On Holocaust Diaries

I gave this paper as a talk the other day at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville. The next day I taught three hour-long sessions using passages from three of the diaries I reference in the talk  to middle- and high-school students and their teachers. Both events were part of the 27th annual Arkansas Holocaust Education Conference. My thanks go to the conference organizer and Chair of the Arkansas Holocaust Education Committee, Grace Donoho, and, especially, Dr. Jennifer Hoyer of the German Department and Chair of the Jewish Studies Program at Fayetteville.


I want to focus today on our fascination with Holocaust diaries, and I want to suggest that the reasons they typically fascinate us are not actually the reasons why they are so important.

We tend to privilege diaries, and especially Holocaust diaries, for their seemingly immediate access to experience. We are getting events as they happened and so are placed directly in the midst of a historical event to which we might otherwise not have access. So the thinking goes, anyway. Holocaust diaries can be considered Exhibit A in the category of testimonial literature that Elie Wiesel, writing in the late 1970s, deemed the genre of his generation, and that critics writing in the wake of Wiesel have described as the kind of writing most commensurate to the traumas of the 20th century.

In this context, let’s consider the following statement by survivor Primo Levi, who incidentally did not write a diary [other than the “retrospective” diary at the end of Survival in Auschwitz]:

We, the survivors, are not the true witnesses. … We survivors are not only an exiguous but also an anomalous minority: we are those who by their prevarications or abilities or good luck did not touch bottom. Those who did so, those who saw the Gorgon, have not returned to tell about it or have returned mute, but they are… the complete witnesses, the ones whose deposition would have a general significance. They are the rule, we are the exception.

Survivors, he adds, “speak in their stead, by proxy.”

The Final Solution was designed to be just that—final; there weren’t supposed to be any survivors. Survivors can thus be considered as a kind of noise or static, or, to change the metaphor, as the flaw that inheres in any system or machine. Exceptional, and interesting as such, but hardly representative. And because it is the case that many diarists did not survive the war—to use Levi’s language, those who did are the exception rather than the rule—these writers could be said to be what he calls “the complete witnesses” and therefore to offer us something even more valuable than survivor memoirs. But what interests me about Levi’s claim extends beyond the distinction between who lived and who died. To my mind, what Levi is really pointing to is something more fundamental about the very nature of experience, namely, that there is an inescapable surrogacy at the heart of experience.

I’m arguing, on the basis of reading Holocaust diaries, that all experience is characterized by indirection, by proxy-ness. To rephrase this in terms given to us by literary criticism, there is always a distinction between the “I” that narrates and the “I” that experiences.

Here, for example, is Hélène Berr, a 20-year-old student of literature at the Sorbonne, writing on June 24, 1942 about the traumatic events of the previous day, when her father, a prominent industrialist, had been arrested:

The first time I awoke and saw the morning light through the blinds, it occurred to me that this morning Papa would not have his usual breakfast, that he would not be coming to the breakfast table to get his toast and pour his cup of coffee. The thought was immensely painful.

That was only my first awakening, and gradually (I often drifted back to sleep) other thoughts came to me, making me realize what had happened. I am still waiting for the sound of keys jangling in his pocket, of him opening the shutters in his bedroom; I am still waiting for them [her parents] to get up, because he’s the one who turns on the gas. At those moments I can grasp it. At this moment of writing, I am not managing very well.

In her description of how she feels when expecting her father, she can grasp the fact of his arrest—via absence, via what’s not happening, and who isn’t there—but in the actual act of writing, she cannot grasp the situation at all. In other words, what the narrating I grasps is that it cannot really grasp what has happened to it.

Later, on October 10, 1943, taking up her diary after a year-long hiatus, Berr describes this split even more clearly:

Then there is the considerable repugnance I feel at thinking of myself as “someone who writes”, because for me, perhaps mistakenly, writing implies a split personality, probably a loss of spontaneity and abdication. [Not mistakenly!]

The split between narrating I and experiencing I allows us to see that even the testimony of direct witnesses to the Holocaust is indirect. The record of experience is at a remove from experience itself. That doesn’t mean these records are fictional or biased or untrustworthy. But it does mean that no one, not even the person doing the experiencing, has unmediated access to direct experience.

[Riff on James Young: the things diarists say are said from within the frame of their world-view: contrast Frank with Flinker—I absolutely agree but my point is more about experience itself.]

Moreover, even the very diaries themselves, irrespective of what is in them, are themselves examples of mediation, documents that stand in for the life of the person who wrote them, a person that is often no longer present, even alive once we are reading their entries.


Published Holocaust diaries usually begin with an introduction explaining how the diary came down to us. Some of these stories are almost as well-known as the diaries themselves.

For example, many people know that Miep Gies, Otto Frank’s secretary, searched through the secret annex after the Gestapo raided it and retrieved Anne’s diary, which she kept in case any of the family returned from deportation.

Anne Frank had no way of knowing her writing would be preserved. Others were more deliberate about attempting to enact that preservation. Often, they relied on non-Jewish friends to keep their pages safe. Hélène Berr passed hers on to the family cook with instructions that she get them to Berr’s lover, who was fighting with the Free French. Victor Klemperer similarly gave his to a sympathetic friend.

Other stories are more haphazard, even dramatic. Dawid Serakowiak’s notebooks were found stacked on a stove, ready to be burned, when the Lodz ghetto was liberated. And consider the case of the diaries of Petr Ginz—a Czech teenager who wrote and illustrated adventure stories in the mode of Jules Verne, and whose entries are usually laconic descriptions of which of his friends are no longer at school, but who also wrote a heartbreakingly detailed description of the day he received his deportation notice, a description that focused on the delicate task of disassembling typewriters to clean their keys (this was his after-school job) (it’s a remarkable example of disassociation or of preserving one’s dignity, depending on how you look at it). Ginz’s diaries resurfaced when a man remembered some papers and drawings he had inexplicably kept after he bought an old house in Prague. He was reminded of the documents because of a news story about the explosion of the space shuttle Columbia. Among the crew was an Israeli astronaut who had taken with him a drawing of the moon by a teenager deported from Prague to Theresienstadt and then to Auschwitz—the same Petr Ginz.

There’s something avid in the way these stories are described by editors and readers alike. (I confess I share this sentiment.) I think that hunger, that fascination is worth thinking about, because it allows us to consider more fully the relationship between the diarist and the diary.

Diaries often seem to be direct replacements for the writers themselves. Perhaps even to be more important than the writer.

Think of Anne Frank naming her diary Kitty—turning it into an other, and, even more importantly, into an authority that legitimates her writing by being not only confidante but also judge.

Think of Chaim Kaplan, writing on August 2, 1942, amidst liquidation of Warsaw ghetto, in the last line of his last entry: “If my life ends—what will become of my diary?”

Think of Hélène Berr, writing in October 1943: “It makes me happy to think that if I am taken, Andrée [the family’s cook] will have kept these pages, which are a piece of me, the most precious part, because no other material thing matters to me anymore.”

Think of Molly Appelbaum, writing from near Tarnów, Poland, on March 1, 1942: “I look at each written page [of my diary] with respect. Why, these are the pages of my existence, my life.” (Even though her emphasis is on herself, the proof of the value of that life lies only in the diary.)

Think too of Artie Spiegelman, in the autobiographical comic Maus, listening to his father tell him about his separation from his wife, Artie’s mother, upon their arrival at Aushwitz-Biurkenau after months in hiding. Artie exclaims, “This is where Mom’s diaries will come in especially useful. They’ll give me some idea of what she went through when you were apart.” (But he finds out his father burned them, at which point he bursts out, accusingly, “God damn you, you murderer!”, as if the diary was in fact a person.) (It might be worth noting that these dairies were themselves reconstructions: they were lost in the war and she re-wrote them once settled in America.)

These are all instances in which the person seems subordinate to the diary.

Holocaust diarists are often convinced—usually rightly—that they will not survive. (The last line of Sierakowiak’s diary” “There is really no way out for this for us.”) But they want their diaries to survive. We might say that the narrating I triumphs over the experiencing I.

What does that mean, then, about the status of diaries as witnesses if the experience contained within them is never as direct as we assume?  Have we fetishized diaries at the expense of the actual lives involved?

The diarists themselves offer a response:

Klemperer famously writes, on May 27, 1942, “I shall go on writing. That is my heroism. I will bear witness, precise witness!”

Berr says something similar on October 10, 1943: “I have a duty to write because other people must know. Every hour of every day there is another painful realization that other folk do not know, do not even imagine, the suffering of other men, the evil that some of them inflict. And I am still trying to make the painful effort to tell the story. Because it is a duty, it is maybe the only one I can fulfill.”

And Samuel Golfard, in hiding in Eastern Galicia, begins his diary on January 23, 1943:

I am not composing these words for myself. They are intended for those who will survive and who might quickly forget what they had lived through not so long ago. Let these words refresh in their memory the moments of horror, the bloody scenes that took place before their eyes, the black night of savagery.

These statements are directed outwards, beyond the self. There’s even a sense that the writers don’t want to keep writing any more, or do so only at great cost or against all odds. Berr says as much: “I’m not even keeping this diary anymore, I’ve no willpower left, I’m just putting down the salient facts so as to remember them” (September 10, 1942). Sierakowiak doesn’t say it in so many words, but the terseness of his entries, coupled with his laments over his weakening concentration, failing health, and ebbing vitality, indirectly indicate to us how much the writing takes out of him.

On this way of thinking, the diary is an instrument, a tool of survival. Moreover, it is the often the only means of survival, and the only way it survives is by becoming separated and distanced from its writer. It is the very distinction between the writer’s experience and the diaries’ representation (their being a form of representation) that allows us to have access to these historical events at all.

Diaries, then, substitute for people who aren’t there any longer. [Even prey upon them? Cf Berr: I’m not even writing this diary anymore, but I have to.]

This is a melancholy, even dismal state of affairs. And inasmuch as we replace the reality of loss, suffering, and death—starvation, terror, dehumanization, typhus, tuberculosis, all the terrible traumas suffered by Frank and Berr and Sierakowiak and Klemperer, to name only a few—with the survival of the diaries themselves then it’s worse than that. To do so is to emphasize triumph where there is in reality only loss, a loss we’re literally papering over by fetishizing the miracle that the documents have come to us at all.

But this doesn’t have to be the only way to think about diaries as proxies for their authors. We can take the distance between diary and diarist not as a replacement of the latter by the former, but as a tribute the former pays to the latter.

Because if it weren’t for the mediated-ness of representation we wouldn’t have witnessing at all. The distance between person and diary is necessary. Sometimes that distance is physical (the two get separated: think of Frank’s pages scattered on the floor of the secret annex; think of Sierakowiak’s stacked on the stove, that narrow escape from the funeral pyre) but it is always structural (as I’ve been arguing, it’s constitutive of the form).

The separation of the diary from the diarist—sometimes a contingent fact of the vicissitudes of history but always an inescapable fact that is constitutive of the very act of writing—does two things at the same time: it keeps us from accessing direct experience but that very separation allows us to have any access to experience at all.

For Elie Wiesel, the legitimacy of the literature of testimony lies in its urgency:

We have all been witnesses and we all feel we have to bear testimony for the future. And that became an obsession, the single most powerful obsession that permeated all the lives, all the dreams, all the work of those people. One minute before they died they thought that was what they had to do.

The “we” in Wiesel’s first sentence refers to Holocaust survivors. But, like Levi, although less consciously, he distinguishes between those who survived and those who were murdered. Beginning with “we” Wiesel moves to “they” and “those people.” Holocaust diaries, I have hoped to show, show us in action what Wiesel can only unconsciously recognize, the fundamentally mediated quality of supposedly immediate or direct testimony.


12 thoughts on “On Holocaust Diaries

  1. Really interesting post, Dorian. I’m especially struck for some reason by your comment that the diary could be seen as a kind of tribute to the (poignantly absent) author. I think anyone who keeps a diary wonders at various points why they really do it, who or what it is for. As long as you are there to write and read it, its value is partly in how it helps you live (by, for instance, processing your experience and seeking the right story for it). What it means after your death is inevitably different, but in these cases that difference is so amplified.

  2. This is brilliant, as always. It made me think about the fact that when I taught a number of Holocaust diaries last year, one of the things that my students really picked up on was how little awareness many diarists had about the Nazis’ actions and intentions; in most cases, knowledge of the “final solution” is either entirely absent or comes very late. Diarists are recording horrific experiences but with a very shadowy sense of what the Nazi evil really entails, and certainly without thinking that what they were writing would be labelled a “Holocaust diary” or given any such general term. So it’s striking, as you say, that many diarists explicitly write for the purpose of bearing witness even as it is also true that their witnessing is necessarily a record of gaps and uncertainties. Diarists can only record their personal experiences of persecution, but are often left in ignorance about how and why these things are being done, so even their own supposedly “unmediated” experience is often filled with an awareness of not being able to fully understand their own experiences (Sierakowiak, for example, constantly takes the trouble to write that there is “no news” in politics, demonstrating his awareness of how little he knows about his own suffering.) I’m not sure if this exactly correlates with your argument, but I think your point about the “fundamentally mediated quality” of these diaries is is crucial here as well.

    • Excellent point, Nat. Klemperer has a better sense, and I was recently looking at the diary of Sebastian Millu, who was in Bucharest during the war, where he narrowly escaped a pogrom, but where he had access to lots of news about the war in N Africa, for example. (Not the same as knowing about the Final Solution, admittedly.)

      BTW, I regret I didn’t say in my post how I indebted I’ve been to your Holocaust diaries exercise in thinking about this stuff. (I *did* mention it to my class when I did a version of your exercise with them.) Thank you for the inspiration!

      • Glad it was helpful! And thank you for pointing me towards a couple of diaries that I was not aware of (Berr and Ginz). They sound very interesting despite Amazon’s attempt to put me off by introducing both with blurbs that share an almost identical first sentence: “Not since the diary of Anne Frank has there been a book such as this!” or words to that effect.

  3. I *devoured* this post, as an avid reader of histories and diaries from WWII and sometime-researcher into the music of that era as well. I had a thought that I might need to expand upon in the future — my masters thesis was on the use of jazz by composers in DP camps as a way to rebuild their cultural identity. I hadn’t really thought before of the ways that the writing of music and songs as a coping/processing mechanism might be similar to the writing of a diary, but you’ve got my brain turning over new ideas now.

    • Thanks, Kara! I didn’t know about your thesis: v interesting! The DP camps fascinate me, though I don’t know enough about them. My understanding, though, is that the rate of fertility in women housed/interned there was higher than has ever been recorded. Don’t know if that’s true but makes me think about desire for life, etc, as well as more nefarious possibilities (rape, etc). Did Jews in particular turn to jazz, or were these composers non-Jewish?

      • Interesting point about the fertility in DP camps. I hadn’t come across that particular factoid, but I might try to do some reading about that. Both the composers I profiled were Polish Jews — Henry Baigelman, who was part of an octet called The Happy Boys (all spent time in the Lodz ghetto), and Leo Spellman from Ostrowiec. I found that jazz was used primarily by Jewish composers in the immediate post-war period in Europe… it made sense because of the overlap in instrumentation and style (clarinet playing in particular), the condemnation of jazz by the Nazis as degenerate, and its associations in Europe to Jewish artists (Benny Goodman was the most popular jazz artist in northern Europe at the beginning of the war). Jazz actually played a surprisingly huge role in attempts to rebuild Jewish culture in DP camps, more than I had ever imagined before I started writing!

      • I could imagine your research would fit nicely with Michael Rothberg’s interest, in Multidirectional Memory, in thinking about how different cultural traumas intersect. (He’s written about Du Bois’s writings on the Warsaw Ghetto monument, for example). I can indeed see how hybridization would be a really appropriate response to fascism.

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