Baruch Milch (1907 –
||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
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
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
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
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.