Trauma in First Person: Diary Writing during the Holocaust

Trauma in First Person: Diary Writing during the Holocaust

Trauma in First Person: Diary Writing during the Holocaust

Trauma in First Person: Diary Writing during the Holocaust


What are the effects of radical oppression on the human psyche? What happens to the inner self of the powerless and traumatized victim, especially during times of widespread horror? In this bold and deeply penetrating book, Amos Goldberg addresses diary writing by Jews under Nazi persecution. Throughout Europe, in towns, villages, ghettos, forests, hideouts, concentration and labor camps, and even in extermination camps, Jews of all ages and of all cultural backgrounds described in writing what befell them. Goldberg claims that diary and memoir writing was perhaps the most important literary genre for Jews during World War II. Goldberg considers the act of writing in radical situations as he looks at diaries from little-known victims as well as from brilliant diarists such as Chaim Kaplan and Victor Klemperer. Goldberg contends that only against the background of powerlessness and inner destruction can Jewish responses and resistance during the Holocaust gain their proper meaning.


Josef Zelkowicz, born in 1897, was an intellectual, affiliated with the Poalei Zion Left party (the Marxist Zionist Jewish workers’ party), and a resident of Lodz. in May 1940, Zelkowicz was confined to the ghetto along with the other Jews of the city, where he remained until his deportation to Auschwitz and subsequent murder. He documented reality in the ghetto and in particular the lives of the people imprisoned there, their moods, and their collapsing consciousness.

Zelkowicz understood that conditions of severe deprivation— terrible hunger, mortality, disease, the extreme violence of the Nazis, the reign of terror imposed by Judenrat chairman Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski, and devastating poverty— create a particular social structure and generate a new kind of consciousness. Just like Primo Levi, he understood that harsh conditions do not lead to solidarity and spiritual improvement but, on the contrary, cause society to disintegrate and shatter the individual’s very self and identity. They do not uplift people but, in most cases, debase them. With this understanding in mind, Zelkowicz wrote the following while inside the ghetto:

It is not only the external form of life that has changed in the ghetto…. It is
not only the clothing that has come to look tattered and the faces to wear
masks of death, but the entire Jewish trend of thought has been totally trans
formed under the pressure of the ghetto
…. the ghetto, the great negator of the
civilization and progress that people nurtured for centuries, has swiftly
obliterated the bound aries between sanctity and indignity, just as it obliter
ated the bound aries between mine and yours, permitted and forbidden, fair
and unfair.

And elsewhere, in a similar vein:

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