlessly and blows their whistles. [...]
Nate: Calek describes that the German and Ukrainian policemen shot people indiscriminately, even those who were sure that their IDs were good. No one was safe, even though almost everyone thought they were safe. After all, they had good identification cards.
Narrator: I run home. It was as if my wife had lost her mind. [...] She wants to hide in the basement. I am afraid, overcome by terror. My daughter might start crying, and when they find her it won’t help her that she is a policeman’s wife. They will kill her and the girl and all the others who were hiding there. What to do? Oh my God! [...] “Anka,” I shout, “Kronenberg ordered to report to the field, and promised you are not in any danger, they will let you go.” [...] Anka comes out of the basement [...] I take my daughter in my arms and lead my wife. It’s not enough that I lost her, I was left knowing that I was the executioner who led her to her death [...]
Nate: As the aktion moves forward, the deception becomes more and more obvious. The police officers are also targeted for deportation. No one is protected. Already 8,000 of the 12,000 Otwock Jews have been assembled.
Narrator: My wife stares at me silently, saying almost nothing... but this look... the sun is beating down on our heads. My daughter hasn’t eaten anything today. [...] My daughter, my daughter, you turned two years old today, exactly today. [...] You look at me, my dear, through the wire fence with your serious gaze. You no longer cry or pamper yourself. In a single hour you grew up, old age fell upon you, perhaps because you already know your destiny thanks to some instinctive knowledge. You reach out to me, but I cannot pick you up. This paralyzing fear, the terror of slaves.
Nate: At noon, the policemen were told to line up in the square in front of the police station, where they would be told their fate and the fate of their families. Lipshar, one of the heads of the deportation, begins to speak. He announces that the Jewish policemen will remain in the ghetto to clean it up once the aktion is completed. Then they will be sent to a labor camp. The women will be deported now...
They return to the field. Anka calls out to Calek from a distance and waves to him.
Narrator: “Calek, Calek, are they letting us go?” (...) My daughter also instinctively looks at me with her arms hanging down. I remain silent. Willendorf spares me the need to respond. Without saying a word to his wife, he tears off his ribbon, his hat, his badge, and throws them away. He sits down on the ground next to his wife. “We travel together,” is Willendorf’s silent answer (...) a man of honor, a Communist for many years. And me? I’m the intellectual. What did I do? Did I throw away my ribbon? No. I didn’t have the courage.
I could say that my wife asked me not to do this, that she begged me to remain alive and remember her from time to time. (...) I know very well that with or without such a request, I would not have had the courage to go willingly to my death.
Nate: Anka asks Calek to get poison for her and their daughter. His sister Rachel also asks. He phones the pharmacy, but he cannot leave the field. He calls out to a Polish man on a bicycle whom he sees over the fence and asks him to bring him the pills. The Pole leaves, but returns empty-handed. You need a prescription. Reality bursts into the midst of the absolute chaos. People are waiting in the field to be sent to their deaths, but to end their lives on their own initiative, they still need a prescription. Calek locates a Jewish doctor in the field who gives him the prescription. The Pole returns with the pills. His sister dissolves the tablets in water and immediately drinks it down in a single gulp.
Narrator: My wife prepares a mixture for herself. She is about to drink without saying goodbye to me. At the last moment, his sister knocks over the cup and the whole thing spills on the ground.
Nate: Calek comes back with four new pills. But just then, the trains arrive near the field. They pray for a miracle, they beg the Germans to free their wives from deportation. The German devil, so Calek writes, continues to mock them.
Narrator: “Sure thing. We’ll release them!” My joy knows no bounds. I run to my wife: “Anka, Anka! You are saved!” Frightening dramas begin to unfold.
Nate: Calek describes how the police began to pull their wives and children out of the crowd. Families are torn apart, unmarried policemen also pull women out, sometimes their sisters, to try to save them. Anka asks Calek to take her sister’s daughter and register her as theirs. But Calek refuses to do it.
Narrator: You beg from me in vain. Truly, love is blind if you, a woman with a noble soul, fell in love with someone like me who is not worthy of you. I know that one can try and explain. That I refused because I had the feeling that they wouldn’t let you go if you had two children with you. But no. Why should I deceive myself? What I did on that day was not guided by reason, but by a kind of blind instinct that revealed the true face of a human monster. That day revealed the nobility of some people and the degradation of others.
Prof. Goldberg: Contemporaneous Holocaust writings do not whitewash. Perechodnik is a writer who is very self-critical. He writes immediately after he has experienced everything that took place, and he feels the guilt and the helplessness of the terrible crime he committed. Perhaps that is why he is so critical. I believe that it must also be his personality type. He has a very strong personality. A very uncompromising personality. I think that the whitewashing begins with the writings that are written after some length of time has passed. Even if the writer does not distort facts or relate falsehoods, the style and the entire narrative becomes much more forgiving over time. Calek makes no allowances. This is true of other memoirs, as well. Contemporary diaries are honest and true in a manner that is hard to fathom. That is why I think that they are so very important. These are the writings that truly embody – not just express, but embody, in a visceral way – the events that took place. Later writings do not come close to the disturbing honesty and sincerity that are found in them.
Nate: The police begin to load the people onto the trains. They work with an urgency – perhaps with the hope that it will be over soon and they will be able to take their families out of the hell they are in. Maybe when they finish everything will be over. But no. The nightmare continues…
The Germans approach the policemen’s wives and begin to sort them out. The children are not free to leave!
Narrator: “Calek, Calek, what will I do?” Similar calls are heard from all sides. In a blur I grab Atushka, my own child, and place her aside. She stands sleepy and hungry with a look of wonder on her face. Maybe she doesn’t understand why her father, who has always been so good to her, suddenly leaves her standing in the dark. Standing and not crying, only her eyes are sh iny, big shiny eyes.
Suddenly the guns are pointed at us. An order is given: “All the policemen are to run to the side of the field. You have two minutes line up!”
It seems to us that we are standing still. Yet our legs, against our will, carry us to the side of the field. The German devil reveals his true face. No need to play games anymore. [...] I drift away into the night without saying goodbye. In the distance we see only a cloud of dust and indistinguishable silhouettes. All is lost. [...] A long whistle, and you’re gone, Anka, on your final journey. [...] You sit and do not understand a single thing. How did it happen that your Calek, who loved you so much for ten years, who was always faithful, who anticipated your every wish and fulfilled your heart’s every desire… how did he suddenly betray you and allow you get onto the train alone?
Nate: Calek is mired with his thoughts with his wife Anka and his daughter Atushka. Fear of death – that freezing, paralyzing fear – left him in the same field where the Jews of Otwock were gathered and from which they were deported.
I think that Calek’s diary entry describes the situation so graphically, with his thoughts and feelings presented in such a detailed and tangible manner, that you can almost feel you are there with him. His description may explain the meaning of a concept which is still in use today – what “fear of death” might be. He describes his fear of death, which helps us understand the tragic, painful situations that it led to during the Holocaust. Calek is perhaps in the most tragic and painful situation because he actually took his wife and daughter out of hiding and led them to the place from where they would be sent to die – and then he did not dare to join them. While he could not have known how things would develop, it makes no difference to him after the fact, because he feels so guilty. His fear of death paralyzed him. He is certainly not the only one who experienced this, he is certainly not the only one who faced the unthinkable situation where choosing your own life means abandoning your family. He is certainly not the only one who chose to save his own life – if we can even talk about a choice in such a situation where nothing is under his control, where only instinct worked and not intellect. But he writes about it with incredible honesty, so much so that there is no room for judgment, only sorrow and compassion.
Prof. Goldberg: He judges himself very harshly. The reason you are not judgmental towards him is because he judges himself so severely. He is so self-critical, you don’t have to do the criticizing for him. In retrospect, we can only empathize with his ability to judge himself in real time and condemn himself for being unable to meet the moral standard he demands of himself and others. At moments when he literally faced death, he describes how he froze and couldn’t react. He was in a situation of “flight or fight or freeze” and he describes “freeze,” where people – indeed, entire crowds – are so overwhelmed that they cannot react at all. Later on, he recounts a horrifying portrayal of people who were taken out to be killed by the Germans, who then run out of bullets. How until more bullets were brought, people simply stood, waiting to die. And he asks – why didn’t anyone do anything? Why did they just wait for more bullets to be brought? This is a description of the paralyzing terror of death, the absolute helplessness, the dissolution of any ability to initiate or to act. All of this took place in a world of such extreme horror and trauma that is beyond our imagination.
Nate: Calek’s thoughts remain focused on his wife and his daughter, trying to imagine their trip – both for himself and for us. Are they still alive? Do they have air to breathe? From his hiding place he is able to describe the feeling of thirst that was common in the deportation trains with horrifying precision, something that we usually know about from later testimonies as being one of the most difficult experiences. Another thing he succeeds in describing is the Treblinka death camp. The trip there, the arrival. The frenzied longing for some fresh air that kept the prisoners from thinking about anything else. The system of deception that was critical to the efficient operation of the camp, the instructions given to the people who were taken off the cattle cars upon arrival that made all this possible.
Narrator: Don’t worry, nothing bad awaits you here. In a short time, you will travel on to the east for work. Since you are dirty and many of you are lice-infested, you will all take a shower. You will be given food to eat, and tomorrow you will travel onwards…
Nate: The Germans even gave instructions for everyone to fold their clothing neatly and to tie their shoes together in pairs so that they could find them later. A shower, water, food – these are all that the people coming off the train can think about having been crammed in a cattle car, without air, without water and food, where instead of a toilet there was a single bucket. Can such people question whether the offer is true? Calek wonders if Anka believed the lies... and then he goes on to describe the murder, again, with surprising precision.
Narrator: A crowd of naked women moves towards a huge building where they are supposed to shower. Generally speaking, the women are holding children in their arms. [...] Anka, Anka, raise your beautiful eyes to look at the sky one last time. Look at the sunset and send me your final blessing. Whether it be a blessing or a curse, the sun will embrace your gaze and faithfully pass it along to me every day. The women are already inside. The doors are closing. A single piercing cry is heard. It is all over.
Nate: In the course of the deportation and liquidation of the Otwock ghetto, about 8000 Jews were deported, most of them to Treblinka.
Calek returns to the ghetto. To his astonishment and dismay, he discovers that his aunt who was hiding in his parents’ house is still alive. She had been hiding in the same place where Anka and Atushka were from before he took them to the Umschlagplatz, thinking that they would be protected.
Narrator: I continue to stand motionless, unable to move from my place or take my eyes off the door... My God, how could the Germans not have discovered them in the basement? Why didn’t they kill them? Why didn't I at least lie to Anka and tell her that’s what happened?
Nate: Calek makes his way to their house and discovers that everything is in order there, too.
Narrator: I walk away from there and make my way back again along the same ghostly path between the corpses. I walk with my eyes closed because I know the way by heart... This is where Anka’s bright face would wait for me and call out from afar, “Look Atush, Father is coming! Come!” And today? I open the door. Hell, even the Ukrainian guards didn’t enter the house. My wife could have just sat here in peace. Oh, if only I had found the apartment broken into, burned down!
For about a week I was in a daze, without accepting the magnitude of the disaster that had befallen me. I lived in real fear of death. Afterwards, however, I came to understand that I would never see my wife again, after hearing the rumors of how the Jews sent to Treblinka were exterminated. I was in a state of total apathy... and I allowed myself to be carried like a garlic peel on the stormy waves of fate without direction, without a goal. (...) The wind of time pushed the Jews in only one direction, and all paths led in the same destination, to Treblinka!
Nate: In the weeks after the end of the aktion, the Germans continued with the liquidation of the ghetto, searching for and executing Jews who had managed to hide and avoid deportation. In one aktion, a Ukrainian guard hands Calek a woman who tried to hide and orders him to lead her to the field – to her death.
Narrator: I have no choice but to take her, quietly cursing my carelessness, but what can I do? I lead her on, and the road is endlessly long for me. She repeatedly offers to bribe me. To give me a thousand zlotys if only I will let her go. She begs me and begs me, and finally she curses me. I apologize to her and explain that I would have been happy to release her without a bribe, but we are surrounded by Polish policemen and the guards are watching us from afar. Why didn’t she run away the night before? The woman becomes hysterical and begins to rage, cursing me loudly and accusing me of being responsible for her death. If I could, I would have run away from her curses... At this point a Polish policeman arrives and threatens her with a rifle, forcing her to calm down. He takes her to the field himself.
Nate: Calek notes that the woman asks to stop and urinate. She does so on the street, and then is taken to the field.
Narrator: At the last moment, her resistance breaks and she lies down on her stomach on top of a mound of dirt. I was lucky that I didn’t know her by name, but what difference does that make, when to this day her curses keep ringing in my ears? Did I deserve it or not? My conscience tells me that, indeed, I deserved it.
Nate: Here we can see Calek’s ambivalent feelings both towards the woman and towards himself. In the same paragraph, he presents her time after time as a strong, active woman who tries to fight for her life until the last moment, and on the other hand, he shares the description of her urinating in the street and tells how she surrenders in the end and lies down, giving up the fight. At the same time, he justifies his own actions, arguing that he had no choice – he was surrounded by Polish police and guards and had to lead her, even as he justifies her curses and describes himself as someone who committed an immoral act and now must live with his conscience.
Prof. Goldberg: He is entirely unforgiving, he makes no concessions to anyone. Not to himself, not to the Jewish tradition, not to the Jews themselves who discover their helplessness. After all, what is trauma? At the core of trauma is a feeling of helplessness. He constantly talks about his own helplessness, about the helplessness of the Jews that brings them to indescribable humiliation. He presents situations of depravity among the Jews that we do not find mentioned in other writings. As he presents it, it was not only Polish humiliation or German sadism. A Jew is running, being sent to his death and another Jew follows him and says: “Hey! Give me your coat!” showing no respect even for the moment before death. Or Jews who are waiting for their death and do nothing. He says to them: “Rise up! See how few guards are around you.” But ultimately, he doesn’t do anything either....
Nate: A few weeks after the Aktion, on Yom Kippur in September 1942, Calek was taken along with other policemen to a labor camp in Piekielko.
Narrator: Polish shop owners stood in front of their houses with smiles of satisfaction plastered on their faces. I felt that I would never return here again, that my eyes were seeing my birthplace, Otwock, for the last time. It is difficult for me to describe my feelings then. It was hell, but there was no rebellion. It was a conflagration of raising hands in surrender. In truth, I traveled of my own free will – no one forced me, and no one was guarding me. I could have even jumped out of the car and stayed in Otwock, but what would have happened to me there, anyway?
Nate: After a few months in Piekielko and another camp in Karczew, Calek manages to find a permanent hiding place in Warsaw with the help of his father. On December 6, 1942, Calek arrived at Mrs. Hela’s apartment. This is where he wrote his diary. He is there together with his mother, while his father lives elsewhere under false Polish papers. Once a month, his father comes to pay Mrs. Hela for hiding them. In his writings, he describes – with the honesty that characterizes him – the very complex relationships that developed while in hiding. How he became distanced from both his mother and his father during this period, as a result of choices that each of them made. In truth, the source of these tensions was due mainly to the terrible reality of 1942 which, as Calek writes, “proved that everything is possible here, in the Valley of Tears.”
Calek stops writing his diary on August 19, 1943, exactly one year to the day of the Aktion that left him bereft. But then he adds an epilogue:
Narrator: October 19, 1943. Once again, I take pen in hand and sit down to write. Have I been informed of happy news that I would like to share with you, Anka?... Oh no! With the inevitable descent of our family into destruction fast approaching, I, as the last remnant, am tasked with the sad responsibility of recording it.
Nate: Here he describes how they lost contact with his father and how they realized that he must have been caught and murdered. Calek himself almost survived. He managed to hold out until the fall of 1944 and probably died in the bunker where he was hiding together with other Jews. The bunker was discovered by Poles who, alongside the Germans, were searching for Jewish property. All those in the bunker were ordered to leave and were shot on the spot. Calek, who was ill with typhus, was too weak to come out and, apparently was killed inside when the bunker was torched. It appears that his mother, Sarah, perished during the Polish uprising in Warsaw.
The single survivor from the family is Pesach Perechodnik, Calek’s brother. In 1950, he received a letter from a woman named Mania who was together with Calek in hiding:
“I have been searching for you for several years now. At the time, I promised your brother that if I survived Hitler's captivity I would try to find you to relate the last days of your family...”
A few years before that, Pesach had managed to locate the first part of the diary, together with the will that Calek wrote when he realized that the end was near during the Polish uprising. The second part of the diary has been lost.
Irit: Amos, why do you think – what I mean to say is, although Calek claims that he is writing the diary as a memorial to his wife – why do you think he wrote it? What drove him?
Prof. Goldberg: Already at the beginning of the diary, Calek, himself, offers several reasons. Calek is very self-aware, he is sensitive both to himself and to the text he is writing. He wants to document what took place. He writes: “I document because what happened to me is actually not very different from what happened to others. I am telling a personal story, but it is actually a much broader story.” In writing it, he also establishes a memorial for his wife. You might suggest that this is hardly a memorial, inasmuch as it is a record of great degradation. There aren’t many heroic deeds recorded, nor are there many acts of kindness, or moving acts. It mainly describes how the events of the Holocaust brought all sorts of people – including Jews, Poles, Ukrainians (who are mentioned from time to time) and, of course, Germans – to the lowest level of behavior. You may question whether this is an appropriate memorial for his wife, yet he also says that the diary serves as a foster child, as a replacement for his daughter who was murdered.
There also is the element of confession. He describes how he would like to offer confession, were he a believing person, but as a non-believer he writes that the diary stands in place of a confession. I believe this is actually the main reason. He wants to commemorate his wife, and he is an honest man who feels so angry and so ashamed and so guilty that he produces a strong and difficult text, but he still wants it to commemorate what happened to his daughter and his wife. He wants to document what happened because he wants people to know.
Writing offers the creative power to shape reality. It is possible that, on some level, his writing is a healing process for him, the literary and linguistic design of the text that he writes giving him the power to shape his understanding of the chaos in which he lives. There is a certain element of regaining control. Indeed, these were events that defeated him and humiliated him and made him do the most horrible acts about which he feels so guilty, but at least in his writing he can control them, he can formulate them. He can truly confess the difficult things that he saw, that he was involved with, that were happening around him. I believe that committing the events in writing was a response to a very personal need of someone who was on the verge of insanity, living with terrible guilt. This is his way of dealing with the events that make him feel so helpless and so guilty.
He writes about a situation where he feels like exploding and wants to respond, but he knew that a response would cost him his life. He writes “Yes, that’s when I learned to be silent, and believe me, it's a first-rate art in this vile world. The heart bleeds, the fists clench, but we must be silent.” I think that in the face of this urge he feels that he must write the diary. He couldn’t keep quiet, but he couldn’t speak out. Instead, he writes.
Narrator: If it turns out that my diary is too weak in its strength, too pale in comparison to the terrible tragedy of the Jewish nation, then I have to survive the war, for someone must remain alive to offer a prayer for the lifting of Anka’s soul. As of this moment, I am not giving up the fight. I am currently traveling to the Magister. I want to leave this diary in his hands as my last legacy... and if I don't succeed in this, and if I am caught on the way and identified, if the Magister refuses to offer me his help... if I am lost soon – may no one shed a single tear over my invisible grave. I do not deserve this. And only one thing I ask: faithfully fulfill, people, my will to avenge and remember, if only sometimes, the radiant figure of my wife Anka and the angelic appearance of my home Atushka... And me? I must now go my way, through the torment, on a road without glory, with the following words on my lips: Zol zajn az majn szyfwet kajn breg nit dergejn.
Nate: “It does not matter if my ship does not reach the shore, as long as I pursue my course.”
This has been On the Holocaust, from Yad Vashem: the World Holocaust Remembrance Center. Our program is produced by Dor Shafir, Dani Timor and Ran Levi. The story you heard was written by Irit Dagan. Thanks for listening; hit ‘Subscribe’ for more episodes just like this one.