Chaim Aron Kaplan was an educator and diarist of the Holocaust. Kaplan was born in Gorodishche, Belorussia. He received a talmudical education at the famous yeshivah of Mir and later studied at the Government Pedagogical Institute in Vilna. In 1902 he settled in Warsaw, where he founded a pioneering elementary Hebrew school, of which he was principal for 40 years. The school was known as "the Sixth Grade Grammar Elementary School of Ch. A. Kaplan." Kaplan was an exponent of the direct method of language teaching, in which Hebrew was taught as a spoken language, using the Sephardi pronunciation. Stubbornly following this system, despite strong opposition from exponents of traditional methods, he published several Hebrew textbooks advocating his method. An ardent Hebraist, he participated actively in the Society for Jewish Writers and Journalists in Warsaw, and contributed to many Hebrew and Yiddish periodicals.
Kaplan visited the United States in 1921. In 1936 he visited Ereẓ Israel, intending to settle there in order to be with his two children who had emigrated there earlier, but was unable to obtain a position and returned to Warsaw. In 1937, Kaplan published a book in Hebrew called Pezurai, a collection of essays and articles on the Hebrew language and Jewish education that he had published during the 40 years of teaching. He also wrote Hebrew grammar and children's textbooks on Jewish history and customs.
Kaplan's Judaism seems to have been based on national and historic allegiance, rather than on traditional observance. Something of an introvert, he made books his friends and the walls of the academies his companions. At times he felt that his ambition to be independent was a primary obstacle to him in attaining leadership in the Warsaw community, and for that reason he was unable to develop his full talents and intellectual abilities. On the other hand, the fact that he was a respected member of the community gave him comfort and satisfaction.
Kaplan began a personal diary as early as 1933. This trained him for the mission he undertook at the beginning of World War II, to devote all his efforts to preserving a record for posterity. No diarist, of course, can be fully objective, even in a less tormented time than Kaplan's. Yet his intention of objectivity is carried out with remarkable tenacity, and with increasing dedication in the face of hardship, as the dreadful events increased his own physical and emotional suffering and his anguish at the mounting tragedy around him. It is significant that, although he had suffered from diabetes since 1928, there is no mention of this illness in his diary dealing with the war years. The diary has been preserved in toto, having been smuggled out of the Warsaw Ghetto before its total destruction. Kaplan himself was largely responsible for the miracle of its preservation. In 1942, when he knew that the Nazi noose was around his neck, he gave it to a Jewish friend named Rubinsztejn, who was working daily at forced labor outside the ghetto, returning each evening. Rubinsztejn smuggled the notebooks out one by one, handing them over to a Pole.
Kaplan's Hebrew script is clear and beautiful, with no erasures, a remarkable feat in view of the almost impossible conditions under which it was written. At the worst moments, on the brink of destruction, Kaplan sustained himself with the hope that the diary would be saved. His own future worried him little; the fate of his chronicle was his main concern. This concern increased in proportion with the daily atrocities of the Nazis. During the most tragic days, in the midst of frenzied flight from one place to another, he felt himself obligated to quicken the pace of his work. He wrote several times a day in order to include every detail of the horror surrounding him. It was not easy to "catch with the pen the knife which cuts down ceaselessly without a drop of pity," but he continued to record events with amazing regularity. Thus he writes in his last entry (August 4, 1942) during the Great Aktion that began on July 23 and lasted until September, "If the hunters do not stop, and if I am caught, I am afraid my work will be in vain. I am constantly bothered by the thought: If my life ends, what will become of my diary?"
The diary records the daily events and experiences of the author and the ghetto community. The heart of a pained, dedicated educator is revealed when he describes the yearning of the children for a bit of nature, the sight of a tree, or a blade of grass. A smile – the laughter of the condemned – illuminates his description of the bringing of the gypsies to the ghetto, for the gypsies, too, according to the Nazi ideology, were of inferior race.
The diarist has an eye for detail as well for major trends. He is concerned with politics as well as with philosophy. Since the diary was his constant companion, Kaplan poured into it a great deal of his intellectual life – his thoughts, his information, and all the conversations he had with his friends. He is not detached from the scene; indeed, he apparently sought out all possible first-hand information and his descriptions deal with the mood of the time, the hour of occurrence. Many seeming contradictions are really the hourly changes of those
His end proves conclusively that he worked and strove for the good of his people, though not everything that was done in his name was praiseworthy. Czerniakow earned immortality in a single instant. The diary has been translated into English, German, French, Danish, and Japanese.
A.I. Katsh, Scroll of Agony, The Warsaw Diary of Chaim A. Kaplan (1965); idem, The Warsaw Diary of Chaim A. Kaplan (1973); idem, Hebrew ed. (1947), 60; E. Ringelblum, Notes of the Warsaw Ghetto (Yiddish, 1952), 339–40; Ch. A. Kaplan, Pezurai (1937); idem, Hebrew Grammar (1924); B. Mark, Yiddish Book (1952), 339–40.
Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.