Chaim Yitzchok Wolgelernter’s diary might be the only surviving wartime journal written by a chassidic Jew for future generations, yet it was hidden away for decades. After two decades of painstaking work, his children recaptured not only the horrific images of war, but also the spiritual resilience of Jews who refused to give up hope.
Photos: Eli Cobin
t was a joyous time in Lucerne, that week in August 1964. Feivel Wolgelernter, one of those rare child survivors born during the Holocaust, was marrying Rachel Erlanger-Silbiger. Amid the festivities, a package from Toronto arrived — Feivel’s Uncle Dovid had sent him a gift in honor of his wedding. Gingerly unwrapping the parcel, his eyes beheld a stack of aging sheets filled with tightly penned Yiddish lines. Feivel had never seen these pages before, but he knew instantly what they were.
In his hands were his late father’s writings, a testimony of tragedy and faith that Chaim Yitzchok Wolgelernter penned while on the run from the Nazis. Feivel had known from his mother that the pages existed, yet the gift from his father’s brother, Uncle Dovid — who managed to salvage the writings during his own escape and now hoped the manuscript might somehow be publicized — strengthened Feivel’s connection to the father he could barely remember. But the thought of delving into the manuscript, both the tedious work of deciphering the script and especially the emotional load that went with it, was too heavy to bear. “One day I’ll do something with it,” Feivel pledged to himself as he slipped the package into his desk drawer. All that pain could be shelved for a while and retrieved when the time was right.
Yet for over 20 years the pages lay hidden away, preserved from decay by a protective spray, but still untouched. “It was my son Nafti who spurred me on,” says Feivel Wolgelernter, whose family today lives in Zurich. “My uncle, and so many others who knew my father, kept on urging, ‘Why aren’t you publishing the memoirs in a book?’ The truth is, Uncle Dovid himself had sent a copy of the manuscript away in the 1960s to be published, but somehow it got lost and could not be located. Most of the people who would have appreciated it on a personal level are no longer alive. But it had to wait. It was a process.”
It finally did emerge, and now, after over 20 years of painstaking effort and more than half a century after that priceless wedding gift reached Feivel Wolgelernter, the public can open up The Unfinished Diary: A Chronicle of Tears, and read his father’s riveting eyewitness account, cut short when he was murdered just months before liberation.
“The diary was a very strong presence in our home,” Nafti explains, tracing the first steps in his own efforts. “I always knew where it was and felt this pull toward it — I wanted to learn about our family history, and most of all to discover within those pages the grandfather I never knew.”
Nafti was 19 when he started working on the diary in the late 1980s. Feivel, not wanting to let the original out of his hands, made a copy of every page for his son. “Nafti embarked on this enormous undertaking under very difficult circumstances, working with a magnifying glass to decipher the cramped lines and not understanding many of the Polish Yiddish terms.”
It took Nafti over a decade to piece together the historical narrative from his grandfather’s often cryptic description and unbound, unnumbered pages. He also spent time with his father’s Uncle Dovid, which gave the bochur an added window into his grandfather’s life and writings.
While the Holocaust destroyed six million worlds, it’s rare to get a firsthand glimpse into even one of these worlds, into the heart and soul of a Torah scholar and maamin who transcribed his suffering as it was occurring, leaving a testimony for future generations.
Reb Chaim Yitzchok Wolgelernter acknowledged that himself in one of his journal entries:
If, chalilah, it is a Heavenly decree that there not be a remnant of the House of Israel in Europe after this dreadful war, I must accept the justice of the Divine judgment and I shall leave these lines as a memorial.
As European Jewry was being decimated by the Nazi killing machine, Chaim Yitzchok Wolgelernter sat hidden in a Polish barn, all the while maintaining his sanity by authoring this memoir, which he titled Mein Trern Bich [My Book of Tears]. He discussed the Torah’s perspective of what the Jews of Europe were enduring and his own emotional state, and shared insights into the political situation and the mindset of those who were his tormentors, and others who were righteous gentiles. In 50 meticulously penned chapters he collected whatever information he managed to gather about his hometown, his family members, friends, relatives, nearby towns and the distant, unknown destinations of those shipped off in cattle cars.
“In general, there are relatively few diaries that are known to have been written during the war, and this is one of the only ones written by a frum Yid,” says Nafti, who explains that the narrative reads like a memoir penned by an accomplished author, and is even divided into chapters as if his grandfather were preparing it for publication.
From the first page, the reader feels transported back into that dreadful time and place, where there was nowhere to run and hide. “Writing was his therapy; that’s how he kept his sanity,” Nafti says. “He actually mentioned this in one of the letters he sent his wife — my grandmother.”
Chaim Yitzchok Wolgelernter had a special future awaiting him. Raised by his parents Rav Yeshayah and Hendel Rivkah Wolgelernter in the small town of Kazimierza Wielka, he was a gifted child who absorbed Torah learning like a sponge. At 17, he traveled to Ostrowiec to learn in the yeshivah of the Ostrovtzer Rebbe, Rav Yechezkel Halstuk. He was one of the few students to receive heter horaah from the Rebbe and was charged with transcribing the Rebbe’s shiurim.
In 1936 he married Chayele Platkiewicz and moved to her hometown of Dzialoszyce, a small, mostly Jewish town just northeast of Krakow. Chayele’s father, Reb Shraga Feivel Platkiewicz, had passed away in 1918 and left his wife Yachet a widow with five orphans (two children died previously). She managed to build up a successful textile business to provide for her family.
By 1941 the couple had two children, Alte Sarah Leah (Altele) and baby Shraga Feivel, but in September 1942, it became evident that Dzialoszyce would be made Judenrein together with all the towns and villages in the area. News had spread of the atrocities the Germans were committing in other areas — of cattle cars taking away entire communities to unknown destinations, of slow deaths endured by once-strapping young men in labor camps — but it just seemed too outrageous and unreal.
Chaim Yitzchok had the keen foresight to make plans for the family to go into hiding.
Chayele would go with her toddler son Feivel and hide in the home of a non-Jewish Polish family, while her sister Reizele would take their daughter Altele to another Polish home. Chaim Yitzchok felt his own best chance of survival would be in one of the labor battalions.
And then suddenly, the plans were turned upside down. The Germans were set to arrive at any moment and fleeing was most urgent; Chaim Yitzchok, whose initial escape plan had fallen through, ran out of the house without a rucksack or a goodbye, confident that the others would scramble to their preplanned hideouts and save themselves.
Alas, it was not to be. While Chayele managed to save herself together with Feivel, Reizele and Altele were forced from their hideout to the marketplace where all the Jews of Dzialoszyce who were caught had to gather. A day later, 1,500 of them were taken away in wagons and murdered in ditches on the outskirts of their town, while others awaited their fate. It was not long in coming. Altele, clutching tightly to her aunt, was pushed onto the train and taken to a place of no return.
Hidden in a loft, Chaim Yitzchok put pen to paper and scrawled out what was in his heart:
The train pulls in with a column of wagons so long, it blinds the eye.
If they ever harbored any illusions about the reports of sealed boxcars transporting hundreds of people to unknown destinations, left on a rail siding until it was certain the occupants were no longer alive, now, standing face-to-face with reality, they became convinced it was even worse than what they had heard. As the railcars were thrown open, the smell of disinfectant mingling with the stench of congealed body fluids overcame their senses and elicited a wave of nausea.
The young men selected for labor were placed in the open wagons at the rear of the train and ordered to crouch down. Expressing farewell, even with a last glance at their family members who were being shoved into the sealed cars at the front, was denied them. Only their desperate cries could be heard: the death elegy of an entire nation.
Chaim Yitzchok, distraught over the loss of his beloved daughter and her aunt, initially managed to take shelter with some other Jews hiding in the barn of a Polish village mayor. When his wife managed to reunite with him in the barn after a short while, it was she who comforted him. Later, he transcribed what she told him:
“Don’t ask questions. If you want to survive, you must stop. It’s a bitter gezar din, a Heavenly decree, and we are no exception. Hashem granted us Altele as a gift and He took her back. We must strengthen ourselves. Let us thank and praise Hashem that we’re here.”
Soon afterward — knowing that Chayele had a better chance of survival disguised as a Christian — they were parted for a second time, never to see each other again.
Chayele and Feivel, disguised as non-Jews and having procured fake ID cards, spent the remaining war years with a Polish family, while Chaim Yitzchok and the other family members began their rootless wanderings in the Polish countryside.
Knocking on doors of Poles once thought to have been benevolent often left them betrayed. Here and there, they chanced upon kindhearted Poles or greedy ones who were willing to take them in for a hefty sum.
In his journal, Chaim Yitzchok doesn’t skimp on any of these unfortunate details. He describes, for example, the treacherous hideout in a cave on the outskirts of a Polish village, where he witnessed a brother-in-law and his children withering away before his very eyes. And there are the massacres, and the horrors of the last moments of kedoshim as they were ruthlessly shot.
Chaim Yitzchok was in hiding, but he was fortunate that he wasn’t isolated. News reached him by messengers, reports from the people whose homes he was hiding in, as well as underground newspapers. He even managed to get some letters from his wife as well as other family members, couriered by Poles still kind enough to help a Jew in exchange for money or merchandise. Yet as time wore on and hope of finding a safe hiding place became more remote despite the series of open miracles that had protected him so far, news of the death of his sister Yitta and then of his parents gunned down shattered him:
In one fell swoop, it has all disappeared. Kazimierz no longer exists for me. I no longer have parents. I have been orphaned of both at the same time. I was not there at the moment of their departure from This World; did not ask forgiveness; did not say Kaddish; did not sit shivah. I do not even know where they are buried… I am an orphan…
The bit of straw under my head was wet with my tears.
Reprieve to Death
After a few months on the run, Chaim Yitzchok was miraculously reunited with his two younger brothers, Dovid and Meir. Together with his mother-in-law and her daughter and son-in-law, Tzinne and Hershel Erlich, and two of their children, they managed to stay together for an entire year, hidden in the barn loft of a woman named Magda, who took pity on the family. Occasionally there were house-to-house searches in the area, forcing the group to crouch in a pit underneath a stable filled with pigs. Chaim Yitzchok probably wrote most of his book during the time in that loft.
Eventually, Magda grew hostile and wanted the family to leave. Under precarious circumstances they smuggled themselves out of this refuge and managed to hide in a loft of a Pole named Biskup in Debowiec. Biskup decided to take them in for money, but they didn’t make it to the end of the war: He had the group murdered in cold blood when they decided to search out a new hiding place and it became evident that his income was coming to an end. Only two members of the group survived — Chaim Yitzchok’s brother Dovid and nephew Feivel Erlich, who were accompanied by partisan Avraham Szajnfeld. Taking everyone’s belongings, including most probably Chaim Yitzchok’s manuscripts, they had gone ahead to a new hideout, waiting in vain for the others to follow. They never arrived. News arrived soon after that they had been killed on Rosh Chodesh Tammuz 5704.
New Start, Old Pain
After the war, the remnants of the family — survivors Dovid Wolgelernter, Chayele Wolgelernter, little Feivele, and cousin Feivel Erlich (another cousin Chayele Erlich had survived the war in Warsaw) — reunited. They knew it was time to leave blood-soaked Poland, but before they left they wanted to visit the spot where Chaim Yitzchok and the others had been killed. As Dovid documented in an addendum he wrote at the end of his slain brother’s manuscript, they enlisted the help of former partisan Avraham Fuhrman, who had visited them in Biksup’s loft during the war and knew well the surrounding terrain. He led them to Debowiec, where a neighbor showed them the spot where the bodies had been hastily buried in one grave. The earth was still fresh. Dovid, shattered by the cruel twist of fate and perhaps even guilt ridden that he survived Biskup’s butchery, recited Kaddish together with Chaim Yitzchok’s Feivele, who was four years old.
Chayele and Feivele eventually moved to Switzerland, where Chayele remarried, to Yisroel Mordechai Finkelstein. Still, she made sure to share with Feivel the memories of his father and her parents — his grandparents. “Growing up, my parents’ entire life revolved around the Holocaust,” Feivel says. “I couldn’t remember anything from my own experiences in the war, but the stories they shared with me left a traumatic impression.”
Although Chayele restarted her life, she could never really let go of those horrific times. “Rosh Chodesh Tammuz, the yahrtzeit of her husband, mother, and sister with her family was excruciating. And in Adar, when her brother Yisroel and his family were killed [Chaim Yitzchok received notification of their deaths when the family was in hiding in Magda’s loft], her grief was palpable.
“Over the years my mother would often ask me to travel with her to Poland. ‘Lomir fuhren [Let’s travel there],’ she would say. ‘Maybe we can find the grave.’ But neither she nor my Uncle Dovid ever revealed to me that they knew exactly where the spot is. They never even shared with me that I had said Kaddish there, and I had no memory of it.”
Until Nafti began working on the manuscript, Feivel never felt he had enough factual evidence to make the trip worthwhile.
“My father is a trained engineer,” Nafti explains. “In his line of work he always needed proof and a plan before starting out on a project. We only had assumptions but no factual knowledge of where the burial spot might be.”
Furthermore, until the 1990s the Communists ruled Poland and would never have permitted the exhumation and transfer of human remains.
In the years he spent working on and researching the manuscript, Nafti met countless people who remembered his father. One of those meetings was with Avraham Fuhrman, the partisan who had led the survivors to the burial spot after the war. Fuhrman revealed the incredible information — he remembered exactly where they had been buried. It was clear that a search would be difficult, as it was an unmarked grave in a slope on the outskirts of the tiny hamlet of Debowiec.
Galvanized by this new discovery, Nafti urged his father to join him for a trip to Poland. “My father was still skeptical that we would actually find something after all these years. But then he was pulled in by my enthusiasm and decided to go along.”
On Sunday, April 18, 1993, Feivel and his two sons Nafti and Chaim Yitzchok, together with two experts from the chevra kaddisha, left for Poland in the hopes of finally bringing their loved ones to kever Yisrael.
Arriving in Warsaw, they traveled to the towns and villages where their ancestors had lived for generations, walking through the chapters Chaim Yitzchok had described so vividly. The men from the chevra kaddisha received the necessary digging permits while Feivel and his sons searched for some elderly Pole in Debowiec who might remember, or perhaps had heard, where the spot might be. With conflicting information, they began to dig in several places on the outskirts of this forgotten village, at first with shovels, and then with a bulldozer. For two anxious days they searched, not ready to give up despite the odds. And then, on the afternoon of the second day, they discovered a bone. This was the burial site!
Feivel kept his own journal of that trip, and this was his entry after finding his father’s makeshift grave:
Although it is difficult for me to pull myself away, I go up to the top of the depression, since it is halachically forbidden to look at a parent’s remains. My sons continually take pictures and keep me informed.
I take out my Tehillim. As if of its own accord, it opens to Chapter 94, Keil nekamos Hashem. “Almighty of vengeance, reveal Yourself…”
How fitting, I reflect.
Moshe and Baruch begin the difficult process of identifying the skulls and bones based on factors we had heard from surviving family members — my grandmother had lost her teeth with age; my father and uncle had both been over 1.8 meters [six feet] tall; my teenaged cousins had been short and slight in build. It appears the victims were shot or clubbed to death.
I tear kri’ah.
All of us are overcome with emotion, particularly Nafti. Having immersed himself in my father’s writings for many years, he had become intimately familiar with his grandfather as a living personality. Now, the tragedy penetrates his consciousness in a palpable manner.
Paradoxically, although I am an avel until nightfall, I am filled with elation and gratitude to Hashem Yisbarach for enabling us to bring our family’s remains to kever Yisrael. What a remarkable chesed my son had performed for me by spearheading and goading me to proceed with this unusual mission. Orphaned at a tender young age, I would now be able to daven at my father’s kever.
The remains were collected during hours of tedious work, separated to the best of their ability although the bones were mixed together, wrapped in sheets and placed together in an aron and placed in a van, finally on their way. Almost. A group of Poles, still greedy when they smelled Jewish money, refused to allow the van to leave until a hefty sum was paid.
Almost 50 years after being murdered in an anti-Semitic rage, the bodies of Chaim Yitzchok Wolgelernter and his extended family were flown to Eretz Yisrael. With instructions by Rav Wosner that they be buried in a kever achim, they were laid to rest on Har HaMenuchos.
Words Are Forever
"This was a huge closure for our family,” Feivel shares, “and I think that’s what jump-started me to finally see the project to its natural end.”
Nafti had spent years working on the manuscript, but now it needed translating. The task was given to Rabbi Avrohom Yaakov Finkel, who is fluent in several languages. Then it was time to look for a publisher.
“I approached several publishing houses with the translated manuscript but none of them showed much interest,” says Feivel. “Then I happened to meet Mr. Moshe Kaufman of Israel Bookshop.”
Recognizing the rarity of a Holocaust diary having survived intact and being made public after 70 years, Mr. Kaufman became extremely passionate about this project.
But he needed someone to proofread, edit, and prepare the translation for publishing. Mrs. Hindy Mandel, who had just completed a year’s worth of Holocaust research through museums and archives in order to piece together the story of her own grandmother’s survival during the war, and who is fluent in Yiddish, was the perfect candidate.
But what she thought would be a short-term post turned into a six-and-a-half-year project. Going back to the original Yiddish document, she realized that many details were foggy, and events were written cryptically. She knew the book would need an overhaul.
“This book became part of my life, even when I wasn’t working on it,” says Mrs. Mandel. The book is already in the stores, but the strong impression that the author made on her has not faded with time. “He never severed his ties to Hashem, calling out to Him even when he was grappling with horrors that were incomprehensible. This should give chizuk to every Yid.”
In one chapter, Chaim Yitzchok describes his extreme pain seeing the horrors around him, and screams out at the injustice of it all. While very much wanting to print the diary in its entirety, the family wasn’t sure if this chapter wasn’t too strong in its wording. Did it smack of lost faith? Of a ta’anah on Hashem?
“I discussed it with Rav Shmuel Kamenetsky,” Nafti says. “He told me to print it, explaining, ‘Er mohnt di Geulah, er fordert fun der Ribbono Shel Olam [He’s urging on the Geulah, he’s demanding it from the Ribbono Shel Olam].’ This just shows how, even in the darkest moments, he never let go of his emunah that Hashem is behind all that suffering, and only to Him can we turn.”
(Originally Featured in Mishpacha Issue 566)