- The Last Days of the Jerusalem of Lithuania: Chronicles from the Vilna Ghetto and the Camps, 1939–1944
This book is a moving diary of one librarian caught in the Holocaust as well as a record of the final days of European Jewry. Before World War II its author, Herman Kruk (1897-1944), lived in Warsaw and directed the Kultur-lige's network of over 400 Yiddish people's libraries (Folksbibliotheken) in the Jewish Pale of Settlement. He was also active in the cultural branch of a popular Jewish Socialist (non-Zionist) party called the Bund.
When the Nazis invaded eastern Poland Kruk fled the capital and eventually found refuge in Vilna (Vilnius, Lithuania), which became home to over 100,000 Jews. For centuries Vilna was called the "Jerusalem of Lithuania" because of its importance as a center of Jewish learning, including yeshivot and other schools, publishers, and libraries.
In Vilna Kruk took on several roles. He ran the Vilna Ghetto Library and was forced to work for the Nazi Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg in its efforts to pillage synagogue collections and the great YIVO library and archive for Jewish books in order to create the Institut zur Erforschung der Judenfrage (Institute for Research on the Jewish Question). [End Page 193]
Kruk is better known for his role as chronicler and archivist of life and death in the Vilna Ghetto. Kruk's diary records brief news and commentaries on ghetto life from the time of his arrival in 1939 until he was transported to a work camp in Estonia. His last entry was written there, the day before he was killed—one day before the Soviet army liberated Klooga.
Amazingly, hundreds of pages of Kruk's diary survived the Holocaust. Kruk's brother and another survivor edited, annotated, and published a 620-page Yiddish edition in 1961, Togbukh fun Vilner Geto, which remains one of the central documents of the Holocaust. Scholars Benjamin Harshav and Barbara Harshav, both of whom teach comparative literature at Yale University, not only translated this 1961 edition into English but also reexamined surviving pages and added over 30 percent more unpublished parts of the diary. The Harshavs, a husband-and-wife team who edited and translated the classic American Yiddish Poetry: A Bilingual Anthology, have produced an important historical document and supplemented it with rich scholarly footnotes, a glossary, and an invaluable introduction that will help readers understand Kruk's world and outlook, from reactions to the Jewish Ghetto police to prewar political opposition parties. Much of the diary focuses on how people tried to survive and make sense of the news of the killing fields of Ponar and Majdanek, where over 100,000 former Vilna Jews were executed.
Since Kruk was a librarian and a leader in the Association of Writers and Artists, he included over fifty entries related to reading, libraries, and archives. These range from a celebration of the 100,000th book read from the ghetto library to the ERR pillaging of libraries, along with notes on how Kruk persuaded the ghetto self-government to purchase Yiddish manuscripts. Historians of libraries and books unfamiliar with the history of the Holocaust might start with David Shavit's Hunger for the Printed Word: Books and Libraries in the Jewish Ghettos of Nazi-Occupied Europe (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 1997) or Jonathan Rose's collection, The Holocaust and the Book: Destruction and Preservation (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2001), and Lucy S. Dawidowicz, From That Place and Time: A Memoir, 1938-1947 (New York: W. W. Norton, 1989). German readers also can access Maria Kühn-Ludewig's collection Hermann Kruk, Bibliothekar und Chronist im Ghetto Wilna (Hanover: Laurentius, 1988).
Kruk's diary provides a fascinating, heart-wrenching account of how one librarian endured the Nazi attempt at dehumanization and genocide. The Harshavs deserve credit...