PW: How was the project of translating and editing Herman Kruk's journals [The Last Days of the Jerusalem of Lithuania] initiated?
BH: That was between us and Sam Norich at YIVO. He was the director, and he asked my wife, who is a translator, to translate it and me to edit it. Part of the present book was published by them in 1961 in Yiddish for another generation, for survivors of the Holocaust who knew Yiddish. I said, wait a minute, there should be more. The Yiddish book contained only two years, the time of the Ghetto Vilna, which started in September 1941 and was liquidated in September 1943. In the ghetto, Herman Kruk was an important person, and he had a secretary who typed it all, so they published the typed text, whereas what we found is manuscripts that cover five years, from the collapse of Poland in September 1939 to the death of Kruk in September 1944.
PW: Did you know the other parts of the diary existed?
BH: No, but I had a hunch, because it was clear a person wouldn't stop writing diaries suddenly. And indeed I found in various archives in Israel some of the material. But the main story is the diaries that are in Vilnius today, that were hidden for five years from the Nazis, then for 50 years from the Soviets. They were in the Jewish museum in Vilna. And the NKVD liquidated the museum and took the papers to a paper factory, but a Lithuanian put the diary in the cellar of a church, and it was hiding from the Soviets for 50 years there. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, it became possible to get those.
What we have is still not everything, because they [Yale] were impatient to publish the book, but we have material for five years. This was a much harder job because it was handwritten on tiny pieces of paper, on both sides of the paper that was transparent, so it looks like Chinese characters, very hard to decipher. What I found in Israel was a very detailed table of contents Kruk wrote himself, and therefore we could reconstruct many things.
PW: What is the historical importance of Kruk's diaries?
BH: The greatness of the diaries is that they're not written as memories after the fact, when you know what the result is. They were written at the time. The amazing thing is the internal Jewish organization of the ghetto. It was all highly organized—philanthropic organizations, but also political organizations, political rivalries that continued from before the war, Zionists and anti-Zionists, etc. The Germans made a Judenrat that served the Germans, but within the ghetto they organized Bach concerts and poetry prizes and the theater. And the diary describes all that. The diary is very faithful. The Orthodox finished reading a chapter of the Talmud, so they had a celebration. Right away after that, he says, the second brothel was opened in the ghetto.
PW: Why did it take so long for the diary to be translated into English?
BH: It's a very difficult thing to do. It's written in a cryptic way; you have to know five languages to read it. Second, it took from 1947 [when the diary arrived in the U.S.] to 1961 to publish the Yiddish, and that was typed material. Thirdly, there was no interest in the Holocaust in English. The Holocaust was only for survivors and some Jewish circles. You couldn't publish books in English about that, or in Hebrew for that matter—in Hebrew you could publish books of heroism but not of torture.
What I object so much to is the presentation of the Holocaust in America as annihilation, Auschwitz as the symbol. For Jews who are very assimilated, death is the issue. But people lived for several years in the lion's den. How did they live? How did they organize their lives? How did political parties play out? Of course, they suspected they would be annihilated, but they didn't know.