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Pik, Aron Diary 1941

1 of 14 Collections in

Jewish Perspectives on the Holocaust

Holocaust Diaries

Jewish diaries offer unique, personal accounts of the Holocaust. Motivated to record their experiences for a variety of reasons, these authors all had different identities, national traditions, education levels, faiths, politics, and ages. The sources collected here reflect this diversity and show the value of diaries for the study of the Holocaust.

Holocaust Diaries

Jewish diaries were not always recognized as critical sources for the study of the Holocaust. Due to an early focus on perpetrators and official documents when the field of Holocaust studies first began, researchers tended to dismiss Jewish diaries as subjective and unreliable.1 But in recent decades, many scholars have shown how these concerns about personal diaries can be used to add valuable details to official accounts of events. The sources featured in this collection add personal details from a wide range of different Jewish experiences of the Holocaust.2

Many different types of personal records that Jewish people kept under Nazi persecution can be considered to be forms of Holocaust diaries. Soon after the end of World War II, people's ideas of Holocaust diaries were shaped by the publication of Anne Frank’s diary—a personal account of a Jewish girl hiding with her family in occupied Amsterdam.3 But the sources in this collection show that there are many other kinds of Holocaust diaries. The examples included here demonstrate that first-person writing from the period of the Holocaust takes different forms.4

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All of the authors in this collection were targeted by antisemitic Nazi racial laws for being Jewish. Whether or not they identified as Jewish or framed events in their diaries as Jewish experiences, their lives were threatened because they had been labeled Jewish by others. It is this common experience of persecution that links these very different sources.5

Individual motivations for writing a diary—and the conditions of writing—varied considerably from case to case. Some authors kept a diary throughout their lives and started writing before the time of the Holocaust. Many others—from children like Peter Feigl to adults like Jechiel Górny—were inspired to write by the traumatic events they experienced. Some authors were driven to write by a desire to bear witness to the injustices and crimes commited against their communities. Other writers like Moryc Brajtbart wrote only for themselves with no other readers in mind. It is likely that many people recorded their experiences not only to document their persecution, but also to help work through their personal trauma.

Difficult and often deadly living conditions in camps and ghettos influenced the form these diaries took. During the Holocaust, very few Jewish people were able to note down events as they were happening. In the various camps in which Jews lived and died, writing was forbidden. The demands of work and survival also robbed the prisoners of the energy, time, and materials necessary to document their experiences.

Outside camps and ghettos, writing could still be extremely dangerous. If one was in hiding, anything that could give away a person’s true identity was an unnecessary risk. It took enormous courage and energy for many Jewish people to write. This means that many texts from the Holocaust that we think of as diaries actually represent an array of different writings on a wide range of forms and topics. Many diary writers went through periods in which they were not able to write. When they found the time and energy to do so—often after fleeing a ghetto to hide in a so-called "Aryan" part of a town or village—what they wrote was more like a memoir in terms of style and narrative.6

The authors of Holocaust diaries varied widely in terms of their personal biographies, religious traditions, and educations. The authors' motivations for writing were all different as well. The unique primary sources gathered here explore some of the wide variety of Jewish experiences of persecution during the Holocaust—and show how different kinds of Holocaust diaries can add to our understanding of these events.

Raul Hilberg, a founding contributor to the field of Holocaust studies and author of the first comprehensive study of the Holocaust, based his 1,000-page study exclusively on primary sources left by German agencies and institutions, as well as the occasional memoir by a high Nazi official. Hilberg's landmark study was published in 1961. For the authoritative edition, see Raul Hilberg, The Destruction of the European Jews (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003).

Many of the sources presented here are also featured in the book series, Jewish Responses to Persecution, 1933–1946, published by the US Holocaust Memorial Museum.

The first translation of Anne Frank's diary into English was published in 1952. For a revised critical edition, see Anne Frank, The Diary of Anne Frank: The Revised Critical Edition (New York: Doubleday, 2003).

For more on Holocaust diaries as a genre of sources in scholarship, see the related online lecture from the US Holocaust Memorial Museum. 

The definition of "Jewishness" in this context—often based on Nazi criteria—has been criticized and debated. See for example the essay by historian Isaac Deutscher, "Who Is a Jew?" in Deutscher, The Non-Jewish Jew and Other Essays (London: Merlin Press, 1981).

Memoirs are typically written after the events they depict, while diaries are generally written about current events. For an introduction to the many aspects of Jewish diary writing during the Holocaust, see Alexandra Garbarini, Numbered Days: Diaries and the Holocaust (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2006). 

All 21 Items in the Holocaust Diaries Collection

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