Down the Ladder of Despair: The Holocaust Legacy  of Itzhak Katzenelson 

Moshe Shner

 Holocaust historiography tries to offer a detailed and objective account of events, but it fails to grasp the inner world of its victims—those who perished and those who survived and carried its horrors in their souls. The hidden Holocaust is the dark abysses of the victims, their nightmares, and the despair they carry in their hearts to their last day, and in unclear ways pass it to the following generations.
The archives of the Ghetto Fighters’ House Holocaust Museum at Kibbutz Lohamei HaGetaot in Israel holds the writings of the poet and educator Itzhak Katzenelson wrote during the Holocaust. His texts open a ‘door’ into the inner reality of the Holocaust, the shattered world of its victims. It is not scholarly historiographical writings, but rather a personal account of a sensitive person, a testimony, and interpretation of the real meaning of the Holocaust.
Before World War II, Katzenelson was a gifted teacher, part of his family Hebrew education system in Łódź, a prolific writer, poet, and dramatist. Many of Katzenelson’s Hebrew poems became folk songs all over the Jewish Diaspora and in Palestine. His pre-war poetry was light, joyful, and childish in its character. His writings drew a bright picture of future Jewish life in the Land of Israel. His wartime writings were different, dominated by growing pain, rage, and finally despair.
Before the war, Katzenelson mainly wrote in Hebrew, the revived language of the Jewish people. Then, as part of the Jewish population, struggling for life under the iron yoke of the German occupation, he wrote in Yiddish, identifying himself with the fate of his brethren.
Katzenelson reached Warsaw in November 1939. In May 1940, he was ‘adopted’ by the ‘Dror’ (freedom) movement, becoming part of its underground educational and cultural work, offering words of consolation and hope to the ghetto people. However, as he witnessed the growing horrors of the Holocaust, including the loss of his own family, he could no longer give meaning to the terrible events and his life ended in total despair.
On April 1943, Katzenelson and his remaining son Zvi moved to the Arian side of Warsaw, imprisoned by the Gestapo and sent to the Vittel camp in France. Vittel was the last stage of his writings before his deportation in April 1944 to Drancy and then to Auschwitz to his death.
As we Follow Katzenelson’s writings in Warsaw and Vittel, we descend a spiritual ladder from words of hope, through spiritual resistance to the bottom of the abysses of despair. Gradually, the joyful prophet of life became the prophet of darkness and a total loss of meaning. In his last writings, Katzenelson is bitter, poison to the soul, and yet with a sensitive pen and open heart, Katzenelson takes his readers down into the deepest chasms of history, showing them the reality of the Holocaust and its true meaning.
Słowa kluczowe: Itzhak Katzenelson, Warsaw Ghetto, Theodicy, Despair, Holocaust Literature, Spiritual Resistance

Itzhak Katzenelson Texts

Katzenelson, Y. (1954), Yesh Li Shir [have Song, Hebrew], Tel Aviv: HaHistadrut HaKlalit and Hakkibutz HaMeuchad. (קצנלסון, יש לי שיר)

Katzenelson, Y. (1956), BeHalom Ubehakitz: Children Stories [In Wake and in Dream, Hebrew], 
Tel Aviv: HaHistadrut HaKlalit and Hakkibutz HaMeuchad. (קצנלסון, בחלום ובהקיץ)

Katzenelson, Y. (1964), Vittel Diary, Tel Aviv: Ghetto Fighters’ House. (קצנלסון, פנקס ויטל)

Katzenelson, Y. (1969), Ktavim Acharonim [Last Writings, Hebrew], Tel Aviv: the Ghetto Fighters’ Museum and Hakkibutz HaMeuchad. (קצנלסון, כתבים אחרונים)

Katzenelson, Y. (1975), Shirim [Songs, selection, Hebrew], Tel Aviv: the Ghetto Fighters’ Museum and Hakkibutz HaMeuchad. (קצנלסון, שירים)


Secondary literature

Berman, A. (1973), The Fate of Children in the Warsaw Ghetto, in: Y. Gutman, L. Rothkirchen (eds.), The Holocaust: Background-History-Implications, Selected Articles, Jerusalem: Yad Vashem: 294-308. (Hebrew) (ברמן, “גורל הילדים בגיטו וארשה”, בתוך: השואה: רקע, היסטוריה, משמעות)

Birenbaum, D. (1989), God and Evil, Hoboken, N.J: Ktav Publishing House.

Blumenthal, N. (1954), Yitzhak Katzenelson as Historian of the Holocaust Era [Hebrew], Yediot 5-6, April: 4-6. (Hebrew) (1954) (בלומנטל, “יצחק קצנלסון כהיסטוריון של תקופת השואה”, בתוך: ידיעות)

Even Shoshan, S. (1975), Introduction, in: I. Katzenelson (1975). Shirim [Songs, selection, Hebrew], Tel Aviv: The Ghetto Fighters’ Museum and Hakkibutz HaMeuchad: 289-319. (Hebrew) (אבן שושן, “מבוא” בתוך: קצנלסון, שירים)

Folman Raban, H. (2001), They Are Still with Me, Kibbutz Lohamei HaGetaot, Israel: the Ghetto Fighters’ House. (Hebrew) (פולמן-רבן, לא נפרדתי מהם)

Gillman, N. (1997), The Death of Death: Resurrection and Immortality in Jewish Thought, Woodstock, Vermont: Jewish Lights Publishing.

Levinson, A. (1945), Lodz, my Hometown, in: Ben Yehuda Project, online at: (פרויקט בן יהודה).

Lubetkin, Z. (1981), In the Days of Destruction and Revolt, Hakibbutz Hameuchad.

Ringelblum, E. (1994), Notes from the Warsaw Ghetto, trans. J. Sloan, New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company. (Hebrew) (רינגלבלום, כתבים אחרונים: יחסי פולנים-יהודים, ינואר 1943 – אפריל 1944)

Ringelblum, E. (1992), Diary and Notes from the Warsaw Ghetto: September 1939-December 1942, Jerusalem: Yad Vashem and the Ghetto Fighters’ House. (Hebrew) (רינגבלום, יומן ורשימות מתקופת המלחמה: גטו וארשה, ספטמבר 1939 – דצמבר 1942)

Roskies, D.G. (1984), Against the Apocalypse, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Roskies, D.G. (1988), The Literature of Destruction, Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society. Jerusalem: Magness Press (Hebrew) (שנר, בראשית הייתה השואה)

Shner, M. (2011), The Victim Refuses to continue to be Victim, Yalkut Moreshet 89(6): 97-114.
(Hebrew) (89,שנר, “הקורבן שוב אינו מוכן להיות קורבן”, ילקוט מורשת )

Shner, M. (2012), Janusz Korczak and Yitzhak Katzenelson: Two Educators in the Abysses of History
Tel Aviv: Tel Aviv University. (Hebrew) (שנר, יאנוש קורצ’אק ויצחק קצנלסון: שני מחנכים בתהומות ההיסטוריה)

Shner, M. (2013), In the Beginning there Was the Holocaust: Spiritual Journey into the Abysses of History, Jérusalem: Magnes Press.

Shner, Z. (1986), Ba’Mishmeret, Tel Aviv: Beit Lohamei HaGetaot and Hakibutz Ha’Meuhad. (Hebrew) (שנר צבי, במשמרת)

Szeintuch, Y. (2000), Yitzhak Katzenelson’s Rescued Manuscripts: From the Warsaw Ghetto and the Vittel Concentration Camp, Jerusalem: Magness Press and the Ghetto Fighters’ House. (Hebrew) (שיינטוך, יצחק קצנלסוןכתבים שניצלו מגיטו וארשה וממחנה ויטל)

Zuckerman, Y. (1969), In Warsaw Ghetto and Vittel Camp, in: I. Katzenelson, Ktavim Acharonim [Last Writings, Hebrew]: 358-362. Tel Aviv: the Ghetto Fighters’ Museum and Hakkibutz HaMeuchad. (Hebrew) (362-358, 1969, צוקרמן, מבוא, בתוך קצנלסון, כתבים אחרונים)

Zuckerman, Y. (1985), In the Ghetto and the Revolt [Hebrew], Tel Aviv: The Ghetto Fighters’ House 
& HaKibbutz Hameuchad. (Hebrew) (צוקרמן, בגטו ובמרד)

Zuckerman, Y. (1990), (Hebrew). Those Seven Years 1939-1946, Tel Aviv: Hakibbutz HaMeuchad 
& BeitLohamei HaGetaot. (צוקרמן, שבע השנים ההן)

Zuckerman, Y. (1993), Surplus of Memory: Chronicle of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, Berkeley-Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press.

Zuckerman, Y. (1994), Zichronot VeDvarim shel Yitzhak Zuckerman [Hebrew], Edut 11. (Hebrew) (1994, 11 צוקרמן, זכרונות ודברים, עדות)

Zur, M. (2012), Itzhak Katzenelson, Tel Aviv: Hakibbutz Hameuchad. (Hebrew) (צור, רוח עצוב: בעקבות יצחק קצנלסון)

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