Waiting for the end in the Warsaw ghetto

Jews being deported from the Warsaw ghetto march to the freight trains. Warsaw, Poland, July-September 1942. Courtesy: Leopold Page Photographic Collection,USHMM.

Chaim Kaplan had been recording the impact of the war on the Jewish community in Warsaw in his diary since 1st September 1939. He had chronicled their ever worsening situation, had been a witness to individual cruelties and had clear sightedly recorded the ultimate fate of the Jews.

Now the Nazis were clearing out the ghetto. Every day a trainload of Jews had to be despatched for ‘resettlement in the East’. Few had any illusions that this would be anything other than fatal, least of all Kaplan.

Each day a residential block was selected for evacuation:

4th August 1942

In the evening hours

I have not yet been caught; I have not yet been evicted from my apartment; my building has not yet been confiscated. But only a step separates me from all these misfortunes. All day my wife and I take turns standing watch, looking through the kitchen window which overlooks the courtyard, to see if the blockade has begun. People run from place to place like madmen.

[ He describes how a friend has obtained a factory job by bribery]

My lot is even worse because I have neither money nor a factory job, and therefore am a candidate for expulsion if I am caught. My only salvation is in hiding. This is an outlaw’s life, and a man cannot last very long living illegally. My heart trembles at every isolated word. I am unable to leave my house, for at every step the devil lies in wait for me.

There is the silence of death in the streets of the ghetto all through the day. The fear of death is in the eyes of the few people who pass by on the sidewalk opposite our window. Everyone presses himself against the wall and draws into himself so that they will not detect his existence or his presence.

Today my block was scheduled for a blockade with Nazi participation. Seventy Jewish policemen had already entered the courtyard. I thought, ‘The end has come.’ But a miracle happened, and the blockade was postponed. The destroyers passed on to the Nalewki-Zamenhof block.

When the danger was already past I hurried to escape. Panic can drive a man out of his mind and magnify the danger even when it no longer exists. But already there is a fear that my block will be blockaded tomorrow. I am therefore trying to lay plans to escape with the dawn. But where will I flee? No block is secure.

Thousands of people in the Nalewki-Zamenhof block were driven from their homes and taken to the transfer point. More than thirty people were slaughtered. In the afternoon, the furies subsided a bit.

The number of passers-by increased, for the danger of blockade was over. By four in the afternoon, the quota was filled: 13,000 people had been seized and sent off, among them 5,000 who came to the transfer of their own free will. They had had their fill of the ghetto life, which is a life of hunger and fear of death. They escaped from the trap. Would that I could allow myself to do as they did!

If my life ends – what will become of my diary?

These were the last words written by Chaim Kaplan. How he met his end is not known, he may have been caught up in the blockade the following day. He may have evaded capture for a little longer – most probably he will have been sent to Treblinka along with thousands of others – by the end of the year at the latest.

Kaplan’s war diary was discovered almost intact after the war on a farm outside Warsaw, preserved in a kerosene can, the notebooks were legible and in good condition. How they got there and who helped hide them away is not known.

See The Scroll of Agony: The Warsaw Diary of Chaim A. Kaplan.

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