“War or Peace? Are we facing again a new world catastrophe?” These are the fearful questions asked by a Polish Jew in his private diary just days before the outbreak of the Second World War.
The author of this diary, G’dalyahu Yuval, would never have predicted that this personal account, which details his internal battle over whether or not to travel to Mandatory Palestine, would be made public knowledge, let alone pored over by future historians.
His story has come to light as a result of “Operation Diary”, an initiative of The National Library of Israel, which is appealing to the public to send in diaries written by “the 1948 generation”.
The library aims to collect hundreds of diaries written by the state’s pioneers, with the intention of preserving pages of Israel’s history — quite literally.
The library has already received more than 70 documents from Israel and the diaspora. The journals include dramatic accounts of arriving in mandatory Palestine, fighting for Israel’s survival and the challenges of establishing new towns.
These accounts provide “an extra layer of authentic documentation” to the types of books written for public consumption, said Matan Barzilai, head of the library’s archives and special collections.
“History books are always written with a historical, political or educational purpose, but a person who writes a diary writes for him or herself.
"The writer doesn’t know how events are going to end, so diaries are history in the making,” Barzilai told the JC.
Among the most “eye-opening” diaries are three written by women who were aboard the famous Exodus ship that arrived off the coast of the British mandate in July 1947, carrying 4,500 refugees. One of them wrote: "We are now entering Haifa Port and don’t know what the British are going to do with us."
Ron Doron, 67, discovered his late father Shlomo Doron’s diary two months ago while he was clearing out the attic of his childhood home.
“My father was killed in the Sinai War in 1956. I was only one, so I never knew him. After 66 years, I found this suitcase with his uniform, his papers and a diary. It was shocking, but also very touching.”
His father, born in Kfar Saba in 1928, had written about fighting in the War of Independence in 1948. “He was a real army guy, who loved the Negev,” said Doron, who lives in Tel Aviv. “I already knew a little about him, but this diary has given me a complete picture.”
Avraham Livnat also kept a diary while he was fighting in the War of Independence. He wrote on tiny pieces of paper or whatever he could lay his hands on.
"It includes how he opened a path to the settlements that were under siege in the Negev,” said his grandson, Amir Livnat, 43, who has donated the diary.
His Hungarian-born grandfather had written on the back of a piece of paper covered with Arabic writing. Livnat, who lives in Petah Tikva, said: “We later discovered that the Arabic was part of a diary written by an Egyptian soldier.
“It was like looking at both sides of a picture.”
Barzilai was inspired to start the project to mark Israel’s 75th birthday after coming across the UK’s Great British Diary Project, which contains more than 17,000 personal diaries. “Many people don’t know what to do with diaries they have found and are worried their children might throw them away.
“We wanted to provide a place for people to be able to read them in the future,” he said.
The public is being invited to donate both original and digitised diaries in Hebrew or other languages, which will be catalogued and made accessible, in accordance with the wishes of the families.
Yael Doron, 53, who lives in Jerusalem, donated her grandfather G’dalyahu Yuval’s diaries, which he wrote between 1915 and 1948.
He said: “He started his early diaries when he was still living in Poland. They are mainly of his Zionist ideas and his thoughts about whether or not to go to Palestine. It was a very tough decision for him.”
“War or Peace? Well… are we facing again a new world catastrophe?” was his first entry on August 29, 1939, three days before the start of the Second World War.
Yuval started writing another diary when he was living in Jerusalem.
He died of cancer in 1949. Doron, who had the diaries translated from Polish and Yiddish into Hebrew, said: “Operation Diary is a good way for people to learn about the history of the beginning of Israel and those who created it.”
Go to nli.org.il for more information about Operation Diary