Num­bered Days: Diaries and the Holocaust

Alexan­dra Garbarini
  • Review
By – December 19, 2011
This is not an anthol­o­gy of excerpts from diaries writ­ten dur­ing the Holo­caust, although there are a few brief excerpts. Start­ing out as a dis­ser­ta­tion, it is an exam­i­na­tion of the func­tion of diary-writ­ing to the authors whose lives had changed so dras­ti­cal­ly that each day was lived in shock and increduli­ty of what they were wit­ness­ing and expe­ri­enc­ing. Only a few Jews wrote in diaries. They had to have the strength and to have a pro­cliv­i­ty for writ­ing. They wrote because they were strug­gling to under­stand what was hap­pen­ing to them. The con­tent and com­plex­ion of the entries change from those writ­ten at the begin­ning of the war to those record­ed dur­ing the worst hor­rors. What was the func­tion of the diaries? Some writ­ers gained com­fort from them, par­ent­ing chil­dren vic­ar­i­ous­ly. Oth­ers were trans­mit­ting infor­ma­tion to future gen­er­a­tions of fam­i­ly and strangers — leav­ing a record for the future. Diary writ­ing also fur­thered the diarist’s strug­gle to retain a sense of iden­ti­ty. Through their mul­ti­ple sto­ries, relat­ed pri­mar­i­ly by the author with only the briefest excerpts by the writ­ers, the read­er gains insight into indi­vid­ual reac­tions, rather than the broad pic­ture. Pri­mo Levi and oth­ers wrote that the only relief they real­ized was the brief time they found a kin­dred cul­tured soul who had the strength to dis­cuss lit­er­a­ture, art, or music — some piece of the cul­tured and sane world they had left behind. The act of writ­ing in a diary was not a release for the writ­ers; it was drudgery, tir­ing, but some­thing the writ­ers felt they had to do. It was also dan­ger­ous to write a diary, an act that would be severe­ly pun­ished if dis­cov­ered, and would also harm the right­eous gen­tiles who might be hid­ing the writer. Diary writ­ing was not only a Jew­ish response to per­se­cu­tion, but was, in fact, a mod­ern Euro­pean prac­tice that sought to per­pet­u­ate West­ern val­ues of civ­i­liza­tion — his­tor­i­cal jus­tice — in the face of Nazi bar­barism. The writ­ers want­ed to ensure that what they had lived through would nev­er be repeat­ed — that human­i­ty would learn from their expe­ri­ences — but also that although ori­ent­ed to the future, the world would remem­ber the past. It would have been good to have more exam­ples of the diarists’ writ­ing, but this is an insight­ful and excel­lent addi­tion to this genre with many valu­able notes and bib­li­o­graph­i­cal entries. Bib­li­og­ra­phy, index, notes.
Mar­cia W. Pos­ner, Ph.D., of the Holo­caust Memo­r­i­al and Tol­er­ance Cen­ter of Nas­sau Coun­ty, is the library and pro­gram direc­tor. An author and play­wright her­self, she loves review­ing for JBW and read­ing all the oth­er reviews and arti­cles in this mar­velous periodical.

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