As he sat crouched in a foul-smelling cowshed and hayloft for months on end, with nothing but his own bleak thoughts to keep himself occupied, Chaim Yitzchok Wolgelernter turned to his pen as a means of endurance. An unusually gifted writer, this young husband and father of two made it his goal to chronicle his Holocaust experiences as they were occurring. And so, as he wandered the countryside from hideout to hideout, worrying about the fate of his family members who were also on the run, Chaim Yitzchok wrote. And as he hid in a dilapidated mikveh building together with his terrified younger brothers, Chaim Yitzchok wrote some more. And as he sought refuge in the barn of a Polish woman, who would eventually turn her back on him, Chaim Yitzchok continued to write.
The result: a personal Holocaust journal with a rare level skill apparent in each chapter chronicled by the author.
Unfortunately Chaim Yitzchok did not survive the inferno of the Holocaust; he was brutally murdered just a few months before liberation. His diary, though, did survive. It was rescued by his brother and eventually made its way to North America, where it lay in a drawer, untouched, for many years.
In the meantime, Chaim Yitzchok’s surviving child, Feivel, grew up, married, and had children of his own. His son, Nafti Wolgelernter, was the one who pushed for his grandfather’s diary to be deciphered and translated so that the family could connect with Chaim Yitzchok’s writings.
What followed were many years of meticulous work and effort, and now, 70 years after being written, this fascinating diary is finally being brought to light, released in English to the public.
This rare, historic work can be appreciated at many levels. Each page reveals an astounding depth of emotion, coupled with a cynical, witty – at times, even humorous – literary style. The diary is breathtaking in its eloquence and scope, heartbreaking in its descriptive account of the travails suffered by the author and his family. It reveals shocking details on the reaction of the local Polish populace to the unfolding disaster. Given its unique perspective, this compelling account lends an entirely new dimension to the world of Holocaust literature.
The following excerpt from The Unfinished Diary illustrates just one of Chaim Yitzchok’s brushes with death during his time spent in hiding and on the run.
My Miraculous Escape
(l-r) Meir, Yitta, Chaim Yitzchok
At midday, I continue on. In order to avoid the main road where wagons travel, I walk through the village of Drozejowice. I am almost at the far end of the village when I hear a vehicle approaching at high speed. Turning around, I see two German army wagons. They must be the same ones that were in Szyszczyce last night, heading back from Dzialoszyce for a second round.
In a flash, I am in the fields looking for a place to hide. But no more than twenty meters behind me, one of the soldiers chases me on foot.
“Halt!” he shouts.
When I do not stop, a shot rings out.
As I continue running, I notice a peasant woman coming out of a little farmhouse with a burnt roof, closing the door behind her and bolting it with a chain – a sure sign that no one remained at home.
Without a moment to lose, I race over to the house, silently remove the chain and enter the front room. Seeing a ladder standing there, I climb up, ducking down to make sure no one can spot me from the outside through the exposed roof.
There is a thick layer of straw in the attic, protecting the house from rain. I stretch out flat on the floor, quickly cover myself with the straw and lie there holding my breath, fearing the worst. Barely do I finish throwing the last piece of straw on myself when the door of the house is thrown open.
Chaim Yitzchok and Chayele Wolgelernter
in Krakow, late 1930s
The German soldier enters, looks around for a few minutes, then leaves. A moment later, he comes back in and starts climbing up the ladder. This is it… I am doomed. He stands in the attic for a short while, scanning it carefully, then goes back down.
I hear many loud voices outside. It seems all the soldiers are looking for me. Straining my senses, I peek out from beneath the straw and see the peasant woman being led by the arm.
“Where is the fellow who escaped from us?” they interrogate her. “Where is he hiding?”
She has no idea what they are talking about.
“Kreuz-Donnerwetter!” they shout, slapping her. “If you don’t tell us, we’ll burn down your house!”
Chaim Yitzchok and Chayele with their firstborn child, autumn 1940; note white armband on sleeve
I am in grave danger. O Merciful God!I pray. It is not yet three months since I was orphaned of my parents. Shall my two-year-old son, my one remaining child, now become orphaned, too, of a father whom he hardly knows? If I perish here in the fields of Drozejowice, there will be no witness to my death, and my dear Chayele will remain a tormented agunah for the rest of her life. Tomorrow night is our seventh anniversary. Shall our happy married life come to such a tragic end?
Today, the eighth of Adar, is the yahrzeit of my grandfather Rav Yechiel Issamar. Zeide! For whom have I undertaken this dangerous trip if not for my brothers, the children of our exalted father, your son Yeshayah! Shall your yahrzeit, a day when the soul rises to a loftier realm, be stained by the blood of your murdered son’s child?
After all, I am only living for my wife Chayele, for our one and only innocent little child, and for my rescued brothers who have not yet experienced happiness. Shall the hands of the murderers succeed in destroying all these lives at once? I want to live to avenge the blood of my parents and sister…!
At that moment, I made a decision: I would not fall into their hands alive!Taking out the razor blade I carried on me, I held it close to my throat and observed the ensuing events.
Feivel Wolgelernter, about one year old,
beginning of 1942
The peasant woman crossed herself and swore by all her saints that she knew nothing. I saw one soldier hold her to make sure she did not escape, while the others tossed straw and grain out of the adjacent barn. “He’s got to be hiding right around here!” I heard one German shout.
I am still in great danger…they may decide to come up here again.
I watch as several soldiers move on to search the neighboring houses. A few continue to stand outside, holding onto the woman. I feel like my eyes are popping out of their sockets. How long the search lasts, I cannot determine.
The soldiers return, unsuccessful.
“It can’t be!” I hear one of them insist. “He must be here somewhere!”
Again, they begin to flog the peasant woman, threatening to demolish her house. By now, not only do I see death before me but I already feel it; every one of my limbs has gone numb.
Suddenly, it grows quiet: one minute, two, three…
I peek out again from under the straw. I do not see a soul. My heart slowly resumes beating. I wait a bit more…I do not hear a thing. I wait for what I estimate to be half an hour…still quiet. Then, I hear the crack of a whip. The wagons must be leaving. With God’s help, the danger has passed.
I lie motionless in the attic until it becomes pitch dark; I cannot be sure they haven’t left one of their men behind. Then I climb down the ladder, approach the woman and ask her what happened.
With tears in her eyes, she tells me the whole story.
“Are you sure they are gone?” I ask her.
“They did not leave anyone behind,” she assures me.
“I am the one they were looking for,” I inform her, offering her some money. After all, it was because of me that she received a beating.
She declines. “Thank the good Lord, I am glad that I truly did not know you were up there!” she says. “This way a person was saved through me. I do not want a reward for that.” She would not even tell me her name.
The next morning, back in the loft in Skalbmierz, Magda relayed the conclusion of the previous day’s events, which she had heard from a Drozejowice villager.
The Germans barged into a house where some young peasant boys were playing cards. Identifying one of the boys as the supposed escapee they were searching for, they beat him savagely, forcing him to confess why he had run away.
The fellow remained unconscious for four straight weeks.
Click here to purchase your copy of “The Unfinished Diary: A Chronicle of Tears” (Israel Bookshop Publications) by Chaim Yitzchok Wolgelernter Hy”d.