Chaim Kaplan Diary

kaplan diary

Chaim Kaplan Diary Extract (USHMM)

Chaim Kaplan was born during 1880, in Horodyszcze, White Russia. He came from a family of limited means. His father died when Kaplan was twenty-two years of age and was buried in the city of Baranowicze. Kaplan had to assume the role of supporting the whole family. Chaim Kaplan received a Talmudical education at the famous Yeshiva of Mir and later on he studied in the Government Pedagogical Institute in Vilna. During 1902, Kaplan settled in Warsaw, where he founded a pioneering elementary Hebrew School, of which he was the principal for forty years. The school was first located at 29 Karmelicka Street. During the First World War the school moved to 13 Pawia Street and finally to 15 Dzielna Street. The name of the school was the 'Sixth Grade Grammar Elementary School of Ch. A. Kaplan. Chaim Kaplan was an exponent of the direct method of language teaching, in which Hebrew was taught as a spoken language.

Chaim Kaplan visited the United States of America in 1921, and Palestine during 1936. He intended to settle in Palestine in order to be with his two children, who had emigrated there earlier, but for personal reasons he returned to Warsaw in the same year, hoping to revisit Palestine some time in the future.

Kaplan began a personal diary as early as 1933, this was good training for the mission he undertook at the beginning of the Second World War. The chronicler kept his diary in small notebooks. The entries cover the time from the invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, to August 4, 1942, which was the last entry.

Chaim Kaplan knew the Nazi noose was tightening and he gave his notebooks to a Jewish friend named Rubinsztejn, who was working daily at forced labour projects outside of the Warsaw ghetto. Rubinsztejn smuggled the notebooks and passed each one on to Wladyslaw Wojeck, a Pole, who lived in Liw, a small village near Warsaw. Wojcek settled in the United States of America in 1962, and he took the notebooks with him. There the notebooks were purchased by Abraham Katsh for the New York University Jewish Cultural Foundation Library of Judaica and Hebraica. Other volumes were acquired by the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw and by Moreshet, the Mordechai Anielewicz Memorial Institute in Israel. Chaim Kaplan's Warsaw Diary was first published in English in 1965, with the title of 'Scroll of Agony: The Warsaw Diary of Chaim A. Kaplan'.

Selected extracts from this powerful and poignant diary follow:

September 1, 1939

A New World War

During the morning hours of the first of September 1939, war broke out between Germany and Poland and indirectly between Germany and Poland's allies, England and France. This war will indeed bring destruction upon human civilization which merits annihilation and destruction. There is no doubt that Hitlerian Nazism will ultimately be defeated, for in the end the civilized nations will rise up to defend the liberty which the German barbarians seek to steal from mankind. However, I doubt that we will live through this carnage. The bombs filled with lethal gas will poison every living being, or we will starve because there will be no more means of livelihood.

September 3, 1939

Historic events! One cannot guess at the results of them. If a German bomb doesn't cut our lives short, and we are privileged to reach the end, it will yet be worthwhile living. England and France stood by their word, their promise to their ally, and the world conflagration has been ignited. 

September 7, 1939

The enemy is at the gates of Warsaw and we are a beleaguered city. The masses have an eye that sees and an ear that hears. I too perceived it in the darkness of the night. The window of my bedroom faces towards Karmelicka Street and even though I was sunk in slumber, voices and the noise of passers-by reached my ears. I got up and looked out of the window and I knew at once the government was fleeing. Today the government fled to Lublin and left not even a shadow of an administration in a city of a million, three hundred thousand people.

October 1, 1939

The Germans entered the capital in a disciplined way. They immediately announced that they are distributing free bread to the needy. I also stood in line, but not to receive bread - only impressions. I wanted to see the Nazis when they are engaged in charitable work.

October 3, 1939

From time to time I walk along the left side of Karmelicka Street and gaze at the windows of my lovely apartment, now in the hands of strangers; the sons of Ham took over my property as though it belonged to them. My heart is broken: I sank a whole lifetime's work into that apartment: I lived in it for twenty-four years. I decorated it and beautified it and adorned it: and in one confused hour I lost it.

October 20, 1939

The Judenrat, which was orphaned when its money was stolen and its appointed president fled, attempted to organize the matter of seizing people for labour. Czerniakow offered to supply a certain number of workers, if only they would stop seizing for forced labour whoever comes to hand in the streets. Finally they agreed that the Judenrat will supply five hundred labourers a day, and that the street captures will stop.

November 30, 1939

Today two harsh decrees reached us. First the 'Star of David' decree, just like the one in Cracow, except that in Cracow the authorities announced the decree in advance, about two weeks before it became effective, and the leaders of the community had time to prepare the Zionist symbols, whereas in Warsaw, or rather the Warsaw district, the decree was published on November 30, to become effective on December 1. Most likely this was done on purpose, in order to catch many Jews in the act of sabotage, but perhaps for technical reasons the matter will be postponed for a few days.

On the same day another decree was announced. Beginning December 1, 1939, every Jewish shop and business must indicate its Jewish ownership. The owners must conspicuously display a sign with a 'Star of David,' but without any special wording. Here too, we have been set apart from the Jews of Lodz, who had to put up signs with the words; 'Jewish Business.'

December 4, 1939

Masses of exiles stream daily to the unfortunate capital city, downtrodden refugees who were uprooted one fine morning from the town of their birth. One's heart bleeds at the sight of these despairing people. Because of the extent of the catastrophe one cannot even think about giving constructive aid. The only institution which is extending temporary relief, beggarly hand-outs that are only enough for a day at a time, in the Joint office at 13 Leszno Street.

January 14, 1940

A new catastrophe for Polish Jewry. The cruel Nazi, full of murder and tyranny, is creating forced labour camps for Juden for a two year period. This is not to be work for its own sake, but work that will educate and accustom us to hard physical labour - labour under the supervision of tyrannical Nazis, who will oppress us as one might enslave a camp of criminals and felons, in order to cleanse them of their sins.

When we read the details of the decree - which is not signed by the established administrative authority, but by the head of the SS - F.W. Kruger (note: mistakenly written as Otto), our knees sagged and our hearts turned to water.

May 2, 1940

The prison on Dzielna Street is filled with prisoners and therefore the entire area around it has become a place ripe for depredations. Gendarmes visit the area frequently and every one of their visits leaves an impression on the bodies of Jews.

July 8, 1940

All contact with the outside world has been stopped, even letters to relatives. An atmosphere of political tension, unrest of expectancy of great events approaching, has been engendered. Meanwhile the rope around our necks draws tighter and tighter, obviously, only around the Jews necks.

July 29, 1940

The day before yesterday, their newspaper announced that the Mayor Leist, who is not cruel or despotic nature, has issued an order forbidding Jews to enter the city parks or the municipal promenades. The same applies to sitting on the benches outside them.

October 8, 1940

Frank (Dr.Hans Frank - (Der Generalgouverneur and Reichsminister) came to Warsaw to inaugurate the aid project for next winter. Notices written in German in huge letters, joyfully announced his arrival. Volksgenossen were ordered to hang out flags in honour of the guest. German Warsaw was jubilant.

November 6, 1940

The day before yesterday the president of the Judenrat, the engineer Adam Czerniakow, was arrested. The bare item, unaccompanied by any details, caused a storm in the city.

November 17, 1940

What we dreaded most has come to us. We had a premonition that a ghetto life awaited us, a life of sorrow and poverty, of shame and degradation, but no one believed that the fateful hour would come so soon. And suddenly - a frightful surprise! On the eve of the Sabbath of Parashat Vayera, we went to bed in the Jewish quarter and the next morning we awoke in a closed Jewish ghetto. In the morning hours of the Sabbath, a three-man guard was set up in all the open places where walls were not erected because of the trolley connections  

November 28, 1940

The ghetto is empty of all Gentiles and has turned into a Jewish kingdom. The police are leaving and the Jewish Police will inherit their place. The same applies to the Post Office , Jews working for the Judenrat will head it and all the jobs there will be filled by Jews. An exceptional concession will apparently be made in the case of the tax bureau, and for the public utility departments - if the cruel conquerors do not forbid us to use gas and electricity. In short, a Jewish state complete in every detail, but a closed, cramped one, imprisoned, mummified within its narrow borders.

January 31, 1941

Today three thousand new exiles from Pruszkow and other Polish cities entered the Warsaw ghetto, and it was our obligation to furnish a new shelter for the unfortunates, in addition to the 120 old shelters, which are nothing more than breeding grounds for all sorts of diseases and epidemics.