Treating Emotions in a Tempest: Review of Amy Simon’s Emotions in Yiddish Ghetto Diaries

Julie Dawson

Amy Simon. Emo­tions in Yid­dish Ghet­to Diaries: Encoun­ter­ing Per­se­cu­tors and Ques­tion­ing Human­i­ty. New York: Rout­ledge, 2023. 178 pp. $127.50.

Early on in Amy Simon’s illuminating new study of emotions in Yiddish diaries written in three ghettos during World War II, she describes her book’s “new approach to the history of emotions” as focusing on a “flashpoint historical moment,” as opposed to many studies in the field which address “large social, cultural, or political structures over the longue durée.” 1 1 Amy Simon, Emotions in Yiddish Ghetto Diaries: Encountering Persecutors and Questioning Humanity (Oxon / New York: Routledge, 2023), 3-4. I underline this and suggest that Simon’s contribution lays the groundwork and demonstrates the need for similar studies of the particularly fraught emotions arising during such “flashpoints.” In our hyper-driven world of today these moments seem to be increasing in frequency and intensity, whether as a result of climate catastrophe or renewed war and the accompanying slaughter of civilians. The struggle of ghetto diarists to probe for vestiges of the positive in humanity while apprehending inconceivable events and the despair and grief associated therewith resonate today in new and jarring ways.

Simon’s work stands upon Alexandra Garbarini’s seminal study of Holocaust diaries, Numbered Days: Diaries and the Holocaust, and is, indeed, a response to Garbarini’s discussion of the untapped research potentials in Yiddish-language diaries, as opposed to those which she examined in German, Polish, and French. 2 2 Alexandra Garbarini, Numbered Days: Diaries and the Holocaust (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006), xii-xiii. Garbarini proposed that studies focusing on Yiddish-language sources would “[enhance] our understanding of Jewish experiences under German occupation and of the place of diary writing.” 3 3 Garbarini, xiii. One of Simon’s more significant achievements, then, may be the hoisting of a significant corpus of Yiddish-language diaries into the established discourse on Holocaust diaries. But besides augmenting Holocaust diary studies in terms of source language, her methodological approach positions her alongside several prominent historians who in recent years have taken up tools developed in the field of the history of emotions to examine the experience of the Shoah. These include Anna Hájková in her reading of sources for her path-breaking The Last Ghetto: A Everyday History of Theresienstadt 4 4 Hájková’s work focuses on “the history of the society of victims,” enabling “issues of responsibility, agency, and powerlessness [to be highlighted].” Hájková argues against seeing the Holocaust as “outside of the European context,” and while acknowledging that ghetto society in Theresienstadt was one “in extremis,” she asserts at the same time that “society during the Holocaust is one of the many versions of what human society can be.” Anna Hájková, The Last Ghetto: An Everyday History of Theresienstadt (New York: Oxford University Press, 2020), 3-4 and 239. and Marion Kaplan, whose book Hitler’s Jewish Refugees: Hope and Anxiety in Portugal deftly integrates two lines of more recently developed methodologies – the “spatial turn” and history of emotions – to yield profound new insights into refugee experience, then and now. 5 5 Marion Kaplan, Hitler’s Jewish Refugees: Hope and Anxiety in Portugal (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2020). For her discussion on integration of feelings in historical analysis see especially pp. 8-10.

While acknowledging the potential of employing methodologies of the “spatial turn,” Simon admits that her work only “approaches” these methods in its taking of the three distinct ghettos of Warsaw, Lodz, and Vilna as settings. Instead her core tool for interpreting the emotions of her diarists is to employ “empathic reading,” that is, using “empathy as a starting point” to “uncover, center, and assess those moments of oppression from the victims’ perspectives.” 6 6 Simon, 4. She positions her ultimate objective as “seek[ing] to tell the story of the effort to maintain a moral, human self, in the midst of nearly complete societal breakdown.” 7 7 Simon, 5.

Following the introductory chapter which acquaints the reader with Simon’s methods, sources, and objectives, as cited above, the chapter “The Cities and Their People” presents brief historical overviews of the sites of writing and introduces the protagonists. The three remaining core chapters focus on 1) complicating perceptions of perpetrators by recognizing a full spectrum of persecution, 2) the diarists’ assessments and evaluations of perpetrators, and 3) changing emotions within the ghetto, which deteriorate from “anxiety to shame to ultimate despair.” 8 8 Simon, 15.

Most provocative for me was the first of these chapters, “The Art of Cruelty,” which complicates the figure of the perceived perpetrator by defining a “taxonomy of perpetration,” facilitating in turn an elaboration of affliction. 9 9 Simon first introduces this concept in the introduction, page 14, expanding the discussion on pages 49-51. Here Simon cautiously wades into the controversial waters of Jewish perpetrators, sensitively negotiating the discourse around the charged subject and emphasizing that “perceptions of agency rather than real agency most influenced victims’ understanding of their world” 10 10 Simon, 49. [italics in the original] as well as making the demarcation that while postwar history writing might not consider certain individuals perpetrators, “ghetto inhabitants blamed them for much of their suffering inside the ghetto walls.” 11 11 Simon, 51. Emphasizing this distinction between what historians have studied as the “process of genocide” versus the “experience of genocide” as perceived by individuals is one of Simon’s marked achievements and a useful framework for scholars centering emotions in their interpretation of events of the Shoah. 12 12 Simon, 76. In her many examples of diarists’ especially distraught reactions to perceived Jewish perpetration, to which many diarists appear to dedicate more space than to discussions of non-Jewish perpetrators, I was reminded of the German-language author Edgar Hilsenrath’s Nacht [Night]. Published as a novel, the work chronicles ghetto life over several years in a town in Romanian-administrated Transnistria, with Romanian or German characters all but non-existent over the 600 pages of degradation, loss, and suffering. With minimal exception, all injustice, betrayal, and anguish, as told by the first-person narrator, involve interactions between the ghetto inhabitants themselves. 13 13 Edgar Hilsenrath, Nacht (Zurich: Kinder, 1964). The author was himself interned in the ghetto chronicled, in his oral history interview, Hilsenrath states, “Night is the ghetto of Moghilev-Podolsky, but I used a fictional name.” The book was first published under significant controversy, see Susann Möller, Wo die Opfer zu Tätern werden, machen sich die Täter zu Opfern: Die Rezeption der beiden ersten Romane Edgar Hilsenrath in Deutschland und den USA. Ohio State University, 1991 (dissertation). For his oral history interview see Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies, Yale University Library, Edgar H., Holocaust Video Testimony (HVT) 3726.

Ultimately these takeaways regarding complicating the perpetrators may aid those studying postwar Jewish life and questions of justice to better understand the vitriol that sometimes existed between ghetto survivors and the preoccupation with serving “justice” to perceived Jewish collaborators/perpetrators. 14 14 See Laura Jockusch and Gabriel N. Finder, eds., Jewish Honor Courts: Revenge, Retribution, and Reconciliation in Europe and Israel after the Holocaust (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2015). Indeed, the crushing despondency experienced by the diary writers as a result of perceived moral and ethical lapses amongst the Jewish community offers insight and a call to further study on how disagreements and moral betrayals within emotional communities engender disproportionate levels of agony in settings around the world today.

Simon’s book also paves the way for comparative works which would allow us to better understand the specificities of content in Yiddish-language diaries. In elaborating on her choice of Yiddish-language sources she discusses the crucial feature of Yiddish as a community language and how notions of “community belonging” (and betrayal) are central to her arguments; furthermore, by employing Yiddish diaries, she aims to “[reclaim] them as an essential source of Holocaust knowledge.” 15 15 Simon, 11.
Still, beyond proposing that the Yiddish-language diarists she selected inhabited, for the most part, a specifically secular Jewish space, and that this was reflected in their thoughts, emotions, and judgements recorded, it is difficult to gain a perspective of how and whether the content and material of those who wrote in Yiddish differed from other diary writers in the same ghettos who wrote in other languages. For example, did the Yiddish-writers spend more time writing about and reflecting on those other Jews within the ghetto whom they perceived as perpetrators, precisely because they felt they were writing for a specifically Jewish audience as opposed to an international (not necessarily Jewish) audience? This and other questions could be answered in subsequent studies comparing the content of Yiddish diaries to those in other languages. A subsequent analysis which included quantification of the content at some level would also help to stabilize the inherently subjective material.

The absence of a gender lens due to the paucity of Yiddish-language diaries written by women in these ghettos, as Simon herself notes, is unfortunate and raises additional questions, in particular given the study’s focus on emotions. As Marion Kaplan explains in her own discussion of gender and emotions:

Women and men also expressed themselves differently: women revealed more emotions in their writings and interviews, while men tended to be more descriptive. […] I have found gendered memories in which women not only evoke private thoughts and feelings more readily than men, but also include details of daily life as well as observations about families and friends. Men tend to focus on their experiences, particularly those “worthy of public notice.” 16 16 Kaplan, 19-20.

Simon is cognizant of this discrepancy, acknowledging it as a “profound limitation” and speculating as to what created such a gap in source material. 17 17 See Simon, section “A Darth of Female Voices,” 12-13. Follow-up studies focusing on war-time Yiddish language diaries of women, not in these three ghettos but elsewhere, would aid in understanding how and whether women’s perceptions of persecution and their interpretive methods differed from men’s and whether the linguistic choice of writing in Yiddish influenced the material recorded.

In her far-ranging study of approximately one hundred Holocaust diaries, Garbarini wrote of diarists who “conveyed the idea that without becoming familiar with the complexity of Jews’ emotional responses, people in the outside world would never come to understand what it was like to be a Jew during this period and thus would remain ignorant of the full range of human experience.” 18 18 Garbarini, 4. Simon’s contribution thus is to have introduced another prism through which to examine the experience of the Holocaust. Scholars point to the innate contemporaneity of diaries to explain their intrinsic value to researchers: recorded at the moment of cataclysm, it is impossible to recapture in the aftermath the full measure of emotional breadth experienced under duress. Simon embraces this conviction of the importance of working with sources which “could not be recovered in their intensity by survivors writing or speaking after the war,” 19 19 Simon, 2. but also goes beyond the historical analysis to propose that her approach “helps us to think more generally about victim experiences of persecution in all situations of mass murder and genocide,” ultimately proposing it “as a model for thoughtful ways of engaging with many people’s traumatic pasts” 20 20 Simon, 15. – and I might add, with our painful present.

Dawson, Julie. “Treating Emotions in a Tempest: Review of Amy Simon’s Emotions in Yiddish Ghetto Diaries.” In geveb, December 2023:
Dawson, Julie. “Treating Emotions in a Tempest: Review of Amy Simon’s Emotions in Yiddish Ghetto Diaries.” In geveb (December 2023): Accessed Jun 22, 2024.


Julie Dawson

Julie Dawson is a doctoral candidate at the University of Vienna’s Institute for Contemporary History.