“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.