Page from Emanuel Ringelblum's manuscript of Chronicle of the Warsaw Ghetto, 1941–1942, part of Oyneg Shabes, the secret ghetto archive. (YIVO)

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Holocaust Diaries

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The experiences of countless East European Jews are documented in the body of several hundred extant diaries kept by Jewish men, women, and youth throughout the years of the Holocaust. The writings now exist in archives—mostly in Israel, Europe, and the United States—and in private hands. Their numbers attest to the likelihood that thousands of Jews set about recording their personal experiences and the experiences of their communities under German occupation, although it is impossible to determine the total number of journals with precision.

The diaries salvaged after the war were for the most part produced in ghettos and clandestine situations. They have reached us thanks to considerable efforts on the part of the diary writers to preserve their manuscripts, typically by giving them to someone for safekeeping or by hiding them in the ground or in the walls of buildings in the hopes of being able to retrieve them after the war. Yet even such efforts at preservation depended on chance for success. Few diaries from the camps survived, and when one takes into consideration the conditions in concentration and forced labor camps, it is unlikely that many diaries were kept there. There are some notable exceptions, such as that of Fela Szeps (1918–1945), a university-aged Jewish woman from the Polish town of Dąbrowa Górnica, who kept a clandestine record of her three years in a forced labor camp in Silesia, as well as the diaries and notes produced by three Jewish men who worked in the gas chambers and crematoria at Auschwitz-Birkenau. These men buried their manuscripts in the crematoria grounds, and the texts were discovered after the war.

From Artur Eisenbach in Łódź to Yoysef Opatoshu in New York, 20 January 1947, asking for his help in identifying certain documents found in the Oyneg Shabes Archive. It is believed that the material was written by the late Zelig Kalmanovitch in Vilna in 1941, when he was still alive and in touch with Emanuel Ringelblum. In the material, there is a reference to a private letter from Opatoshu, in which he castigates Jews for having allowed historical treasures to be lost before World War I. Eisenbach wants Opatoshu to confirm that he sent such a letter to Kalmanovitch. Yiddish. RG 436, Joseph Opatoshu Papers, F9. (YIVO)

Even in ghettos and in hiding, writing a diary proved to be a difficult undertaking. Beyond the challenge of procuring paper and writing instruments, which led one Łódź ghetto diarist whose identity is unknown to write in the margins of a book, the most literal difficulty that diarists encountered was physical: if discovered, a diary would endanger the life of the writer. In his last will and testament, a copy of which he placed in each crate of his personal notes and documents that he buried in the Kovno ghetto, Avraham Tory (1909–2002) admitted that he “overcame the fear of death which is directly connected with the very fact of writing each page of my diary, and with the very collection and hiding of the documentary material. Had the slightest part of any of this been discovered, my fate would have been sealed.”

Diary writing could also endanger other peoples’ lives, including those of non-Jews who were mentioned in diaries or who helped hide the manuscripts. An awareness of the danger posed to other people’s lives compelled some individuals to use guarded language or even to avoid mentioning certain topics or individuals altogether. The most famous example of this is Emanuel Ringelblum (1900–1944), the Polish Jewish historian who kept a diary in the Warsaw ghetto and spearheaded the creation of its underground archive, Oyneg Shabes. Ringelblum played a central role in helping to organize the ghetto uprising, but he omitted mentioning his underground activities in his diary and notes. For other people, the mental difficulty of writing a diary overwhelmed their sense of duty to record their experiences. Starvation, violence, and hopelessness made it difficult to write. Indeed, diarists’ frequent references to their struggles to muster up the energy and will to write suggest indeterminate traces of the many Jews who may have wanted to write but found themselves unable to do so.

Despite such difficulties, individuals who kept diaries were motivated for a variety of reasons. In part, the turn to diary writing under German occupation emerged out of a deeply rooted Jewish literary tradition of bearing witness to tragedy as a means of transcending it. At the same time, Jewish diary writing during the Holocaust is evidence of East European Jews’ connection to the broader European cultural practices of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in which diary writing figured prominently as a means of self-exploration, intellectual development, and historical documentation. Thus, in addition to writing diaries to resist German oppression, Jewish diarists wrote for a number of other reasons, in part depending on their religious, cultural, national, political, and familial backgrounds, and in part depending on the period of the war and their experiences of Nazi persecution.

Most felt duty-bound to document Nazi persecution and mass murder in order to ensure that the outside world would know about Nazi criminality and respond appropriately after the war. Some hoped their diaries would contribute to the pursuit of legal justice after the war. Others looked to history writing as a form of justice, and sought to ensure the accuracy of historical accounts through their diary-writing efforts. And some individuals had arguably more modest goals, writing diaries for members of their own families who had escaped German occupation and who would want to know the fate of their relatives. Thus, Jewish men and women who wrote journals connected their writing to Jewish and non-Jewish genres that included lamentation literature, autobiography and confession, the literature of dissent, modern historiography, journalism, jurisprudence, the private diary, and family correspondence.

The range of motivations compelling individuals to write diaries influenced what they chose to detail within them. Diarists described everything from issues of daily life and survival, family relations, news and rumors about the fate of other Jews and about the war effort, perceptions of Jewish leadership, interactions with non-Jewish neighbors, and their own and their communities’ religious and cultural responses. Diaries such as Ringelblum’s from Warsaw and Herman Kruk’s (1897–1944) from the Vilna ghetto document the daily existences and moods of their communities, whereas diaries such as Yitsḥak Katzenelson’s (1885–1944) focus more on private reflections. Thus, the body of source materials commonly referred to as diaries varies considerably in terms of subject matter and authorship. It includes diaries written anonymously and those that were signed; diaries written by individuals acting independently and those written by individuals participating in underground group efforts to record Jewish experiences; and even the officially sponsored chronicle of the Jewish Council of the Łódź ghetto. Some diaries are journaux intimes, in which the writer is also the diary’s main character and is self-reflexively exploring his or her thoughts, experiences, and emotions. Others are reportages, with the writer attempting to fill the role of an eyewitness journalist recounting the unprecedented and horrific events of the day. Finally, some diaries were worked over or edited by their writers, while others remained unedited.

As this catalog suggests, diaries are among the most valuable historical sources for documenting Jewish daily life during the Holocaust as well as Jewish perceptions of Nazi exterminatory measures in the midst of the killing. Nevertheless, it must be borne in mind that diaries are far from neutral catalogs of information. This by no means detracts from their value, but rather requires readers to remain cognizant of the authorial presence of the diarists in shaping the texts. The necessity of reading such source materials with a critical eye is all the more acute in the case of published diaries, which, in the worst cases, can substantially modify the focus and tone of the original text as a result of editing and translating.

Suggested Reading

Published English translations exist of all the diaries mentioned in the article with the exception of the diary of Fela Szeps. See also Nathan Cohen, “Diaries of the Sonderkommandos in Auschwitz: Coping with Fate and Reality,” Yad Vashem Studies 20 (1990): 273–312; David Engel, “On the Bowdlerization of a Holocaust Testimony: The Wartime Journal of Calek Perechodnik,” Polin 12 (1999): 316–329; Alexandra Garbarini, Numbered Days: Diaries and the Holocaust (New Haven, 2006); David Roskies, Against the Apocalypse: Responses to Catastrophe in Modern Jewish Culture (Syracuse, N.Y., 1999); Robert Moses Shapiro, ed., Holocaust Chronicles: Individualizing the Holocaust through Diaries and Other Contemporaneous Personal Accounts (Hoboken, N.J., 1999).