Ponary Diary

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Ponary
The Diary of Sakovitz, The Book and The Film

 Review by Baruch Shub

The Diary

 13 July, 1944.

The Jewish partisans returned to Vilna. The few who had held out in the burrows and those who survived using a false identity, came out of hiding. We had not yet heard anything about the survivors from Estonia and from the death camps of Poland and Germany. 

 

Only a handful of the intelligentsia of the Jerusalem of Lithuania – writers, artists and journalists - survived. They dedicated themselves to finding any paper, document or scrap of evidence about those dark days and about the world which had been destroyed. Avraham Sotzkover and Shlomo Katzerginski, the poets and authors of  the partisans, Abba Kovner, head of the F.P.O. and the commander in the forest and several others who were devoted to the project, searched through the piles and collected notebooks, books documents and letters, in fact, anything which could serve as evidence. Some of these people worked during the Nazi period in the famous YIVO archive, and were forced by the Nazi Rosenberg (the supposed expert on Judaism), to send significant material to Germany. They succeeded in hiding documents and rare books and now they came to collect them

 

During the war, a Polish journalist by the name of Sakovitz lived in Ponar, on the outskirts of the forest. The German Death Squads (Zonderkommando), and their accomplices the Lithuanians, operated in this forest. Nearly every day, Sakovitz recorded

what he saw and heard. He wrote his diary on old papers, used diaries and school notebooks, and hid them in sinelka liquor bottles, bottles with spring corks, which he  buried in his garden.

 

It is still not clear who found his notes, which he recorded from July 11, 1941 until November 6, 1943. Sakovitz was murdered by the Germans or the Lithuanians, before the city was liberated on July 13, 1944. We do not know why he stopped recording the events on that date, but it is possible that more notes are buried in another unknown location. In his last notes, Sakovitz pointed out that he felt that he was being watched and it is possible that this is the reason that he stopped documenting at that time.

When the war ended, the bottles and the notes were given over to the Jewish Museum, which was founded in 1945, in Lithuania. In 1949 the Museum was closed. These were the years of the Stalin regime, when the Jews were persecuted and murdered. Some of the notes were kept in the Central Archives of Lithuania and the rest went to the Museum of the Revolution (today the Lithuanian National Museum). When Lithuania won its independence, a Government Museum for the Jews was established and about half of the notes were transferred there. The other half remained restricted and inaccessible. On September 30, 1998, Dr. Margolis completed the deciphering and processing of the two halves of the diary. In order to receive the restricted half, she had to be very resourceful. Exhaustive and painstaking work was done over a period of years to decipher the notes. Dr. Margolis, who at that time was the director of the historical department of the Jewish Museum, succeeded in reading and interpreting the text which for the most part was written in pencil on paper which had yellowed over the years.

 

The Polish and Hebrew editions

The first edition of the diary was published in the city of Yadgushetz , Poland  in 1999. The copyright belongs to Dr. Margolis and to the Polish publisher, of the "Union of Devotees of Vilna and the Vilna Homeland”. A copy reached Mr. Dov Bergman, z”l, who translated the diary from Polish to Hebrew and published and sold it without permission from the copyright holders. We wish to point out that in addition to a number of distortions in the content of the diary, Mr. Bergman, z”l wrote an introduction and a short translation of the scientific preface written by Dr. Margolis.

As a member of the Partisan Organization in Israel, Dr. Margolis asked the Organization for help in the publication of the diary in English and perhaps also in other languages. After the Partisan Organization received authorization from Dr. Margolis and from the Polish publishers, the work of translation was begun. The matter was given to a special committee, headed by Mrs. Haya Lazar, Dr. Haim Basok, z”l, and Baruch Shub. After exhaustive negotiations with Mr. Bergman, z”l, it was agreed that he would not publish the diary in other languages without permission.

Financial support was donated anonymously, and the work of translation was given to Dr. Lorentz Weinbaum, who very successfully translated the diary from Polish to English.

The Partisan Organization approached Yad Vashem and Dr. Bella Guterman, director of publishing, read the manuscript and expressed her willingness to help as much as possible. Upon her advice, and with her help, we approached the Yale University Press in the U.S.A., which specializes in literature which deals with the history of the Shoah. In addition, Dr. Guterman referred us to the historian Dr. Yitzhak Arad, in order for him to authenticate the details and dates as written in the diary with the historical facts. After many months of waiting and delays, and with the active assistance of Dr. Guterman, Yale  University Press agreed to publish the diary and Dr. Yitzhak Arad completed his scientific investigation.

 

The Film – From the Direction of the Forest – based on the diary.

One day, Mr. Limor Pinhasov ben Yosef, director, and Kaftori ben Yosef, producer, both of the Cicero Company, contacted the Partisan Organization and informed us that they were producing a documentary film, based on the Ponar Diary. In 2002, the team won the film documentary project, in cooperation with Noga Communications of Channel 8 and the Film Service and Cinematech in Jerusalem. Upon receiving the grant, the producers approached the Partisan Organization for advice, guidance and help. The Organization gave them relevant literature and encouraged them in their efforts. For the filming, the producers traveled to the death pits in Ponar, and asked me to join them. Mr. Zeev Good, a doctor from Los Angeles, who escaped alive from the death pit, also joined the journey, on my recommendation.

The producers, witnesses, photographers and translators met in Vilna. In spite of the bitter cold, the atmosphere was warm and friendly and the work was done in a professional and orderly manner. After a week of filming, the group returned home. Several months later, when the film was to be edited in Tel Aviv, I was asked for my comments.

The film was first screened at the Jerusalem Film Festival in July 2003 and afterwards in the Cinematech in Tel Aviv. In the spring of 2004 it was shown at the Berlin Film festival and in the summer of 2004, at the Vilna Film Festival. At the Berlin screening, the deep shock of the German viewers was apparent. The audience raised many and varied questions, and a lively and significant discussion of the subject was held

Without doubt the film is a success, on the professional level and also in the deep discomfort and uneasiness it caused its viewers. In addition, the film affords a strong-point in arguments about Holocaust denial.

 

Conclusion

 

The tragedy of Ponary is the tragedy of all the flourishing Jewish communities of Jerusalem of Lithuania. We all hope that the diary which the Lithuanian Mr. Sakovitz left will become an important historical document. It is not surprising that Yad Vashem and Yale University Press saw in the diary a rare historical document, important to publish.

 

"The Ponary Diaries” was published in English by the Yale University Press at the beginning of 2006

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