For every Holocaust memoir or oral history, how many millions remain untold?
The recent publication of a diary 70 years after the liberation of Auschwitz is testament to the fact that every Holocaust victim had a story, but not every one had the opportunity to tell it or have it heard.
That we can now read the diary of Rywka Lipszyc, a resident of the Lodz Ghetto, more than 70 years after the Nazis’ attempted incineration of it, is a harsh reminder of all the other incinerated stories — whether put to paper or extant only in the victims’ minds.
Rywka was on the last major deportation from Lodz to Auschwitz. Whether she knew beloved Denverite, the late Fred Englard, also from Lodz and also on one of the last transports, is unknown. Unlike Englard, Rywka stayed in the notorious concentration camp only briefly before being transported to Christianstadt, a subcamp of the Gross-Rosen complex, where she slave-labored for six months before the death march to Bergen-Belsen.
A combination of the Russians moving westward and the German military in desperate need of supplies meant that many of those fortunate enough to escape the gas chambers at Auschwitz were almost immediately transferred to camps closer to the German border, or to camps within the Third Reich itself.
When Rywka was removed from Auschwitz, she left behind an invaluable piece of herself: her diary. How it survived Auschwitz is a mystery.
Members of the Sonderkommando, the Jews tasked with operating the crematoria, wrote diaries and buried them close to the crematoria. One Sonderkommando buried a manuscript by a prisoner from Lodz, leaving a note: “Search further! You will still find more.” Rywka’s Diary theorizes that Rywka’s diary was one of these. (Eight diaries buried by the Sonderkommando were recovered between 1945-1981.)
A Soviet doctor in the Red Army liberating the camp discovered the diary amidst the ashes of a crematorium.
Years later, Zinaida Berezovskaya’s granddaughter, Anastasia Shangina-Berezovskaya, found the diary in her mother’s home and, like her grandmother, immediately recognized its value. She brought it to the US in search of a publisher.
After much effort she found her way to the Jewish Family and Children’s Service in the Bay Area.
The result is a lovingly translated and annotated diary of a young woman.
The book is beautifully crafted to create a sense of the personal and communal. The first part is comprised of two essays: One tells the life of Rywka, putting into context her written words. The other tells the story of Lodz, putting into context this city as it related to Rywka, Polish Jewry and the Holocaust itself. By the time we read the section on Lodz, we already know Rywka and can visualize her in this once-bastion of Jewish life.
Former Lodz resident and current Denverite Fanny Starr recalls the Lodz of her youth as a cultural city, with theater and cinema. There were about 250,000 Jews there, comprising a third of the city’s population.
All that changed with the Nazi invasion of Poland on Sept. 1, 1939. According to the book’s essay on Lodz by Fred Rosenbaum, Jews felt the changes immediately. Jewish businesses were looted; religious Jewish men were physically attacked in the streets. One of these was Rywka’s uncle, head of Lodz’s rabbinical court.
Rosenbaum deftly explains the history — the changing borders, the back door deals, the ethnic Germans, the Soviet element — and how it spelled the beginning of the end for the Jews. In February, 1940, the Jews were forced into a ghetto built in the townindustrial red light district, devoid of paved roads — and a sewage system.
There was no sneaking in and out of the ghetto. No black market. No smuggled weapons. The Lodz Ghetto was on permanent lockdown.
Rosenbaum also writes about the infamous Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski, the Judenälteste, who convinced himself of the Nazi dictate of “Arbeit Macht Frei,” that Lodz Jews could survive if only they remained useful to the Nazi regime. Rumkowski functioned essentially as the ghetto’s dictator, “holding the power of life and death over every Jew in Lodz.”
This is the setting for the second part of the book, Rywka’s diary itself. A makeshift town, where disease ran rampant. Unscheduled, traumatic “szperas,” or deportations, leaving families orphaned. Yet, nonetheless, a neighborhood of families, friends, mentors and, improbably, always a glimmer of hope.
Written from 1943-1944, the diary is a glimpse into the daily life of someone living through the Holocaust. Decades later, we understand the Holocaust as an historical event. By contrast, primary evidence, such as a diary, reports on what is happening at the time. There is no hindsight, no big picture. There is just reality.
Born in 1929, Rywka is in her mid teens, and there is a sense of an adolescent in search of her identity. Yet the diary cannot be the words of the average teenager. Rywka’s entries are filled with deep concern about the fate of her now disappeared family and with existential crises that go way beyond that of a typical teen’s.
Her parents taken from her, Rywka lives with her female cousins, whose parents are also gone. These teenage girls — and their younger siblings — are totally on their own, fending for themselves.
Fanny Starr says that children living on their own were a fact of life in the Lodz Ghetto. Rywka and her cousins all worked; like Starr, Rywka worked at a factory making clothing for the Germans.
From reading the diary and the accompanying texts, one gets the impression that Lodz was essentially a slave labor factory for the Nazi regime.
The bitter irony of supplying the enemy, the very people murdering her family, is not lost on Fanny Starr.
Like Rywka, Starr also lost family suddenly, without notice. She recalls returning home from her daytime job. Her sister Ruskha, who worked nights, was gone. Fanny asked neighbors if they knew what happened. “A big truck came and rounded up all the block and all the people went,” she was told. “Where they went, nobody knew. We didn’t know the catastrophe we were going through.”
Amidst all this horror, Rywka is active in religious life and female social groups, seeks mentors and tries to develop a personal writing style. She keeps her religious faith even as she is decrying the resettlements being forced upon her fellow Jews.
After marking Purim in March, 1944, Rywka writes: “It’s already Purim and where is the miracle which we so long for? Actually, I didn’t expect anything, but I wish everything would end well! Oh, how much I want that.” There is a poignant combination of resignation and hopefulness that defines Rywka’s, and perhaps the human, spirit.
The third section of the book, “Aftermath,” brings Rywka’s story into the present. Her surviving relatives are introduced to her story, 70 years later. An inconclusive search that includes stops in Poland, Germany and London ensues for Rywka’s destiny that leaves this reader with an overarching question: How many stories remain untold? Each and every victim of the Holocaust had a story; most will never be heard.
The structure of Rywka’s Diary will attract readers seeking a personal story, but wanting to understand how that story fits into the bigger picture. It is a book ideal for middle and high school students, as it is written in the voice of one of their own, but provides the context for understanding how stories such as Rywka’s came to be.
The only criticism of Rywka’s Diary is that it lacks an index, a necessary feature for a book that the reader will want to reference again and again.
Shana Goldberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org