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Memoir of Calel Perechodnik

Memoir of Calel Perechodnik
Courtesy of the Jewish Historical Institute, Warsaw; US Holocaust Memorial Museum
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tags: ghettos religious life resistance

type: Memoir

Among the most exceptional Jewish wartime accounts is the memoir1 of Calel (Calek) Perechodnik, a young Jewish policeman2 in the Otwock ghetto. Hiding on the Aryan side of Warsaw beginning in December 1942, Perechodnik wrote a manuscript describing the events of the previous years. In October of 1943, he completed an epilogue to the manuscript and passed the work to an acquaintance from Otwock who preserved the document.

The significance of this work stems from the unique position of the author: treating the memoir as a kind of confession, Perechodnik presents the perspective of a perpetrator as well as a victim of the Holocaust. Working as a policeman, he helped liquidate the Otwock ghetto on August 19, 1942. During the action, he personally escorted his wife Anka and two-year-old daughter to the Umschlagplatz3 with the promise that they would be exempted from deportation. They were both, however, sent to the Treblinka death camp to be gassed alongside with 7,000 Jews from the Otwock ghetto while Perechodnik and his fellow policemen stayed behind.

Throughout the memoir, the author pairs a cutting account of his work as a policeman with observations on personal responsibility and collective guilt. In this passage, he discusses religion, Jewish political movements, and the nature of faith. Perechodnik considers the roots of antisemitism while venting his own hostility toward Judaism, condemning the notion of a "chosen nation," and chastising Jewish political leaders. He criticizes rabbis for abandoning the Jews of Europe or filling them with false hope. Echoing the despair of other Jewish writers during the Holocaust, he also wonders at the existence of a God that could permit the murder of so many innocents.

Controversy erupted over Perechodnik’s memoir more than fifty years after its completion. An authentic copy of the manuscript held by the Central Jewish Historical Commission in Poland (the present-day Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw) had been recognized for decades as the only surviving version of the memoir.4 In the 1990s, book-length editions were published—first in Polish, later in English translation—that were widely regarded as resembling this copy.5 However, after another authentic copy was uncovered in a Jerusalem archive, it was discovered that the first published editions had been heavily edited. These editions altered—and in one historian's view—corrupted Perechodnik’s original composition. A few years later, a new edition appeared, this time more closely reflecting the original manuscript.6

The apparent mishandling of Perechodnik’s memoir in its first published editions illustrates some of the difficulties facing scholars and archivists when editing and publishing personal accounts of the Holocaust. It also highlights the challenges of using diaries and memoirs as firsthand evidence about historical events. To what extent can they be treated as reliable sources, especially when written months and years after the fact? What rules should editors follow when publishing collections of personal documents? 

Unlike his manuscript, Calek Perechodnik did not survive the Holocaust. On August 17, 1944, he joined the Polish Home Army [Armia Krajowa] to fight in the Warsaw Uprising. He died after the surrender of Warsaw in October 1944, possibly when the bunker he was hiding in was discovered by German troops.

Historian David Engel identifies Perechodnik’s work as a journal, even though the author did not record events on a daily basis, but wrote them post factum. The featured text follows historian Jacek Leociak, who defines it as a memoir, characterized by a certain distance in time to the described events. Compare Jacek Leociak, "Literature of the Personal Document as a Source in Holocaust Research (a Methodological Reconnaissance)," Holocaust Studies and Materials 1, (2008): 31-52, with David Engel, “On the Bowdlerization of a Holocaust Testimony: The Wartime Journal of Calek Perechodnik,” Polin: Studies of Polish Jewry 12, (1999): 316, fn. 1; compare with Jacek Leociak, "Literature of the Personal Document as a Source in Holocaust Research," 48. For more Holocaust diaries and memoirs, see the Experiencing History collection Holocaust Diaries.

Known in German as Jüdischer Ordnungsdienst, these were auxiliary police units organized by the Jewish Councils (the Jewish administration in ghettos) under the German occupation authority.

German: collecting point; an area used to assemble Jews before their deportation to death camps during liquidations of ghettos.

The presented excerpt comes from this copy of the memoir. For more on the work of Jewish Historical Commissions, see the related item A Call for Information on War Criminals.

Calel Perechodnik, Czy ja jestem mordercą?, ed. Paweł Szapiro (Warszawa: Wydawnictwo Karta, 1993). A second edition was published in 1995. The English edition of this version appeared as Calel Perechodnik, Am I a Murderer: Testament of a Jewish Ghetto Policeman, ed. and trans. by Frank Fox (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1996). 

Calek Perechodnik, Spowiedź, ed. David Engel (Warszawa: Ośrodek Karta, 2004). Engel elsewhere notes that the edited volumes published by the Jewish Historical Institute contained alterations that misrepresented Perechodnik's views on politically-charged topics, including Polish Jews' attitudes toward Bolshevism and the Soviet invasion of 1939, and the character of relations between Poles and Jews during the war. See David Engel, “On the Bowdlerization of a Holocaust Testimony,” 322-326.

André Léon Blum (1872–1950), French Jewish politician and socialist, twice Prime Minister and briefly President of the post-war provisional government of France.

Lazar Moiseyevich Kaganovich (1893–1991), Soviet politician and close associate of Joseph Stalin.

Possibly Samuel Rosenman (1896–1973), speechwriter and close advisor to US President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

The General Jewish Workers’ Union, known as “the Bund,” was a Jewish Socialist party founded in Vilnius in 1897. It supported Jewish cultural autonomy and secular nationalism while opposing Zionism.

Agudat Yisrael, known as "the Aguda," an ultra-Orthodox Jewish political party founded in 1912. The Aguda believed Jews should show strong loyalty to their home countries and was opposed to Zionism.

Hebrew: "righteous ones"; a Jewish honorific given to those considered spiritual masters.

Psalms 137:5, “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning.” 

1 Samuel 8:20: "That we also may be like all the nations; and that our king may judge us, and go out before us, and fight our battles."

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[...] We wonder where does such hatred of Jews come from and is there much Jewish fault in it?

As far as I am concerned, leaving aside inherent German sadism, the desire to murder unarmed people only for the pleasure of murder and to take their gold, I also attribute the blame entirely to the Jewish religion.

We cannot avail ourselves of other nations’ hospitality and consider ourselves a chosen nation, a wiser nation. We cannot pray every day: "You have chosen us out of all the nations, you have loved us." God chose us, but for what? To be the scapegoat of all peoples, so we would be responsible for all the sins of the world. What connects me and Blum1? What connects me to Kaganovich2? What connects me to Rozenman3? What connects us to them? What connects them to us? I think just as much as connects the Jews and the Chinese, we all surely come from one forefather, or from the same species of ape. And yet we European Jews have paid all these debts with the blood of our innocent children, our women, and our own blood. Curse the Bund,4 which commanded Jewish workers to fight for a better life for local Jewish workers and forbade them to emigrate to Palestine. Where are you, leaders of the Bund? You were the first to escape to America, to spread the same rot among workers over there.

Curse the Aguda5 with its fanaticism, with its leaders who now too are stirring up a fuss in America while the Jewish nation they duped has perished in Treblinka. Do not you rabbis, you leaders of the Aguda, believe wholeheartedly "what can man do to me if God is with me," believe that if there are 36 tzaddikim6 in a town, then that town will not perish? So then why did you flee? Indeed, with your holy persons you could have shielded the Jewish nation from annihilation. The Jewish religion built a Chinese wall between us and the other nations, instilled in us a separate mentality, demanded we circumcise our boys. We willingly stamped ourselves not with the stamp of unity between us and God, but the stamp of death, which bundled us off to Treblinka. We prayed every day.

If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand fail me!7

Unfortunately we did not remember Jerusalem and it was not only that our right hand failed, but our examination was failed, in the literal sense of those words. Two things could have saved the Jews. Uncompromising Zionism, living on bread and water but in our own home, and ruthless assimilation, not only of customs and religion, but of the regeneration of our blood. There is no middle path. But I believe in no democratic slogan. Man has a sleeping devil within him and will have it in heaven. I lived 26 years among Poles and the devil was asleep, but he awoke when conditions were right and showed his true face. You, Jews of other countries, do not make our mistakes, for there is no middle path in human life. There was a time when the Jewish nation had the chance to choose the right path. The people addressed the prophet Samuel with the following demand:

"We wish to be like the other nations, give us a king to rule over us."8

Yet the prophet Samuel, although he obeyed them, pointed out that divine governments are better than human ones.

This very day, we have a model of how to truly find ourselves under the mighty care of the Divine. And the time will come when the democratic world triumphs, trumpets will sound the freedom of the peoples, the Jews will be able to live freely, will be able to return to Palestine, and the fact that out of three million Jews perhaps 20,000 will be a minor thing; most importantly, justice has once again triumphed.

The Rabbis, those base cowards who fled beforehand, will once again praise the might of the name of the Lord, who once again will have led his people from bondage to the Promised Land. A new Passover will be established, only with one small difference.

The Jews arrived in Egypt numbering 70 lone men, and left as a nation counting 3 million souls; in Poland we were a concentration of 3 million souls, while proportionally no more than 70 whole families will leave Poland.

But in the end, what does that matter compared to eternity, compared to the fact of good’s triumph over evil? In any case these people too will multiply, in a thousand years new millions will come forth. Let us praise the name of the Lord! No, Jews, you are mistaken—after all, we lost the war. If there is a God in this world, then the most I can be bothered to do is blaspheme him. If there is no God at all, then what are people arguing about? But if there is a God, all the worse for him, it would seem he is a God of the powerful and mighty and not of the weak and disadvantaged. If I could go back to before the war, how eagerly would I dispose of all my possessions and go to Palestine with my wife—to seek happiness in my life through the work of my hands, the sweat of my brow. Now it is too late. After the war, even if I live, I will no longer go to Palestine. I am now too disheartened to live normally and see happy people, whole Jewish families. And I will not remain in Poland, my heart will not bear it, nor will I make myself a new home, nor will I be a socially useful person.

What may yet become of me?

Neither Jew, nor Catholic, nor an upright person, not a thief either, simply a derelict. 

Archival Information for This Item

Source (Credit)
Courtesy of the Jewish Historical Institute, Warsaw
US Holocaust Memorial Museum
RG Number 2.208M
Accession Number 1995.A.0867
Date Created
May 7, 1943 to August 19, 1943
Page(s) 63-65
Author / Creator
Calel Perechodnik
Publisher
Jewish Historical Institute (ŻIH), Warsaw
Language(s)
Polish
Location
Otwock, Poland
Warsaw, Poland
Document Type Memoir
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