The Sword or the Pen? The Jewish Experience by Esther Gilbert

Holocaust Memorial Day 2018: The power of words

In September 1944, Salmen Grodowski buried a letter and diary near Crematorium II in Birkenau. The letter began:

“Dear Finder, search everywhere, in every inch of soil. Tens of documents are buried under it, mine and those of other persons, which will throw light on everything that was happening here. Great quantities of teeth are also buried here. It was we, the Kommando workers, who expressly have strewn them all over the terrain, as many as we could, so that the world should find material traces of the millions of murdered people.”

Worried that no one would know what had happened in Auschwitz-Birkenau, these Sonderkommando workers recorded what they had seen, how they had been forced to transfer bodies from the gas chambers to the crematoria. Worried that no one would realise the numbers of people killed, they collected teeth as evidence, the final ‘material traces’ of the human body, the last remnants of a people.

Primo Levi describes this need to communicate in his preface to Survival in Auschwitz, the Nazi Assault on Humanity, “The need to tell our story … had taken on for us, before our liberation and after, the character of an immediate and violent impulse, to the point of competing with our elemental needs.”

The Jewish response to the assault against them, their families and their communities, was to document what was happening to them. The largest trove of wartime Jewish documentation retrieved was that of the “Oneg Shabbat” Ringelblum Archive of Warsaw and its environs, which collected experiences and perspectives across the Jewish religious, political and educational spectrum. In Lithuania, the Secretary of the Kovno Jewish Council, (now Kaunas), Avraham Tory, recorded the meetings, discussions, and challenges facing them. Surviving the Holocaust, the Kovno Ghetto Diary may be the only surviving diary of a Jewish Council.

For those who survived, the impetus was to document what they witnessed, what they had experienced, while memories were still fresh. Among the early memoirs is Vladka Meed’s On Both Sides of the Wall, about Warsaw, first published in Yiddish in 1948. Elie Wiesel’s Night, first published in French in 1958; Primo Levi’s, Survival in Auschwitz first published in Italian in 1958 and Rudolf Vrba’s I Cannot Forgive in 1963 are all descriptions of their experiences in Auschwitz-Birkenau. Leon Weliczker Wells’, The Death Brigade in 1963, republished as The Janowska Road was based on Wells’ diary kept while in the Janowska Sonderkommando, near Lviv. The following years saw the publication of a plethora of Holocaust memoirs as more survivors were ready to face and describe their experiences.

Liberation and the return of Jews to their hometowns to search for surviving members of their families brought the compilation of memorial, or Yizkor, books which relate the history of each town from its earliest beginnings through the destruction of the Jewish community during the Holocaust. Originally published in Israel in Yiddish and Hebrew, many are now translated into English and available at

Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center founded in 1953, began immediately collecting “Pages of Testimony” by survivors describing individuals they had known and what was known of their fate. Names, places, and experiences from these “Pages” are available on Yad Vashem’s website.

This documentation by those who had borne the brunt of Nazi barbarity and destruction set an example of how history can be remembered and justice can be sought. Eyewitness testimony and documentation were key to the judgements at Nuremberg and at the Eichmann and other Second World War trials. On 22 November 2017, the former Commander of the Bosnian Serb Army Ratko Mladic was convicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. The judgement shows that although human nature has not changed, and genocide and crimes against humanity are still realities, documentation of survivors has offered an alternative to revenge and an awareness that with documentary evidence, justice can take its course.

Rather than choosing a route of vengeance after liberation, many Jews chose to document, to tell their story, to use the power of their words to bring justice to the perpetrators of their crimes, and awareness of the best and worst of human nature as they had experienced it. To them the pen was indeed mightier than the sword.

The Salmen Grodowski quote is from Sir Martin’s The Holocaust, The Jewish Tragedy

Reprinted by the Holocaust Memorial Day,


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