Yitskhok Rudashevski is most well-known for his diary account of life in the Vilna Ghetto during the German occupation of his city during World War II. Vilna came under German control after the beginning of “Operation Barbarossa”. This was the invasion of the Soviet Union by the German Army that started on June 22, 1941. The diary entries written by Yitskhok in the earliest days of the occupation were significant because the ghetto was not yet established and the Jewish residents of Vilna were not sure what to expect.
Yitskhok may not have known what was coming in the months ahead, but he was horrified enough about the development that he wrote about on July 8th, less than three weeks after the arrival of German forces. “The decree was issued that the Vilna Jewish population must put on badges front and back – a yellow circle and inside it the letter J. It is daybreak. I am looking through the window and see before me the first Vilna Jews with badges. It was painful to see how people were staring at them. The large piece of yellow material on their shoulders seemed to be burning me and for a long time I could not put on the badge. I felt a hump, as though I had two frogs on me. I was ashamed to appear in them on the street not because it would be noticed that I am a Jew but because I was ashamed of what [they were] doing to us. I was ashamed of our helplessness.”
Yitskhok clearly understood, and eloquently expressed, the feelings of many people throughout history who have had to endure prejudice. They are not ashamed of who they are, since they know that there is nothing wrong with them. To be set apart anyway, simply because of the mistaken attitudes of others, is humiliating. Even more so is the inability to do anything about it. This, however, is reality for people in smaller minority groups when they become targeted victims of persecution. They simply lack the numbers to openly resist with any realistic hope of success. In any period during which prejudicial attitudes threaten, it is up to the majority population to make things right. Yitskhok also knew this, because he later wrote, “We are not ashamed of our badges! Let those be ashamed who have hung them on us. Let them serve as a searing brand to every conscious German who attempts to think about the future of his people.”
You may read excerpts from Yitskhok Rudashevski’s diary in by Alexandra Zapruder.
You may read about how and when the Nazis required Jews to wear identifying badges, and about how this had also been done earlier in history here.
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