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© Douglas Hykle
2006-2017
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Baruch Milch (1907 – 1989)

Baruch Milch - source: Cover of 'Can Heaven be Void?'   Baruch Milch was born and worked as a physician in Podhajce, a town located about 65 km northwest of Tluste, until he was transferred to Tluste in June 1940. In September of the previous year, the Soviets had occupied Poland, including Podhajce, and had begun to make life miserable for everyone, especially affluent Jews.

Although Milch had accepted the transfer with reluctance, he soon began to thrive in his new home, working at the hospital outpatient clinic and managing a mother-and-child heath care centre, in addition to running a private practice.

Before long, though, he and his wife Peppa encountered a number of setbacks. She suffered from complications after the birth of their son, Lunek, in September 1940, and Milch began to develop heart problems as a result of his heavy workload.

Their lives were turned upside down the following year when, in June 1941, Germany invaded the Soviet Union. Within a matter of weeks, the persecution of Jews began in Tluste, organised by the Germans and abetted by Ukrainian collaborators and the local Judenrat.

Over the next two years, the town would bear witness to an ever-increasing intensity of atrocities perpetrated against the Jewish community. People became wary of the periodic visits of the Gestapo from their headquarters in neighbouring Chortkiv. These raids or Aktionen came to be associated with house searches, confiscation of property, arrests, beatings, and murders. An atmosphere of fear reigned, prompting Jews to take precautions to conceal themselves in specially constructed bunkers whenever danger was imminent.

Owing to his position as one of the few medical doctors in town, Milch fared better than most, for a while. He was well known and his services were in demand both in town and in the surrounding villages. His earnings allowed him to rent three apartments in and around Tluste, and he protected his family by moving them from one place to another every so often.

However, the Milch’s fortune ran out in May 1943, when an Aktion of unprecedented scale occurred in Tluste: 2,000 Jews were rounded up and escorted to the Jewish cemetery in groups, where they were murdered and tossed into mass graves. Milch’s infant son, mother-in-law, and sister-in-law were among the victims.

Milch and his wife put into effect an escape plan to remove themselves from the scene of horror. Together with his wife’s sister, brother-in-law and their young son, they headed for a remote farmhouse about 4 or 5 km from Tluste. They made a written contract with the Ukrainian owner to help conceal them in a crawl space under the house and in the attic, in exchange for money and a promise of land.

The arrangement was barely tenable over the next three weeks, as it proved impossible to keep the young child quiet. Overcome by the stress of the situation, the brother-in-law resorted to strangling to death his own son when the youngster’s actions threatened to expose them all.

Within days the remaining adults felt compelled to search for a new hiding place. The two men identified another safe house some kilometres away, but when they returned to their former hideout to collect their wives, they discovered to their horror that both women had been brutally murdered.

Eventually, the two men made their way to the mainly Polish town of Czerwonogrod, 7 km from Tluste, where they were taken in by a family who agreed to conceal them, first in a pit underneath the kitchen and then in a loft above a stable. Milch and his brother-in-law would remain in hiding there for nine months. During that period, Milch recorded in meticulous detail a diary of his experiences, using whatever scraps of paper he could find. When news came, at the end of March 1944, that Soviet forces had liberated the area, he made his way back to Tluste where he witnessed the scene of devastation.

Eventually Milch settled in Zalishchyky, 25 km south of Tluste, where he was appointed head of the district hospital under the Soviet regime. Disenchanted with life under the new ‘system’ he secretly made plans to flee the country, escaping first to Poland on forged papers. There he was reunited with a young woman from Tluste, Luisa Geller, who would become his second wife and mother of two girls. They lived there under assumed names for some time, before settling in southern Germany and eventually emigrating to Israel in May 1948.

Before leaving Poland, Baruch Milch went to Warsaw where he entrusted to the Jewish Historical Institute his Polish manuscript, in the form of 2,000 or so scraps of paper. From Israel, his efforts to recover the manuscript beginning in the 1950s came to nothing. Resigned to the prospect that, under the communist regime in Poland, he might never be reunited with his papers, Milch ‘re-wrote’ the book, in Hebrew, during the last years of his life, in Haifa, from about 1985-1989.

Ironically, just two months after he passed away in April 1989, his family was contacted by someone in Poland who had come across the manuscript and wanted permission to publish parts of it. A Hebrew translation of the original Polish texts was commissioned. Over the next nine years, his daughters – especially Shosh Avigal, who died in 2003 – struggled to reconcile the translated texts with the more recent account written by their father in Hebrew. It proved to be a formidable challenge. The original translation had to be completely redone before the two versions could be merged into a coherent account. This heavily edited version was published, in Hebrew, in 1999; and was ultimately translated into English in 2003.

Milch’s original manuscript, written in Polish, was also edited and published by the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw with the title “Testament” in 2001. This version, released in Polish, is the most faithful to Milch’s original words, having been edited only to bring order to the original manuscript, leaving out some passages that were unclear and removing some duplicate entries.

* * * *

The information contained in the above biographical account of Baruch Milch is based on the English language version of the diary edited by Shosh Avigal and published by Yad Vashem in 2003, under the title “Can Heaven be Void?”.

As noted above, Milch’s original texts were edited substantially prior to their publication in Hebrew and English. Passages of the original diary were abbreviated and condensed, and his words transformed and paraphrased into a more coherent, readable narrative. It was common, for example, for certain details to be omitted and for a number of the sentences to be summarized into a single sentence capturing the essence of what Milch originally wrote.

  Cover of 'Can Heaven be Void?'

In that sense, the English text, and presumably the 1999 Hebrew text on which it is based, retains Milch’s original meaning, but often does not reflect his original words. Therefore it cannot be considered a verbatim diary, in the true sense of the word, along the lines of ‘The Diary of Anne Frank’.

Although Shosh Avigal alludes to this in the introduction of the English volume, one can only gain a full impression of the extent to which Baruch Milch’s original words have been transformed by comparing the English version with the Polish. Indeed, while the English version, with its flowing narrative, does well to capture the horror of what Baruch Milch lived through, the Polish text provides an even richer level of detail.

Milch’s manuscript – in either version – is compelling reading, with a very powerful message. It offers a brutally transparent account of the depths to which humanity can sink, given a particular set of circumstances. It is an account that, however painful to read, needs to be read if people are to understand and overcome their prejudice and hatred, and avoid a repetition of history.