Arnold Daghani’s Mem­o­ries of Mikhailowka: The Illus­trat­ed Diary of a Slave Labour Camp Survivor

Deb­o­rah Schultz and Edward Timms, eds.
  • Review
By – September 16, 2011
The his­to­ry of the pub­li­ca­tion of Daghani’s diary is almost as depress­ing as the diary itself which, after a brief intro­duc­tion, is the first part of this fas­ci­nat­ing study. Enti­tled The Grave is in the Cher­ry Orchard” the his­to­ry describes in terse yet poet­ic detail life in the slave labor camp of Mikhailowka dur­ing 1942 and 1943, where the Roman­ian artist and his wife, Anisoara, whom he calls Nani­no, are sent from their home in Czer­nowitz to build a strate­gic road for the Ger­mans. Dur­ing that year, besides the unbear­able hard­ships they endured, Daghani, who had brought his paints and brush­es with him (at the sug­ges­tion of the arrest­ing offi­cer), records both in Eng­lish short­hand and, visu­al­ly, in genre-like paint­ings, cru­el­ty, occa­sion­al kind­ness­es, as well as por­traits and inte­ri­or scenes com­mis­sioned by his cap­tors. Mak­ing their escape in 1943, the Dagha­nis car­ried the works above their heads as they wad­ed across the Bug riv­er and man­aged to get to a ghet­to in Transnis­tria where they sur­vived until the end of the war. The saga of the pub­li­ca­tion of this dual tes­ta­ment then begins. Though writ­ten in Eng­lish, it was first pub­lished in Roman­ian in 1947. The Dagha­nis were then liv­ing in Bucharest. It was not until 1961 that the jour­nal Adam: Inter­na­tion­al Review pub­lished it in Eng­land in its orig­i­nal Eng­lish. (The year before, it had been turned down by a lit­er­ary agent whose com­ment was good, but too few atroc­i­ties!”) Daghani’s paint­ings and writ­ings would be con­cerned through­out his life with the fate of his fel­low pris­on­ers, most of whom were bru­tal­ly mur­dered in Mikhailowka, and with the after­math of the war. He tes­ti­fied and his works were insert­ed as evi­dence in tri­als that took place in the decades fol­low­ing. Rather bizarrely, he estab­lished con­tact with sev­er­al of his cap­tors, excerpts of whose let­ters to Daghani and depo­si­tions for a war crime inves­ti­ga­tion prompt­ed by the pub­li­ca­tion in 1960 of a Ger­man trans­la­tion of his diary are includ­ed. Essays deal­ing with the Dagha­nis’ lives after the war, map­ping” his tes­ti­mo­ny with oth­ers of the same time and place, plus the col­or illus­tra­tions of his work make this much more than a diary/​memoir of the Holo­caust. Roll- Call: Memo­r­i­al List of those who Per­ished in Mikhailowka” is par­tic­u­lar­ly chill­ing. The edi­tors, Schultz and Timms, write in non-aca­d­e­m­ic style so the text is read­able and absorb­ing. The ulti­mate home of Daghani’s works is the Uni­ver­si­ty of Sus­sex, which is com­mit­ted to the col­lec­tion as an impor­tant his­tor­i­cal and artis­tic record, and to pro­mot­ing its con­tin­ued avail­abil­i­ty for schol­ar­ly research. Some of Daghani’s paint­ings are in Yad Vashem and at YIVO in New York City. Sad­ly, although offered, nei­ther Yad Vashem nor the Israel Muse­um would accept his com­plete works. Bib­li­og­ra­phy, illus­tra­tions, index.
Esther Nuss­baum, the head librar­i­an of Ramaz Upper School for 30 years, is now edu­ca­tion and spe­cial projects coor­di­na­tor of the Halachic Organ Donor Soci­ety. A past edi­tor of Jew­ish Book World, she con­tin­ues to review for this and oth­er publications.

Discussion Questions