Yitskhok Rudashevski wasn’t sure what to make of the thoughts and feelings that washed over him on December 10, 1942. He realized that it was his birthday, though he had forgotten about it until the day arrived. This put him in a reflective mood – thinking about life and the nature of time in the Vilna Ghetto where he lived. He began by writing, “It dawned on me that today is my birthday. Today I became fifteen years old. You hardly realize how time flies. It, the time, runs ahead unnoticed and presently we realize, as I did today, for example, and discover that days and months go by, that the ghetto is not a painful, squirming moment of a dream that constantly disappears, but is a large swamp in which we lose our days and weeks.”
Yitskhok probably assumed, as many others did upon entering the ghetto, that the suffering and deprivation would be experienced moment by agonizing moment. This would make time seem to pass more slowly, extending the misery. Instead, he experienced something different. Time seemed to disappear altogether into a monotony of gray drudgery until something happened to suddenly reveal how much of it had been lost; the precious time of life squandered on nothing. When the occasion of his birthday brought out this realization, Yitskhok wanted to revolt against the process. “I decided not to trifle my time away in the ghetto on nothing and I feel somehow happy that I can study, read, develop myself, and see that time does not stand still as long as I progress normally with it. In my daily ghetto life it seems to me that I live normally but often I have deep qualms. Surely I could have lived better. Must I day in and day out see the walled up ghetto gate, must I in my best years see only the one little street, the few stuffy courtyards?”
Yitskhok realized that the only way to expand his world beyond the stultifying imprisonment of the ghetto was to engage his mind. Reading and study could partially open the very real gates that shut him in. This gave him a measure of hope that enabled him to drive away, at least for the moment, his despair at the thought of a wasted life. He concluded by writing, “I wish to shout to time to linger, not to run. I wish to recapture my past year and keep it for later, for the new life. My second feeling for today is that of strength and hope. I do not feel the slightest despair. Today I became fifteen years of age and I live confident in the future. I am not conflicted about it, and see before me sun and sun and sun…”
These musings on time and life in the ghetto reveal the mental and emotional strength that Yitskhok brought to his struggle to survive. The Nazis may have been able to pen him into a ghetto, but they couldn’t cage his mind and heart. Eventually, they were able to kill his body, but his words live on as a testament to his love of life and his hopeful spirit.
You may learn more about Yitskhok Rudashevski here.
Click here to view an online exhibit about the Vilna of Yitskhok’s youth, also known as the “Jerusalem of Lithuania.”
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