Numbered Days: Diaries and the Holocaust

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As the Nazis swept across Europe during World War II, Jewish victims wrote diaries in which they grappled with the terror unfolding around them.  Some wrote simply to process the contradictory bits of news they received; some wrote so that their children, already safe in another country, might one day understand what had happened to their parents; and some wrote to furnish unknown readers in the outside world with evidence against the Nazi regime.
Were these diarists resisters, or did the process of writing make the ravages of the Holocaust even more difficult to bear? Drawing on an astonishing array of unpublished and published diaries from all over German-occupied Europe, historian Alexandra Garbarini explores the multiple roles that diary writing played in the lives of these ordinary women and men. A story of hope and hopelessness, Numbered Days offers a powerful examination of the complex interplay of writing and mourning. And in these heartbreaking diaries, we see the first glimpses of a question that would haunt the twentieth century: Can such unimaginable horror be represented at all?

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Editorial Reviews

Alexandra Zapruder
“A brilliant, thoughtful, and groundbreaking study of adult diarists writing during the Holocaust.”—Alexandra Zapruder, author of Salvaged Pages: Young Writers’ Diaries of the Holocaust
Michael Berenbaum
"This book provides an important insight into the inner world of Jews as they suffered through the Holocaust. It moved me time and again."—Michael Berenbaum, author of The World Must Know: The History of the Holocaust as Told in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
Saul Friedlander
“Alexandra Garbarini's Numbered Days is a path-breaking study. Based essentially on unpublished diaries written by Jews during the Holocaust in several occupied European countries, East and West, Garbarini brilliantly demonstrates how important such testimonies are not only for our understanding of individual fate, but also as sources for the history of the collective fate of European Jews during those years. This book will appeal to both the general reader and historians for many years to come.”—Saul Friedlander, UCLA
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780300112528
  • Publisher: Yale University Press
  • Publication date: 10/28/2006
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 288
  • Product dimensions: 6.30 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Alexandra Garbarini is assistant professor, Department of History, Williams College. She lives in Williamstown, Massachusetts.

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Read an Excerpt

Numbered Days

Diaries and the Holocaust
By Alexandra Garbarini

Yale University Press

Copyright © 2006 Alexandra Garbarini
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-11252-8

Chapter One

Historical and Theoretical Considerations

Notebook Nr. 1 Entreaty The person into whose hands this diary should happen to fall is strongly urged not to discard it, or to destroy it. In case it is not possible to deliver it to the intended address-one is kindly asked to give it over to competent hands so that a future historian might ladle out the true evidence, illuminating at least partially those terrible days of ours full of murder, conflagration, blood, and tears unprecedented in the history of the world, the suffering of a defenseless nation. From the chaos, in the shrouded mist, will emerge the outlines of the true and unprecedented crime, whose atrocity and unprecedented abomination will penetrate even the most hardened hearts and will wrap the perpetrators in eternal shame.

From April through October 1943, Kalman Rotgeber wrote about the previous three and a half years of German occupation from the vantage of a hiding place on the "Aryan" side of Warsaw. He filled twenty-three notebooks, all the while remaining conscious of the possibility that they mightnever reach his intended audience. For Rotgeber as well as for other European Jews who were persecuted and killed between 1939 and 1945 providing the future with a written testimony of what was in the process of being destroyed was one response to living in the shadow of annihilation. Through their diaries, they attempted to make sense both of the unimaginable genocide as it unfolded around them and of the meaning of their own lives in this radically altered world.

Hundreds and perhaps thousands of European Jewish men and women from different national backgrounds and linguistic-cultural traditions and in various wartime contexts kept diaries during the period of the Holocaust. These texts are a window onto Jewish victims' responses, in the midst of the killings, to the perpetration of genocide. They also constitute one component of their responses. While the Nazis endeavored to destroy all traces of their murder of European Jewry, the victims of that genocide produced written testaments for their relatives abroad and for the world at large in order to ensure that the memory of their extermination would not become the Nazis' last victim. While Jews were being expelled from their homes, systematically starved, shot in mass graves, or ultimately, for the majority of the victims, gassed, some attempted to preserve evidence of the murderous methods employed by the perpetrators and thereby to prevent their killers from controlling the knowledge of their deaths. In so doing, they demonstrated their keen awareness that annihilation is incomplete when memory is preserved.

The diaries that have survived because of the painstaking care taken by the diary writer and by chance comprise an extraordinary body of source material. Jewish men and women registered in their diaries the evolving process that eventually culminated for some in the realization that their fate was collective annihilation. Looked at together, diaries represented a broad social, intellectual, and cultural phenomenon that unwittingly linked Jews from all over Europe in a similar activity during the years of the war. As both "personal expressions" and "cultural products," diaries not only gave voice to their authors' personalities but also articulated the expectations and values of the cultures to which they belonged.

In their turn to diary writing during the Second World War, Jews were not alone, although their reasons for writing differed in certain fundamental respects from those of non-Jews. In an essay that appeared in the newspaper Deutsche Allgemeine Zeitung in November 1942, the German journalist and diarist Ursula von Kardorff commented, "For several years, it appears that, in general, the practice of keeping a diary is again on the rise despite the total demand that today's existence makes on the individual's time." The French scholar Michèle Leleu was likely inspired to take up an investigation of diaries in 1943 because of the popularity of diary writing during the war. In her book, published in 1952, Leleu claimed that "more than any other, the Second World War favored the blossoming of diaries of revolt. French and Germans sought in them a relief from the oppression of their consciences." Leleu and others have accounted for the profusion of diary writing under German occupation-by Jews and non-Jews-by arguing that totalitarianism led people to keep diaries because politics was off-limits as a subject of conversation and because people sought to escape by the only means available to them: turning inward. Whereas studies of primarily non-Jewish diaries from the Second World War have by and large equated the motivations of Jewish and non-Jewish diarists-even though it seems clear that Jewish diarists did not need to document their distance and independence from the Nazi regime-studies of exclusively Jewish Holocaust diaries have described the phenomenon as having emerged from a deeply rooted Jewish literary tradition of bearing witness to tragedy as a means of transcending it. Yet the fact that so many Europeans took up diary writing during this period attests to how widespread an endeavor it had become, reaching beyond its Jewish roots. Thus, Jewish diary writing during the Holocaust reflected Jews' particular wartime circumstances and also connected to broader European cultural practices of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Jews employed many strategies in response to the Nazi threat to Jewish existence and the crisis of meaning it precipitated. The key problem this book details is, how did Jews make sense of the horror while it was being perpetrated? Rather than portraying "the Jewish response" to the Holocaust, I consider the range of responses of different people. First and foremost, then, this book contributes to our knowledge of the heterogeneity of the victims, of their experiences, of their wartime perceptions and coping strategies. By exploring the differences among Jews, I have tried to heed one scholar's warning and resist "reducing all Jews to a single, undifferentiated category with one common destiny." Jewish experiences of the Holocaust cannot be boiled down to a single narrative or conceptual framework. Instead, I suggest new ways of categorizing Jewish wartime experiences based on diarists' strategies of interpretation. Jews' positions as the theologically inclined, the historically minded, the news-reading, the family-oriented were born of their meaning-making struggles, which emerged out of the intersection of their prewar identities and wartime situations. Looking at the variety of ways in which diarists attempted to make sense of the catastrophe gives us an alternative means of categorizing Jewish experiences from this period, one which highlights both the shared experience of being a Jew under German occupation -as meaning-makers rather than passive victims-and the diversity of modern European Jewry in the mid-twentieth century. Even diary writing did not mean one thing or function in a single way for Jews.

I also show that several of the issues central to postwar scholarly discussions about this period were pertinent to the women and men who wrote diaries. For instance, some diarists grappled with whether the Nazi extermination of the Jews challenged the limits of representation. For them, direct knowledge of the Holocaust did not lead to understanding and the ability to construct narratives about their experiences. On the contrary, when they became aware of the genocide, they faced the core problem of how to make sense of and represent to others the destruction of their people. In this respect, questions that have been considered as belonging to recent theoretical and historiographical debates were already present in the diary sources of the period.

Remaining attuned to the perspectives of diarists suggests a new periodization of the war years based not on the actions of the perpetrators but on the responses of the victims. For Jews who remained alive and knew about the fate of their fellow Jews-for the most part, Polish Jews who were geographically at the center of the German killing operation and had thus far evaded being killed-the period 1942 to 1943 was one of rupture. Most diaries written before that time reflect a limited understanding of the threat the writers faced. The annihilation of Jewish communities in large cities, towns, and villages produced the realization that there could be no postwar return to what had been. This provoked new questioning about God, humanity, the future, and the continuity of their identities and a sense of total alienation from the outside world.

Attention to time, to the periods of the Holocaust, is inextricable from a concern with the emotional lives of Jews. Understanding emotions may be acutely important for a history of this period. Indeed, the first major call for the historical study of emotions was by the French Annaliste historian Lucien Febvre in 1941. Febvre's interest in the general question of emotions in history stemmed from his particular concern with the emotions that dominated Europe in the 1930s and during the war. He believed that historians needed to take seriously emotional life and its historicity in order to understand fascism's appeal and, thereby, to prevent its recurrence. Many Jewish diarists shared Febvre's conviction that what appeared to them to be fundamentally irrational-in this instance, the drive to murder millions of children and adult civilians-would have to be rationally analyzed by historians after the war because such an impulse carried to such an extreme could hardly be left unexplained. At the same time, some diarists indicated it was also essential to study the emotional lives of Jews during this period. These diarists conveyed the idea that without becoming familiar with the complexity of Jews' emotional responses, people in the outside world would never come to understand what it was like to be a Jew during this period and thus would remain ignorant of the full range of human experience. For this reason, I take up the question of emotions and consider categories such as hope, despair, anger, and defiance as communal responses and as aspects of Jews' relationships during different periods of the war. Emotions played an essential role in Jews' interpretive strategies: in their reading of the news, of history, and of the meaning of their diaries.

The historiographical discussion in this chapter and the textual analyses in the following four chapters address fundamental issues of experience and agency, representation, and diarists' changing strategies of confrontation with the unimaginable. To be sure, one of my goals has been to impart a sense of dignity to those who suffered, yet I have tried to avoid suggesting that Jews were ennobled by their suffering. To do so would invest their misery with an ultimate meaningfulness, as if they had derived some positive benefit from it. This applies to my reading of the act of diary writing as well. Jewish diarists have been glorified; in the words of one scholar, "Like soldiers who die for their country, these Jews obeyed the imperative to document over the imperative to live." Rather, it seems to me the "imperative to document" was inseparable from the "imperative to live." Lacking allies and having no hope of being rescued, Jews clung to one of the last threads of life available to them: writing themselves into the future. The last words of Chaim Kaplan's Warsaw ghetto diary, "If my life ends-what will become of my diary?" are frequently interpreted as evidence that Kaplan valued his diary more than his life, yet they can also be read as indicating that he regarded his diary to be intertwined with his existence. The condition of his death meant that his diary would end and, even more, that he would cease to control its fate. As much meaning as these diarists invested in their writing, they did not "martyr" themselves for the sake of their documentary endeavors. And, as we shall see, in many cases they bore witness to their experiences with the deepest reluctance.


An examination of Jews' values and perceptions must wrestle with an issue familiar to historians of the Holocaust in particular and to social and cultural historians in general: how to depict mass experience without effacing individual differences. Indeed, some diarists expressed concern about this eventuality, namely, that the complexity of Jewish identities and wartime lives would remain unknown to "the outside world." The Dutch diarist Etty Hillesum pessimistically conjectured in a letter she wrote in 1943 that "the outside world probably thinks of us as a gray, uniform, suffering mass of Jews, and knows nothing of the gulfs and abysses and subtle differences that exist between us. They could never hope to understand." Despite wondering, "Could one ever hope to convey to the outside world what has happened here today?" Hillesum continued to grapple with the depth and scope of Jewish suffering, feeling herself duty-bound to "bear witness where witness needs to be borne."

Thanks to Hillesum's diary and those of other Jews, we can glimpse the ways in which Jewish men and women portrayed their lives, their worlds, their persecution, and, most specifically, their realization that they were individually and collectively facing death. In examining the self-perception and conduct of Jews during the Holocaust, I have been influenced by other social and cultural historians who have been drawn increasingly to study individual experience. Historians have always mined personal documents for information about important historical figures, but only in the past two decades, under the influence of feminism and poststructuralism and the methodological innovations of microhistory, have they sought out first-person accounts produced by ordinary people. An openness to what Joan W. Scott referred to as "the literary" has given rise to new questions about human experience, new areas of historical research, most notably on the historicity of the self, and new possibilities for thinking about narrative construction. In analyzing the relationship between writing and experience in Jewish Holocaust diaries, therefore, I ask questions similar to those of other cultural historians about the function and meaning of cultural production under varying historical circumstances. My book thus joins the growing tide of historical works that make use of diaries and memoirs in writing about the perspectives of the Holocaust's victims.

At stake in an investigation of Jewish men's and women's diaries is the possibility of discovering traces of the human struggles of this epoch. People's efforts to render their suffering meaningful are discernible in their diaries. So, too, are their repeated doubts about these efforts because of their ongoing suffering. Thus, the potential exists to explore these men's and women's construction of narratives-what was historically imaginable to them-and the ways in which such narratives molded their possibilities for agency-both the actions they took and the strategies they developed to make sense of the destruction of their worlds. Though Jews from all backgrounds met with the same end, nonetheless, they "'saw'-i.e., understood and witnessed-[their] predicament[s] differently, depending on [their] own historical past, religious paradigms, and ideological explanations." Moreover, variations among individuals' wartime situations played a crucial role in their interpretations of Nazi persecution. How these differences manifested themselves is evident in each chapter of this book, ranging from Jewish diarists' approaches and responses to reading the news to the unremitting hope for the future retained by diarists whose children had reached the safety of distant shores.


Excerpted from Numbered Days by Alexandra Garbarini Copyright © 2006 by Alexandra Garbarini. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

1 Historical and theoretical considerations 1
2 Historians and martyrs 22
3 News readers 58
4 Family correspondents 95
5 Reluctant messengers 129
Conclusion : "a stone under history's wheel" 162
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