New Book Shows Last Days of World War II Ghettos

As journalists writing in the wartime Polish ghettos, Peretz Opoczynski and Josef Zelkowicz captured the anxiety and uncertainty of daily life for Jews with breathtaking immediacy.

Their work is now available to readers of English in a single volume, the newly published In Those Nightmarish Days: The Ghetto Reportage of Peretz Opoczynski and Josef Zelkowicz (Yale University Press). The book is the tenth and final volume of the New Yiddish Library, a joint project of the Yiddish Book Center and the Fund for the Translation of Jewish Literature.

Opoczynski wrote for Warsaw’s secret Oyneg Shabes archive, doing much of his reporting while on his rounds as a mailman. Zelkowicz was a rabbi and ethnographer who wrote for a similar archive in the Łódź ghetto

“They really didn’t know much more than what the people in the ghettos knew. This gives us some real insight into what these people were thinking, how they experienced time, their fears. It gives us insight into a community that had not yet been destroyed,” says Samuel Kassow, professor of history at Trinity College, who wrote the book’s introduction and coedited the book with translator David Suchoff, a professor of English at Colby College.

While neither author lived to see his work reach a broader audience—Zelkowicz was deported to Auschwitz in 1944, and the circumstances of Opoczynski’s death are unclear, though it’s believed he was rounded up in 1943—their writing has made a lasting contribution. “They individualized the victims and their experiences,” Kassow says. “Instead of seeing the victims as faceless, we see them as real people. We see them as they really were. We understand what they were going through, what they were thinking.”

The editor-in-chief of the New Yiddish Library is Professor David Roskies of the Jewish Theological Seminary and Hebrew University.