Sign up now to receive our regular news briefs.

Defiance, Then Destruction: Chanukah in the Warsaw Ghetto

December 11, 2012 9:48 pm 0 comments

Crowd near the wall of the Warsaw Ghetto. Credit: Photo courtesy of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies.

“Never before in Jewish Warsaw were there as many Hanukkah celebrations as in this year of the wall.”

That entry from the diary of Hebrew educator Chaim Kaplan in December 1940, shortly after the walls of the Warsaw Ghetto were built, may surprise those who are accustomed to thinking of the ghetto only in terms of the misery of its Jewish residents under the Nazi jackboot. But in those early months of the ghetto, before the worst periods of deprivation and persecution overwhelmed the Jews, their spirit showed on the first Hanukkah behind the walls.

“Because of the sword that hovers over our heads,” the 1940 Hanukkah festivities were not held in the streets, Kaplan wrote. “Hanukkah parties were held in nearly every courtyard, even in rooms which face the street; the blinds were drawn, and that was sufficient. How much joy, how much of a feeling of national kinship there was in these Hanukkah parties! After sixteen months of Nazi occupation [since the German invasion of Poland in September 1939], we came to life again.”

Kaplan was particularly pleased that “we even deceived the Judenrat,” the Nazi-appointed Jewish leadership. “It tried to ban the holding of Hanukkah parties without a special permit… But this took effect only on paper; the Judenrat was fooled. Hundreds of celebrations were arranged and the stupid Judenrat did not get a single penny.”

In his diary, Kaplan quoted from a speech by a cat one of the Hanukkah events: “In all the countries where they want to bury us alive, we pull the gravediggers in with us.” Kaplan could not realize how prophetic those words would prove less than three years later, when the fighters of the Warsaw Ghetto revolt would take down many Nazis before losing their own lives.

Kaplan, 40, was the founder and principal of a Hebrew elementary school in Warsaw. He began keeping a diary, in Hebrew, in 1933. His entries about life in Jewish Warsaw following the construction of the ghetto walls offer a heartbreaking chronicle of disease, starvation, random atrocities and, ultimately, mass deportations.

With 30 percent of Warsaw’s population crammed into an area comprising barely 2 percent of the city, extreme overcrowding facilitated the rapid spread of disease. At the same time, Jews were limited to food rations of just 181 calories daily. By the summer of 1941, more than 5,000 Jews were dying monthly from starvation or disease.

Kaplan’s diary entries throughout 1941 describe sidewalks filled with “families bundled up in rags, moaning with heartrending voices,” “formerly well to do people who never had to worry about matters of food” crowding the soup kitchens and “waiting their turn for a bowl of watery soup,” and random atrocities such as a Nazi with “a face as red as fire” wielding an iron whip, savagely lashing an elderly Jew for 20 minutes straight.

There were too many horrors for the diarist to keep up with. “My inkwell has grown tired of lamentations,” Kaplan wrote at one point. “If I tried to write down everything in order, I couldn’t. Nor would I be recording anything new. Robberies, murders, humiliations, deprivations—nothing more.”

By the time the reader reaches Kaplan’s diary entries for Hanukkah in 1941, the contrast with those of the preceding year is evident. The festive and defiant mood of 1940 was just a distant memory. “This year very few Hanukkah candles were lit,” Kaplan wrote in December 1941. “Our holiday has been turned into a day of mourning. The courtyard of the prison on Dzielna Street was turned into a slaughterhouse today.” Fifteen Jews who were caught outside the city limits had been lined up and executed.

In the months to follow, the situation grew steadily worse. Random killings became more frequent and better organized. “Not a day goes by that the Nazis do not conduct a slaughter,” Kaplan recorded. Homelessness, disease, and starvation reached epidemic proportions. “In the gutters, amidst the refuse, one can see almost naked and barefoot little children wailing pitifully,” Kaplan wrote. “Every morning you will see their little bodies frozen to death in the ghetto streets.”

By the early summer of 1942, refugees reaching Warsaw from elsewhere in Poland provided details of the fate that awaited each Jewish community targeted by the Nazis. Jews deported from their towns were taken “in tightly sealed freight cars,” Kaplan wrote, “until they come to the place of their execution, where they are killed.”

In July 1942, Warsaw’s turn came. Kaplan described the first deportations in agonizing detail. Recording the tragedy of his people had become his life’s purpose, even as others doubted: “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? Will these words of yours reach the ears of future generations?'”

Somehow, they did.

In early August 1942, realizing the end was near, Kaplan stuffed his diaries into kerosene cans and entrusted them to a friend who was able to smuggle them to a Polish acquaintance in a nearby village. Kaplan and his wife would not live to see another Hanukkah. They were deported from Warsaw and gassed soon afterwards in the Treblinka death camp.

The Polish villager eventually sold the diaries to New York University. Scroll of Agony: The Warsaw Diary of Chaim A. Kaplan was first published in English in 1965, then subsequently in Kaplan’s beloved Hebrew and four other languages. Although Kaplan did not live to see his words in print, the spirit of defiance he witnessed in the Hanukkah celebrations of 1940 lives on in the diary that has become one of the most important sources of eyewitness testimony about the Holocaust.

Dr. Rafael Medoff is founding director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, and author or editor of 15 books about Jewish history and the Holocaust.

Leave a Reply

Please note: comments may be published in the Algemeiner print edition. Comments written in all caps will be deleted.

Current day month ye@r *


  • Arts and Culture Israel Jerry Seinfeld to Make Comedy Debut in Israel

    Jerry Seinfeld to Make Comedy Debut in Israel – Famed Jewish-American comedian and actor Jerry Seinfeld is slated to make his comedic debut in Israel later this year. Seinfeld, who was born in Brooklyn to Jewish parents from the Ukraine and Syria, will perform in Tel Aviv’s Mitvtachim Menorah Arena on Dec. 19 as part of a world tour. The comedian is most known for his enormously popular NBC sitcom Seinfeld, which ran from 1989-1998 and is widely considered one of the greatest TV series of all time. […]

    Read more →
  • Food Israel New Video Shows American Kids Reviewing Israeli Food After Tasting Dishes for First Time (VIDEO)

    New Video Shows American Kids Reviewing Israeli Food After Tasting Dishes for First Time (VIDEO)

    A new video circulating online shows eight American children reacting — mostly positively — to their first taste of the famed Israeli eggplant salad/dip, known in Hebrew as “salat hatzilim” and in other parts of the Levant as baba ganoush. The clip, created by, features the youngsters trying a variety of exotic dishes from other countries as well, such as Hawaiian poi, Colombian pork belly and Russian borscht. The Israeli delicacies served include schnitzel, slices of pita, hummus and the baba ganoush salad. “If someone […]

    Read more →
  • Blogs Features Pioneers/Philanthropists ‘Start-Up Nation’ Israel to Host Forbes Magazine Young Entrepreneurs Summit

    ‘Start-Up Nation’ Israel to Host Forbes Magazine Young Entrepreneurs Summit – Forbes magazine announced Tuesday that it will host its Under 30 EMEA (Europe, Middle East and Africa) Summit in Israel for the first time in April 2016. The conference is expected to bring together some 600 young entrepreneurs, with 200 from Europe, 200 from the U.S., and 200 from Israel. The summit has been hosted in Philadelphia for the past two years. It will include presentations, speeches, a pitch competition, and cultural immersion opportunities in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Beliefs and concepts What’s That Huge White Bridal Dress Floating Over the Tower of David?

    What’s That Huge White Bridal Dress Floating Over the Tower of David? –  “What’s that huge white bridal dress floating over the Tower of David?” That’s what visitors to Jerusalem’s Old City asked last week. The wedding gown, created by leading Israeli artist Motti Mizrachi, is part of the 2nd Jerusalem Biennale for Contemporary Jewish Art, an event that blew into town as the Sukkot holiday got underway. Mizrachi, who lives and works in Tel Aviv, created the dress that floats majestically over the Tower of David, the main exhibition site […]

    Read more →
  • Features Opinion The Top 10 Places to Visit in Israel

    The Top 10 Places to Visit in Israel

    Israel is a holiday destination on many travelers’ bucket lists. No matter the style of holiday you are after, Israel has the answer. Whether you prefer to relax by the beach, hike up mountains in the desert, visit religious and historical sites, eat your way through the country or just enjoy some retail therapy, your journey through Israel will be one to remember. While there are obviously so many things to see and do, here is a list of 10 of […]

    Read more →
  • Pioneers/Philanthropists US & Canada Jewish American Fashion Mogul Ralph Lauren to Step Down as CEO

    Jewish American Fashion Mogul Ralph Lauren to Step Down as CEO – Jewish American fashion mogul Ralph Lauren announced his plan to step down as chief executive officer of the renowned fashion brand. The head of Gap Inc’s Old Navy brand will take over the position. The 75-year-old Lauren, who founded Ralph Lauren Corp. in 1967, will continue to serve as executive chairman and will continue leading the fashion house’s design team, according to a statement by the company. After the announcement, Ralph Lauren shares rose 3.79 percent while Gap shares […]

    Read more →
  • Featured Sports US & Canada Jewish Boxer Dustin ‘White Tiger’ Fleischer Scores Fourth Knockout Victory

    Jewish Boxer Dustin ‘White Tiger’ Fleischer Scores Fourth Knockout Victory

    Jewish boxer Dustin Fleischer, who said his quest is to become the first world champion descended from a Holocaust survivor, stayed unbeaten with a first-round knockout. Fleischer, nicknamed “The White Tiger,” moved to 4-0 with the defeat of Ira Frank on Saturday night in Beach Haven, New Jersey, near his home, he reported after the fight on his Facebook page. The 26-year-old welterweight has won all his bouts by knockout. Read full story at JTA.

    Read more →
  • Featured Israel Pioneers/Philanthropists Meet Israel’s Santa Claus, the Trustee Tasked With Handing Out Leona Helmsley’s Billions (INTERVIEW)

    Meet Israel’s Santa Claus, the Trustee Tasked With Handing Out Leona Helmsley’s Billions (INTERVIEW)

    Renowned New York attorney Sandor (Sandy) Frankel, one of four trustees of the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust, was in Israel earlier this month to look at additional philanthropic options and to observe the progress of those endeavors already funded – to the tune of multi-millions. Frankel, who recently joined the prestigious Park Avenue law firm Otterbourg P.C., met with Israeli politicians and other bigwigs to get a sense from them about which projects in the country […]

    Read more →