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The Unfinished Diary: A Chronicle of Tears
By Chaim Yitzchok Wolgelernter
Israel Bookshop Publications



In Souls on Fire: Portraits and Legends of Hasidic Masters, Elie Wiesel quotes the renowned talmid chacham Menachem Mendl of Vitebsk’s succinct ontological observation: “Man is the language of God.” By this he meant that the words created by humans usher the Divine into the world, language crafted in joy and suffering. But, when words reach their finality – their inability to address events at the limit – the ways in which an individual narrates their own experience changes. In this process, language changes.

It is through the profound trauma of loss captured in Holocaust diaries and memoirs that we come to know the psychology, personal philosophy and historicity of the witness: through their own words. The spiritual content and expression of the Holocaust diary is less well documented and understood. Yet, regardless of their source, the Holocaust diary is a singular conduit, where words and meanings matter, if we hope to comprehend the broken landscapes of suffering and hope of European Jewry throughout this tragic period.

The specificity of faith-based diaries, long ignored by Holocaust scholarship, is finally being recognized for its unique perspective about how Jews dealt with the day-to-day experiences of the Holocaust. So is the case with the remarkable diary of Chaim Yitzchock Wolgelernter, recently published by Israel Bookshop Publications under the title The Unfinished Diary: A Chronicle of Tears. His diary is a gifted example of writing from the Orthodox standpoint and experience. Begun on September 1, 1942 with its last entry in 1944, it is also a powerful story of the Holocaust in Poland – with Wolgelernter recording the good, bad and ugly amongst Polish citizens, courageous rescuers as well as murderous Polish youth (the Junacy), Polish police and the feared Gestapo. He documents in minute detail the human anguish expressed during the deportations and mass killings in his town, Dzialoszyce, as a prelude to his witnessing the annihilation of Jews in the neighboring towns and villages of Dzialoszse, Kazimierz, Szyszczyce, Debowiec, Skalbmierz in the Southern Poland region of Zaglebie Dabrowskie, a center of traditional and chasidic Jewish life.

Chaim Yitzchock Wolgelernter’s diary incorporates large portions of what would generically fall within the genre of memoir. The chronological voice within his writing is memoir-like in style – in the sense of a man looking back in time – but with the extant content of rapidly unfolding everyday events, like a diary. Its hybrid quality is, however, its strength, as other writerly motifs are at work. The reader confronts a story of immense personal loss siphoned through a Talmudic philosophical inquiry that transports us towards Wolgelernter’s own solace in Torah, his lamenational style and his steadfast belief in the resiliency of Klal Yisroel (the sacred crust).

He describes the tensions in the crowded market square before deportations and the massacre of Dzialoszyce’s Jewish population: “They line up in rows…. The tumultuous noise ceases at once, as a long line of previously prepared wagons moves into the middle of the square…. Barely ten minutes later the wagons stop in an area of pitted terrain near the Jewish cemetery. The command was issued before anyone could think. In a moments time every Jew was to remove his clothes…. Move as close as possible to the edge…. the genteel Germans wanted the people to drop into the pit on their own so they would not have to dirty their hands touching the corpses…. Standing naked before the pit, each person gazed disbelievingly…. Immediately the beasts began to fire into the mass of people. The sounds of gunshot and the screams of Shema Yisroel of the kedoshim of Dzialoszyce reverberated through the night.”


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Henri Lustiger Thaler is senior curator at the Kleinman Holocaust Education Center in Brooklyn and professor of cultural sociology at Ramapo College of New Jersey. His forthcoming book is: Witnessing Unbound: Memory, History, Holocaust, to be published by Wayne State University Press, 2016.