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
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.