THERE IS QUALITY both lunatic and pathetic about this diary, kept by the "mayor" of Warsaw's ghetto during the Nazi occupation of Poland. A responsible and able if rather plodding engineer committed to public service, Adam Czerniakow tried to retain semblances of civilized normalcy in the madhouse of Hitler's terror. But while he agonized over the mundane like garbage collection and taxing the well-to-do, the SS was planning its Final Solution-extermination of the entire Jewish population of Europe.

Nearly every day from Sept. 6, 1939 until July 23, 1942, Czerniakow made cryptic notes of events in his harried life that at a glance tend to sound routine, the headaches of a city politician, until they are deciphered. Then they reflect the mayor's desperate effort to somehow blunt the impact of Nazi oppression by concentrating on the efficient management of daily life. Unable to conceive of the full horror ahead, he coped with the immediate.

Not that Czerniakow or anyone else pretended that the ghetto wasn't punitive. Cramming half a million people into a small space-with population density three times as high as elsewhere in occupied Warsaw-was bad enough. But then all accepted forms of commerce, hygiene and justice were gradually reduced by Nazi diktat to perversions of ordinary practice. The nominal excuse for ghettoization was that it would prevent epidemics among Jews from spreading to the Aryan population. Yet, it was hoarding all those miserable people together that promoted disease.

The Nazis degraded Jews until they became the lower form of humanity that Hitler proclaimed them to be. And they achieved this through a barrage of rules and regulations that Czerniakow had no choice but to handle the way city authorities administer parking rules. He was ordered to have people turn in their personal possessions or submit to forced labor and other pointless indignities as though there were some governmental, administrative reason for them. Hence the lunacy of Czerniakow's account, a nightmare Alice-in-Wonderland.

The literature of the Nazi period is already vast. Every scrap of documentation is in an archive somewhere. The scale of atrocity is so well known that only the prurient could say a book like this is read for pleasure. Yet, the diary-turned over to Israel in 1959 by a ghetto survivor-is remarkable as a mirror of that time. It is intensely dramatic in the aggregate for all the matter-of-factness of individual entries. The newsreel effect and the absence of commentary (except for the elaborate, essential introduction and useful footnotes) makes the message all the more stark.

No other excerpt more graphically captures the spirit of the diary than the final tragic entry. Only a week earlier, Czerniakow could still find shreds of hope: "I want to introduce the raising of rabbits to the ghetto," he writes after a visit with the Nazi Kommissar, but "Auerswald retorted that we would not be given oats." Then, finally, it became clear that mass deportations are to begin, leading to mass annihilations:

"July 23, 1942-In the morning at the Community [his office]. Worthoff from the deportation staff came and we discussed several problems. He exempted the vocational school students from deportation. The husbands of working women as well. He told me to take up the matter of orphans with Hoefle. The same with reference to craftsmen. When I asked for the number of days per week in which the operation would be carried on, the answer was seven days a week. Throughout the town a great rush to start new workshops. A sewing machine can save a life.

It is 3 o'clock. So far 3000 are ready to go. The orders are that there must be 9000 by 4 o'clock. Some officials come to the post office and issued instructions that all incoming letters and parcels be diverted to the Pawiak (prison)."

Next Czerniakow reached into his desk where he kept a potassium cyanide pellet. He wrote a note to colleagues of the Jewish council executive and another to his wife. He swallowed the pill and died. The last words (unfortunately not included in full in the book) reflect an abiding sense of guilt that he had misled people, including himself, in prevailing on them to remain calm despite rumors of impending deportations until it was too late.

"I am powerless," he wrote, "my heart trembles in sorrow and compassion. I can no longer bear all this. My act will show everyone the right thing to do."

The editors say that Czerniakow bore his insupportable burden with all the dignity possible under the circumstances. Someone had to be the conduit of commands from Nazis to victims. The judgement of his peers and now, history as well, is that Czerniakow did what he could to make conditions bearable, equitable. Would a tougher, less practical person have organized the ghetto to resistance in those early months? Could anyone have prevented the mass executions with a different policy? Probably not. Salvaging survival out of compliance was Czerniakow's strategy and that it failed was not his fault. To the question often asked of how one of us might react to the ghetto, Czerniakow's incapacity to believe the worst, his effort at coping seems the plausible human response.

As a chronicle of the ghetto and the personal memoir of a fundamentally decent man in Hades, the diary of Adam Czerniakow makes a deep, deep impression.