Before the war, Chaim Wolgelernter was a Chassidic Jew, wealthy textile merchant and budding writing. He lived in the uber-Jewish Polish town of Dzialoszyce, where 80% of the residents were Jews. When the Nazi war machine arrived in town, Chaim’s family was instantly decimated: he lost his oldest child, a girl aged 3, and his sister-in-law in the first round-up and deportation.
Unable to ‘pass’ as a non-Jew, Chaim’s only hope of surviving the war was to stay in hiding. Together with many of his extended family, Chaim fled from one temporary refuge to another, as the avenues of escape continued to narrow and disappear as the Nazis made helping Jews an offence punishable by death.
The book is a chronicle of Chaim’s efforts to keep himself and his remaining family members alive (he was ultimately survived by his wife and son, who successfully went into hiding as non-Jews for the duration of the war), and to keep his faith intact in the face of the unthinkable.
Given the circumstances it was written in, the lucidity of the diary is stunning; it shows that even the grimmest of physical circumstances failed to extinguish Chaim’s inner strength and moral clarity, even as the noose started to tighten around the collective Jewish neck in Poland. If you can call a first-hand eye witness account of the decimation of Polish Jewry a ‘riveting read’ without somehow detracting from it, then I guess that epitaph applies to this book.
I’ve read a lot of holocaust stuff, and what made the biggest impact on me as I read this book was the author’s own deepening understanding that the Jewish reliance on their non-Jews neighbours’ ‘humanity’, and their own financial assets, to save them only hastened their destruction.
Questions without answers
On innumerable occasions throughout the Diary, Chaim records many instances of apparently dependable, honest, compassionate non-Jews who solemnly promised to keep Jews hidden, or to provide them with some other form of help in return for their valuables, only to renege on all their promises as soon as they had the cash or merchandise in hand. Often, the first people to inform on the Jews were the very people they’d handed their valuables over too.
In one particular poignant entry, Chaim laments that the Jews allowed their hope to blind them to the true character of their Polish neighbours, and their own terrible situation. Maybe, it would have been better for the Jews to have destroyed their own property and goods, instead of enabling it to fall into the hands of the enemy?
70 years’ later, who is really in a position to ask those questions? 70 years’ earlier, no-one was in a position to really answer them.
Difficult questions abound in the diary, like: if the Jews in hiding were ultimately going to be killed anyway, once their money ran out, wouldn’t it be best to just give themselves up in the first place, and spare themselves the additional suffering? Or, how could a man who walked miles to dunk in a mikva every day die without Jewish burial and the spiritual purification process known as tahara?
And this, posed by Chaim’s brother David, guardian of the diary: If you had a small vial of poison in your pocket and you’d just lost all your family and were still on the run and in mortal danger from the enemy, what was stopping you from swallowing the poison and joining them?
Ultimately, what stopped David from killing himself was a dream where his recently martyred father appeared to him, fortified him, and gave him the will to continue to live.
A chronicle of survival, faith and rebirth
Like many holocaust books, The Unfinished Diary is not easy reading. What sets it apart though, is that it’s very publication – by the martyred author’s surviving relatives – tells a poignant tale of Jewish survival, faith and rebirth. For me, the very fact that Chaim Wolgelernter’s writings and hopes came to fruition, albeit 70 years’ after his own death, softened the harshness and suffering of the story.
The diary itself ends with a tragedy: the murder of the author and 7 of his other family members, probably by the Polish peasant who they’d been paying to hide them. But the book ends on a note of redemption, with the reinternment of the victims’ remains in Jerusalem, by his son and grandchildren.
Again, if you can have a book written about death and destruction in World War II that somehow uplifts you and enlightens you, then this is it. The supernatural terribleness of death camps like Auschwitz sometimes blinds us to the fact that Jewish suffering and death came in many other shapes and sizes during the Holocaust.
Just as faith could be broken instantaneously by the gas chambers, it could also be gradually worn away over many months of years of hiding in caves, cellars and pig-stys. But The Unfinished Diary proves that faith could also be tempered and burnished, even in the most difficult circumstances, by Jews who continued to cling on to God while experiencing the worst imaginable ‘mundane’ suffering.