The Last Days of the Jerusalem of Lithuania: Chronicles From the Vilna Ghetto and the Camps, 1939-1944

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For five horrifying years in Vilna, the Vilna ghetto, and concentration camps in Estonia, Herman Kruk recorded his own experiences as well as the life and death of the Jewish community of the city symbolically called "The Jerusalem of Lithuania." This unique chronicle includes many recovered pages of Kruk's diaries and provides a powerful eyewitness account of the annihilation of the Jewish communities of Eastern Europe. This volume includes the Yiddish edition of Kruk's diaries, published in 1961 and translated here for the first time, as well as many widely scattered pages of the chronicles, collected here for the first time and meticulously deciphered, translated, and annotated.

Kruk describes vividly the collapse of Poland in September, 1939, life as a refugee in Vilna, the manhunt that destroyed most of Vilna Jewry in the summer of 1941, the creation of a ghetto and the persecution and self-rule of the remnants of the "Jerusalem of Lithuania," the internment of the last survivors in concentration camps in Estonia, and their brutal deaths. Kruk scribbled his final diary entry on September 17, 1944, managing to bury the small, loose pages of his manuscript just hours before he and other camp inmates were shot to death and their bodies burnt on a pyre.

Kruk's writings illuminate the tragedy of the Vilna Jews and their courageous efforts to maintain an ideological, social, and cultural life even as their world was being destroyed. To read Kruk's day-by-day account of the unfolding of the Holocaust is to discern the possibilities for human courage and perseverance even in the face of profound fear.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
[A]uthoritative, stunningly edited edition of Kruk's acclaimed journals . . . is a major addition to Holocaust literature . . . [A] mesmerizing and heartbreaking book.
Los Angeles Times
[It] will leave. .. readers eager for the next edition. . . I couldn't get enough of this bulky masterpiece.
Publishers Weekly
This authoritative, stunningly edited edition of Kruk's acclaimed journals, news postings and poems of life and death in the Jewish ghetto of Vilna and later in a labor camp in Estonia is as major addition to Holocaust literature and Jewish history. In 1961 a Yiddish edition of the Vilna diaries was published. This larger new edition has been painstakingly assembled from those diaries and other documents and writings by Kruk that were widely scattered and only found since the 1961 edition; Harshav has also added a wealth of new footnotes. The potency and the power of Kruk's chronicle resides in its scrupulous detailing of everyday ghetto life-what people ate and read, the self-imposed rules for how Jewish women dressed, Jewish collaborators, Christian resistance to camps and deportations, news reports from the ghetto newspaper-while consistently placing it in a broader political and social context based on reports that filter into the ghetto from the outside. Because Vilna was a center of Jewish learning and culture-it is where the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research (now in New York) was founded and was the site of some of Europe's most vital Jewish libraries and schools-Kruk's elaborate delineation of the destruction of this world takes on an almost mythic quality. This lost culture resonates throughout this mesmerizing and heartbreaking book. Photos. (Sept.) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780300044942
  • Publisher: Yale University Press
  • Publication date: 9/28/2002
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 808
  • Sales rank: 1,062,443
  • Product dimensions: 6.14 (w) x 9.21 (h) x 1.69 (d)

Meet the Author

Benjamin Harshav is professor emeritus of comparative literature and J. & H. Blaustein Professor of Hebrew Language and Literature, Yale University, and professor emeritus of literary theory, Tel Aviv University. He lives in North Haven, CT.
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Read an Excerpt


By Herman Kruk Benjamin Harshav Barbara Harshav

Yale University Press

Copyright © 2002 Yale University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-300-04494-1

Chapter One



[After devouring Austria and Czechoslovakia, the German army marched into Poland on September 1, 1939. Two days later, Poland's allies, England and France, declared war on Germany, and World War II began. The German Blitzkrieg was so swift that Poland, in spite of heroic resistance, collapsed in a matter of weeks. The Polish government, along with several politicians and intellectuals, fled via Romania to England. On September 17, the Red Army crossed Poland's eastern border and occupied the eastern part of Poland, as agreed between the USSR and Nazi Germany. The German-Soviet border was established on the Bug River. On October 10, however, the Soviets ceded Vilna to independent Lithuania in return for military concessions. The city, renamed Vilnius, was the capital of independent Lithuania until June 1940, when the Soviets annexed all Baltic countries.

Herman Kruk left Warsaw on September 5, 1939, when men, especially Jewish men, were advised to leave. After a long and difficult trip, he reached Vilna on October 10, 1939. This story of his flight was written retrospectively in Vilna in January 1940, possiblybased on diary notes.]

Author's comments:

1. On September 5 [1939], when it became clear that I was leaving Warsaw, the question arose of whether to go alone or with my wife. I decided to leave my wife behind in Warsaw, because I assumed I'd be conscripted into the Polish army within two or three days and didn't want her to be all alone in a strange place.

2. A group of six of us left Warsaw: myself, my friend Ber-Yitskhok Rosen, a journalist; Marek Kozik, a vinegar manufacturer; and his three brothers-in-law (Frankenstein, Fleshel, and Reiseman). Frankenstein is a wealthy man, a building contractor and the owner of several houses; Fleshel owns a haberdashery store on Theater Square; and Reiseman is an employee of a film enterprise.

3. Thanks to Frankenstein's efforts, we obtained a wagon [and horses] for absolutely nothing. A friend of his, owner of a big coal yard on Towarowa Street in Warsaw as well as a brick factory in Otwock, gave us a broad, deep coal wagon and two horses.

4. The group elected the author of these comments its "commander" and undertook a strict discipline.

* * *


From noon on, people are snatched ceaselessly for work [building trenches around Warsaw]. We avoid being taken and reach the meeting point, where we are supposed to leave from. On the way we are regularly hindered by airplane attacks. Three times we had to hide inside gates [of buildings] and in air raid shelters. Our departure was set for 1 in the afternoon. Because of the obstacles, we didn't gather together until 3, and we set out at 4. The owner of the wagon went with us. He is going to his brick factory, which is on our way.

The wagon is black and dirty with coal dust. We spread some hay on it and feel happy because, if not for the dirty coal wagon, we would have had to go on foot. From Sienna Street, we turn into Zelazna Street, via Jerozolimskie Boulevard to Poniatowski Bridge. Everywhere traffic is heavy and nervous. Most of the people are trudging along with bundles. The closer we get to the bridge, the more refugees we see. At the corner of Nowy Swiat and Aleje, we see a great many wagons and cars-all filled with bundles, all going toward the bridge. Right at the bridge are anti-aircraft cannons. On the Praga side, near the bridge, the road was blocked with pillars to stop an eventual tank invasion....

The street around Skaryszewski Park is full of fleeing people: cars, carts, military cars, bicyclists, masses of provincial police, and masses of pedestrians. The street is almost completely blocked.

We turn right, on the road to Otwock. Once more, an air raid. We get out of the wagon and hide inside one of the nearby gates. The air battle lasts a half hour. As soon as it is calm, we go on.

The highway presents an extraordinary picture. Traveling is almost impossible. The road is completely blocked. You drive barely a few feet and you have to stand still for 15 or 20 minutes. Small cars squeeze through somehow. Military convoys hurry by; municipal and intercity cars rush. From time to time, big units of firemen from Warsaw and the provinces break through:

"Where are they going? They're fleeing from Warsaw...."

The road is full of wagons, masses of bicyclists, hundreds and thousands of pedestrians. Dust tears your throat. Our horses, used to walking harnessed to a little cart filled with bricks, refuse to drag the heavy, wide coal wagon. The trip to the brickworks, three kilometers beyond Otwock, would normally take two hours, but this time it lasts from 4 in the afternoon until 2 in the morning. Tired and worn out, nervous and depressed, we come at 2 in the morning to Teklinek, the village where the brickworks is.

The brickworks is in a forest. Near the brickworks, in the thick part of the forest, we are suddenly surrounded by soldiers pointing their rifles at us. It turned out that we had come into the middle of an artillery position; all around us is a big camp of motorized heavy artillery.

After we explain that we were going with the owner of the local brickworks, and after a meticulous check of our documents, they announce to us: okay, we'll let you in, but you must be quiet-don't go out of your room, and don't light any matches; or else-a bullet in your head!

The workers in the brickworks greet their boss excitedly. Two of them have already been arrested-and threatened with shooting. Their wives greet us, weeping. My traveling companions regret that we got waylaid here.

We spend the night in the office of the brickworks: one on the sofa, some on the ground, some simply propped up in chairs.

Every rustle makes us nervous. Only at dawn do we notice that there is a telephone in the room and that we can get in touch with Warsaw. Marek Kozik is the first to call. His wife cries and begs him to come back home. The group is very nervous. Except for me, they all are in favor of going back to Warsaw. I get in touch with my home. My wife is frightened by my sudden telephone call. But she answers with determination that we should run wherever our eyes carry us. Once again, my friend Kozik gets in touch with his home. This time he gets an answer: go on running!

* * *


We get new horses for the wagon and an addition-a light carriage with a third horse. We set out in the direction of Otwock-Garwolin. Now, traveling through the forest, we see where we had wandered during the dark night: the forest all around is full of gasoline barrels, and deeper in the forest stand big cannons; the army is maneuvering here nervously.

The highway we are traveling on is even more crowded with refugees than yesterday. Everyone is running, rushing as if he were pursued. Everyone gives the impression that he knows he is too late. We learn that at dawn today on the radio all men were ordered to leave Warsaw. Now the nervousness of our wives when we spoke with them by telephone earlier today becomes clear.

People who left Warsaw today tell horrible stories. The fields around the capital are flooded with people: thousands of pedestrians-Jews and Christians, men and women, old and young, a sea of limousines, military cars.

At about 9 in the morning we had the first air raid, and it lasted all day without letup. That day was extremely hard. Dozens of times we ran from the carts to hide from the bombers. Horrible scenes took place in the forest. People look for family members who got lost in the dark of night. Women and children shudder. Men, tired from running, throw off their shoes and run barefoot. Horses are frightened by the bombing and run away with the wagons, leaving the passengers in the forest. Everyone trembles with fear. As soon as we hear explosions, people cling to each other. People can't lie still and simply run off aimlessly. People chase after one another. In some cases people lose their senses and run away from the crowd, thinking this will save them. People run after them and bring them back. Everybody's eyes blaze. The ground shakes. The forests rise up. The rattling of machine guns is jolting, and the fear keeps rising. The road from Otwock to Garwolin was then a horrible hell.

In the forest, people relate stories to each other: An old couple were staying in an Otwock boarding house. In Warsaw they had a safe. On Wednesday, September 5, the owner went to Warsaw to open the safe. He was one of the last to be allowed in. Excited and nervous from the sudden changes, the owner of the safe packed up the money: there should have been 350,000 zloty, tens of thousands of dollars, and a large amount of valuables. By then it was hard to get a train to Otwock. The Jew, with his property, hastily jumped into a cart, promising a big payment. In Swider, as he jumped off the wagon, the package fell apart and the highway was strewn with tens of thousands of zloty, dollars, jewels, etc. Everyone who was there began to grab. Meanwhile, a suspicion arose that the money came from a robbery. The police, passing by, intervened, collected the money, and arrested the owner.

People tell about horrible cases of death:

Four men were killed during the air raid-the fifth was thrown up a tree where he broke his spine.

A bomb hit a horse, and as it ran in horrible torment, it trampled two pedestrians.

A woman went mad and was taken, tied up, to Garwolin.

Many cars ran out of gas. People left them and continued on foot. The number of "dead cars" on the highway steadily increases.

The wildest rumors circulated on the highway. A Chevrolet passed by and a captain shouted out the window:

"Let everyone know that, in Germany, a revolution erupted against Hitler!"

But the airplanes don't stop tormenting.

Suddenly, not knowing how it happened, we were horribly sprayed with bombs and strafed with machine guns. Later, that was repeated many times. It was a tactic of the German pilots! They stayed so high that you didn't even hear them flying, and suddenly, they would dive down and spray the highway with bullets, bullets, and bullets.

The refugees had a word for it: "mowing"-they're mowing as with a scythe.

We quickly turn into the woods, and our wagon breaks down. We don't have any time to think. We abandon the wagon, load the belongings onto the small carriage. We hitch two horses in front and tie the third one up in back. And follow on foot....

About 6 in the evening, we arrive in Garwolin, barely alive.

In and around the town are thousands of people, wagons, and cars. Everybody rests or prepares for the road. We take pains to get water for washing ourselves. In the middle of washing, we have to escape from an air raid.

When we are somewhat rested, the question arises: What now? The wagon was left on the highway; to travel with the carriage is impossible, even though we have three horses.

Finally, my friend Kozik saves the day: a big wide wagon harnessed with one horse that is going with refugees from Plock to Lublin. One horse is harnessed to the wagon; it is exhausted and can't pull the load. There are seven people in the wagon, a lot of bundles, feather beds, etc. We make an arrangement: we give them our horses and little carriage. The little carriage is to remain their property, but we are only lending them the horses. For that price, we arrange to travel to Lublin together. We harness our three horses to the wagon, and we let the fourth horse walk behind, tied with a piece of rope to the wagon. The carter sold the little carriage on the spot.

We get settled in the wagon and burrow into the bundles, sacks, and feather beds. Meanwhile, the owner of the wagon learns that I was born in Plock, and he informs me that my sister and her two children left Plock and fled toward Gabin. Where her husband is, I can't find out. Is she alive? Isn't she? Who can tell? ...

Late in the evening, we leave Garwolin for Lublin. The main street that leads from the town to the Lublin highway is cluttered with wagons and masses of military cars. The officers nervously issue orders. The road is crammed with a lot of heavy artillery. It seems that this is the same unit we saw this morning in Teklinek.

Are they fleeing with us?

So what will happen to Warsaw?

Every few minutes, the road is blocked and everyone stands still. People are again upset as if they were pursued. The enemy seems to be breathing down your neck.

All 13 people are curled up and sleeping. Only at dawn do we realize that our fourth horse has disappeared. The rope came untied and the horse walked off. We make jokes about our luck, and thus we reach the town of Ryki.

* * *


For the first time since we left Warsaw, I meet an acquaintance, my party comrade Kleczewski, an old Bundist. He tells us that no one is allowed into Lublin. He advises us to turn toward Brisk. But we nevertheless decide to go toward Lublin.

Freezing from the damp autumn chill, we go on.

Again hundreds and thousands. People travel in wagons and cars, but you mostly see people on foot. People trudge along tired and worn out. They beg to be taken on at least for a short stretch. Some run behind the wagon, some hold onto one of the boards of the wagon and let themselves be dragged along by the horses. The road forks: ahead, the road to Lublin; right, the road to Kock. Military guards do not allow traveling ahead. So we are forced to go toward Kock. Pedestrians circumvent the road through fields and break through in the direction of Lublin. Patrols of Polish pilots examine our documents.

On the road, in the woods all around, one is struck by a great many cars, and around them pilots and thick barbed-wire fences. In the distance, we see half-covered hangars. We decide to stop in a nearby village. But an air raid soon comes. We hear anti-aircraft cannons. We interrupt our rest and decide to leave the area. We quickly depart. The closer we get to Kock, the more frequent the air raids become.

We feel as if we are in a trap-it makes no sense to get out of the wagon, for there is no cover, just open fields all around. The woods are far from the road. Some of us cling to a stone, some to a ditch. The attacks are now so frequent that there is no time to climb into the wagon and jump out again. The women and children decide anyway not to get out. Whatever happens will happen!

Exhausted, we drag ourselves into Kock. Like all previous towns, Kock is full of escapees. The whole town is in the street.


Excerpted from THE LAST DAYS OF THE JERUSALEM OF LITHUANIA by Herman Kruk Benjamin Harshav Barbara Harshav Copyright © 2002 by Yale University Press. 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

Introduction: Herman Kruk's Holocaust Writings
1 The Collapse of Poland: September 1939-June 1941 1
2 The Destruction of Jewish Vilna: June 22, 1941-September 6, 1941 46
3 The Vilna Ghetto: September 7, 1941-February 17, 1942 100
4 Between YIVO and Ponar: February 19, 1942-July 9, 1942 212
5 Putsch in the Ghetto: July 11, 1942-October 28, 1942 326
6 The Second Winter: October 29, 1942-March 18, 1943 391
7 The Sky Is Overcast Again: March 19, 1943-May 10, 1943 480
8 The Ghetto Will Not Calm Down: May 12, 1943-July 14, 1943 536
9 Narrative Chronicles of the Ghetto: 1941-1943 593
10 The Camps in Estonia: August 1943-September 1944 659
App.: Place Names 707
References 713
Index to People and Places 715
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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 23, 2004

    Last Words from the The Last Days

    Herman Kruk has meticulously documented his experiences being in the Ghetto camps of Vilna, Lithuania, and with his documentation, he gives us a small and minute insight into the horrors of war, the horrors of loss, and the horrors of daily living and survival during a time of uprising and criminal actions. He not only documents his own experiences, but those of others, with whom he had contact in Vilna, whether they be transports from other Gubernias or Shtetls, their stories are told, and we feel and hear the silence of those now gone. This is a must read for those who need to know and want to know how life was for the Jews during the time of WWII, how they lived from day to day, not knowing if they would survive. As a Jew whose ancestry lies in Lithuania, a Jew whose ancestors came from Vilna, Kovnos and Rumshishok, I cannot say enough about this book..words are inadequate. Thank you, Mr. Kruk, where ever you are, I cannot show my appreciation and heartfelt thanks, enough. Shalom, dear One. Loving Blessings to you.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 22, 2010

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