In 2018, a curator at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum approached a retired University of Virginia professor with a request: Could he translate a Holocaust-era diary from Hebrew into English?
For Gabriel Laufer, the request wasn’t novel. He’d already worked on two other translation projects for the museum.
Now his work has turned that diary into a book, ensuring a wider audience will better understand the hardships and despair of Jewish captives imprisoned by the Nazis during World War II.
“Maybe 1,000 people will buy the book,” Laufer said, and a few thousand more might read about it. “A few thousand people – that’s pretty good for a retiree.”
The diary took a circuitous path to get into the hands of Laufer and his co-translator, Andrew Cassel. In the summer of 1944, the son of a Lithuanian doctor buried his father’s notebooks documenting life inside Lithuania’s Siauliai ghetto. The son later retrieved the notebooks and spirited them away to Israel, where they remained largely unknown for decades. The Holocaust Memorial Museum bought the notebooks in 2000, but didn’t get around to enlisting Laufer’s help until 2018.
Almost 80 years after the notebooks were buried, Laufer and Cassel have made the memoir, “Notes from the Valley of Slaughter,” a title borrowed from the Book of Jeremiah, available for an English-speaking audience.
The diary details the experiences of Aharon Pick, a doctor and Lithuanian Jew who spent three years confined to the ghetto before he died. According to Laufer, the journal stands out because of its record of Lithuanian history as well as its intimate portrait of life inside the ghetto: a nearly two-acre space crammed with thousands of people who faced the constant threat of being shipped off to a concentration camp and near-certain death.
"Pick", Laufer said, “tells you how he feels, how he deals with things, what they mean to him. He describes his agony and his desperation, so that’s unique.”
The journal reveals the horrors of life under Nazi rule. The Nazis didn’t want any Jewish children born, and the punishment for carrying a child to term would be the murder of the mother, her family and perhaps those who helped her.
“It became necessary to kill the girl, and to do this terrible thing soon,” Pick wrote, adding in unsparing detail how the terrible task was carried out.
Pick quoted early from the Talmud, a primary source of Jewish theology, writing, “There exists in the general only what exists in the particular.” Laufer said that Pick’s particular experience confirms many known stories, but also offers new knowledge. Pick assigned names to the commission of various atrocities.
“There is value in that,” Laufer said.
According to the Holocaust Memorial Museum, about 85% of Lithuania’s Jewish population was murdered. But Pick was spared to work in a hospital for occupying German forces.
“Notes from the Valley of Slaughter” covers Siauliai’s establishment in 1941 until Pick’s death in June 1944. Pick died of illness just a month before Nazis “liquidated” Siauliai in the middle of July, sending its inhabitants to concentration camps and burning the remaining structures. At the end of July, the Red Army liberated Siauliai. Of the 3,000 Siauliai Jews who were sent to concentration camps, no more than 500 survived.
“[Laufer] became very attached to the project,” said Suzy Snyder, the curator who asked Laufer to translate the diary. “He did an amazing job.”
The diary spoke directly to Laufer, as his own parents survived the Holocaust in Hungary. Laufer wrote of their suffering in “A Survivor’s Duty,” a memoir that juxtaposes his father’s experience in the Holocaust with his own time as an officer in the Israeli Defense Force. Translating the diary made him wonder what he might have done, had he faced the same trials his parents did.
“You can say you would have behaved better, but you don’t really know,” Laufer said.
Snyder said fulfilling the museum’s mission depends on the good will of others. Laufer’s contributions, however, were exceptional.
“It was a gift that Gaby decided to volunteer with us,” Snyder said.
Translating the 500-page diary was enormously time-consuming. Laufer said he and Cassel each would spend five hours a day working on the journal. Pick wrote it in biblical Hebrew, which is to modern Hebrew what Shakespearean English is to contemporary English. Pick, a Zionist, believed it was necessary to speak biblical Hebrew in order for Jews to resettle in Israel, Laufer said.
“You could read it and you would understand it, but you would have a hard time fully comprehending it,” Laufer said.
That meant that he and Cassel would edit the translation, being faithful to the original text while providing a less formidable reading experience for an anglophone audience.
“Andrew proposed that he rewrite it in a way that a modern English speaker will be able to read, while maintaining translation accuracy,” Laufer said.
On top of that, Laufer and Cassel annotated the journal, adding hundreds of footnotes that explained biblical and Talmudic references. Laufer’s deep knowledge of both texts enabled him to explain the allusions’ significance.
“I took it upon myself to look up the source,” Laufer said. “If it came from Genesis, chapter 15, I found it and it’s in there. If he mentioned certain Jewish terms, I explained them.”
Though the work was painstaking, Laufer enjoyed working on the project with Cassel.
“What was nice about it was he and I were connected just when COVID started. We were locked at home, and it was a wonderful way to spend COVID,” Laufer said.
Then, the pair found a publisher in the Indiana University Press and set out to publish “Notes from the Valley of Slaughter” in the spring of 2021. It took another two years for the book to come out.
It was in any case more than worth it for Laufer.
“This is not a type of book that’s going to be a bestseller. They’re not going to make money on it. It was truly a labor of love,” Snyder said.
“Notes from the Valley of Slaughter” comes out amidst rising levels of antisemitism and Holocaust denialism. In Lithuania in 2020, lawmakers proposed a bill that would have absolved the country and its leaders for their participation in the Holocaust. The bill failed. A report from the Anti-Defamation League shows that antisemitic incidents rose 36% in 2022, the highest level recorded since 1979.
“The only way to fight bad speech is by more speech,” Laufer said, paraphrasing Jewish U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis. “One book doesn’t change the world, but it certainly contributes to that.”
The Nazi regime in Germany and its collaborators killed 6 million Jewish men, women and children, according to the Holocaust Memorial Museum, a toll that is hard for many to comprehend. Pick’s diary, through its scrupulous account of life in Lithuania’s Siauliai ghetto, gives readers insight into the horrors of Nazi occupation.
“We don’t have that many diaries that come from inside the ghettos,” Snyder said.
Only a handful of diaries survived the obliteration of the Siauliai ghetto. That makes Laufer’s work in translating and editing “Notes from the Valley of Slaughter” even more valuable.
“We don’t have a grasp of what ghetto life was like unless you read these diaries,” Snyder said.
It wasn’t Laufer’s first project for the museum, and it won’t be his last, he said. The museum has made good use of his fluency in Hebrew and Hungarian. He translated and organized the names of identified victims of the Holocaust for the museum and translated a Ukrainian Jew’s poems and essays. Now, he’s translating the work of the Jewish writer Chaim Kaplan of Poland.
“It’s quite interesting,” Laufer said.
Laufer didn’t see a direct connection between his career as an engineering professor at UVA and his volunteer work. However, he emphasized the importance of ethics in all fields. Sometimes, that requires questioning authority.
When Laufer was an engineering student in Israel, one of his professors said he’d asked an earlier class to design a pipeline that would carry blood from one side of the country to the other. The students dutifully drafted a design of the pipeline without anyone asking why it was necessary to carry blood from one end of the country to the other.
“They needed to ask that question,” Laufer said.