Ghetto’s Last Day Revealed in Polish Diary After 70 Years
“People are suffocating because of the smoke. All shout for help. Many, almost everyone, call upon God, ‘God show your power, have mercy on us.’ God is silent as a sphinx and does not reply.”
These were the final words from a makeshift diary scribbled on both sides of five pages of graph paper by an unidentified young woman hiding in a bunker as the Nazis closed in on what remained of the Warsaw Ghetto.
The diary runs from April 23, 1943, and ends 17 days later on May 10. It is the first real glimpse into the daily lives of about 40,000 Jews hiding in bunkers as the ghetto burnt above them and the Jewish underground fought the Germans, scholars said as it was shown to Bloomberg by Yad Vashem staff. Today’s Holocaust Memorial Day commemorates the 70th anniversary of the Warsaw uprising.
“We hear so much about the Warsaw Ghetto uprising from the fighters’ point of view,” said Havi Dreyfus, a senior lecturer at Tel Aviv University and the head of Yad Vashem’s center of research into the Holocaust in Poland. “Here we have a Jewish youngster telling us important information, the experience that was common to tens of thousands of Jews.”
The writing of the young woman reminds the reader of a much more famous diarist -- Anne Frank, whose book “The Diary of a Young Girl,” first published in Dutch in 1947, details her life hiding in a secret annex for more than two years to escape the Nazis.
“It’s interesting when you juxtapose the two teenaged women with radically different Holocaust experiences,” said David Silberklang, senior historian at Yad Vashem’s International Institute for Holocaust Research. “Their stories end the same way, in death.”
Frank was in hiding with her family for two years in relatively quiet conditions that allowed her to think about boys and her appearance “in the midst of terror,” he said. The Warsaw teenager, on the other hand, wrote with “death staring her in the face, amid stench and smoke and suffocation.”
The final German attempt to wipe out the remainder of Jews living in the ghetto started four days before the Warsaw diary started. The Germans, facing fighting groups and ghetto inhabitants barricaded in bunkers, began systematically burning down the ghetto. For almost a month, the Jewish fighters battled the Germans in what was the first popular uprising in a city in Nazi-occupied Europe.
The girl’s diary is the first real evidence that the entire remnant of the ghetto supported the uprising, said Silberklang, who also edits the journal Yad Vashem Studies in which an English translation of the diary appeared.
“Our defense is the greatest possible silence and stillness,” the young woman writes. “We had always believed we should hide well.”
Then later: “Tra-ta-ta-ta-ta, boom! The enemy fires his machine guns and lobs grenades at the bunker... The people inside summon courage and calmly look death in the eye.”
The diary includes a detailed sketch of the bunker, where the beds were, where the inhabitants cooked. It gives a description of how order was kept and rations divvied up. At one point, the young woman tells how when electricity was gone and inhabitants could no longer cook the food rations, children fainted from hunger, only to be revived by a rapidly diminishing store of onions.
“It exposes many aspects of life during the uprising that we were not aware of,” said Dreyfus. “The self aid. The fact that the bunker accepted others who didn’t have shelter. How the atmosphere changed as things got worse. Her diary makes us understand better what the uprising meant not just to the fighters but to those staying in the bunkers. It tells us what unbearable means.”
About six million European Jews were killed in the Holocaust during World War II as the Nazis ran a campaign across Europe that included random executions, plunder and death camps.
The diary may be one mentioned by an engineer architect who wrote in his memoirs that he found the diary of a 14-year-old girl in the ruins. If it is though, part of it has been lost, according to a paper published by Dreyfus.
Silberklang said one name in the diary matches one in the archives and so the writer may be from that family. There isn’t enough detail in the diary to be 100 percent sure.
Silberklang called the descriptions in the Warsaw Ghetto diary “very gripping, moving and deeply depressing.
“We know what happened in the end. We see everything closing in. No air, no hot food for days. The stench is unbearable,” he said. “This young woman had a sense of history. It’s as if she said to herself, ‘I don’t know if I will survive, but I will write this so someone will know what happened.’”
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at firstname.lastname@example.org