A Rescued Voice
After a long and circuitous journey, a rare Holocaust account by a young girl is brought to light, startling her surviving relatives
THE RESEARCHER WHO SET THE WHEELS IN MOTION
THE STORY of how The Diary of Rywka Lipszyc was reunited with Rywka’s family is almost as miraculous as its survival. The book was published last week by the JFCS’s Holocaust Center in partnership with Lehrhaus Judaica of Berkeley, almost 70 years after it was written. It all began in 2008, when Anastasia Berezovskaya, a non-Jewish Russian woman living in Northern California, sent an email to the Holocaust Center telling them that she had a World War II–era manuscript, a personal diary written in Polish, in her possession. Judy Janec, the Center’s archivist, was immediately intrigued. Anastasia related that her grandmother, Zinaida Berezovskaya, a Red Army doctor, had found the anonymous diary beside the ruins of the crematoria in Auschwitz in June 1945, a few months after its liberation. Zinaida had also kept a Soviet Army newspaper called Lenin’s Flag, dated February 9, 1945, which contained one of the first articles describing the Nazis’ atrocities. It also contained graphic photographs of what the Soviet Army had found in the death camp. One photo captured the ruins of the crematoria. In the margins, Anastasia’s grandmother had written in Russian, “This is where I found the diary.” Zinaida had wrapped the diary in a note indicating that she had tried several times to have the diary translated.
Unsuccessful, she had kept the mysterious journal in her home in Omsk, Siberia, until her death in 1983. Anastasia’s father had then taken the diary to Moscow and kept it in his home until he passed away in 1995, at which point Anastasia brought the slim volume to San Francisco, where she had moved four years earlier. Anastasia instinctively felt she was in possession of something special and contacted several organizations, all of which expressed some interest. One organization asked her to mail the diary to them. But Anastasia was afraid to part with this precious manuscript. She left it in a drawer until 2008, when she contacted the Holocaust Center. Judy Janec asked her to bring it in. One look at Anastasia’s remarkable treasure was enough to spark Judy’s mission to identify its author and bring it to the attention of the world. “When Anastasia first brought the diary to me, I was astonished. It was an extraordinary experience to hold in my hand this incredible document, which had come out of nowhere.
It was in remarkably excellent condition considering its history. I scanned some pages to share it with some experts who had studied other Lodz Ghetto diaries, including Zachary Baker, the curator of the Judaica collection at Stanford University. He referred me to Dr. Robert Moses Shapiro, a professor of Judaic studies at Brooklyn College whose specialty is Eastern European Jewry and the Holocaust. Dr. Shapiro, who is fluent in Polish, immediately responded with great excitement. “I realized that the diary was precious and had to be preserved, so I had it digitally reproduced. Then Dr. Shapiro referred us to Ewa Wiatr of the Jewish History Center at the University of Lodz, and she agreed to transcribe it so that it could be translated into English. It was she who discovered its author; Rywka actually identifies herself by name in one entry.
Although there was more than one person named Rywka Lipszyc in the Lodz Ghetto, based on other details and the names of other family members she was able to pinpoint exactly which Rywka Lipszyc she was by comparing it to other archival material.” The diary was translated by two people; the one whose version is used in the book is Malgorzata Markof. Because translating is such a painstaking job, it was not until 2011 that Judy was able to read the English version. “It was so exciting to finally be able to sit and read it. Having seen the original manuscript full of underlined words and exclamation points, I could tell that Rywka was a person of great emotion, a vibrant, enthusiastic 14-year-old. Rywka had a very strong spirit despite all the hardships she had endured. It was wonderful to see her refusal to be ground down and her insistence on expressing herself. For me, as someone who is not a religious person, I was particularly struck by her faith despite losing her family and being forced to live in horrible conditions.” Connecting the dots led to the conclusion that Rywka must have taken the diary with her to Auschwitz from the Lodz Ghetto, where it was no doubt confiscated upon her arrival along with the rest of her worldly possessions. “This is a story of great heroism on the part of the inmates at Auschwitz,” Judy adds. “We believe that it was probably a member of the Sonderkommando, the prisoners who were forced to man the gas chambers, who rescued the diary and buried it. There is other evidence that was preserved this way.
While working on the book, it made me feel that we had an obligation not only to Rywka but to whoever had risked his life so that we could eventually uncover [the diary]. “To me, the publication of this diary is redemptive. My specialty is Holocaust archives. The individual voice is very important to me. So many voices were lost and each person was an entire world, an individual with hopes and dreams. To have been involved in making sure that Rywka isn’t consigned to oblivion makes me very happy. I feel honored to have participated in this joint effort. Even if she didn’t live, her voice will outlive us all. That makes it somewhat of a happy ending to a very sad story.” The decision was made to have the book edited for readability by a general audience. The original manuscript is currently being kept in a special case in the JFCS archives to protect it from further deterioration.
PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER
DR. ANITA FRIEDMAN, director of the JFCS’s Holocaust Center, has been involved in Holocaust education for 40 years and was instrumental in bringing the diary to print. “My parents are Holocaust survivors. I grew up in a community of survivors. I was one of the founders of the Center,” she says. “When the diary was first brought to us, I immediately sensed it was important, even though I couldn’t read it because it’s mostly in Polish, with some Yiddish phrases. The manuscript consists of 112 pages of carefully written text. But what really struck me was the newspaper that accompanied it, one of the first reports of what had gone on in Auschwitz, with pictures of the crematoria. I speak and read Russian, so when I saw the note that said, ‘This is where I found this,’ I knew we needed to go further. “After the translation was authenticated, I could see that the diary was beautifully written and that its content was deep, not superficial. It’s filled with beautifully written prose. It also captures life in the Lodz Ghetto in a way that was previously unavailable to researchers and students.” Dr. Friedman describes her initial contact with Rywka’s relatives as incredibly moving. “Judy Janec called me to say that she had found the telephone number of the ‘Mina’ mentioned in the diary, in the records at Yad Vashem. I happened to be in Israel at the time, so I called her. I speak Yiddish, so I was able to communicate with the family. Mina is a remarkable person, in her late eighties. She actually speaks English, having decided that she wanted to learn the language for no particular reason.
In fact, most of what she reads is in English. Her sister Esther speaks mostly Yiddish and Hebrew but no English. “The family was absolutely shocked when I contacted them and immediately wanted to know more. They were very warm and welcoming. I sent them some excerpts of the diary by email so they could see it, and they were very excited. They recognized it as their story; it’s all about them! Esther and Mina refer to the recovery of the diary as a nes.” “Some Holocaust survivors spoke a lot about the war; others, not enough. This is a family that didn’t talk about it much. They rebuilt their lives and moved forward. The diary opened up a flood of memories, starting a conversation with their children and grandchildren that had been waiting 70 years to commence,” Dr. Friedman continues. “I was a little worried about upsetting these two elderly women because of all the painful memories it would surely trigger. Esther, the oldest child in the Lipszyc family, had taken over the role of mother, and she, Mina and Rywka occasionally fought, as described in the diary. I hoped she wouldn’t feel bad about dredging up all this old inner turmoil. But she didn’t react that way at all. She and her sister Mina really understood the psychology of what had happened. Esther was very astute and saw that Rywka was having a hard time dealing with the loss of her family.
She approached a teacher in the ghetto and said, ‘I don’t know what to do with Rywka. She’s struggling emotionally.’ The teacher recommended a mentor for Rywka, a woman named Surcia. Surcia was a writer who could teach Rywka how to write. “The whole thing is interesting,” Dr. Friedman adds. “Esther was the one who brought Surcia in. Today we would call it a therapeutic intervention. They wanted Rywka to keep a diary to help her deal with everything she was going through.” Surcia, whose full name was Sara Zelver-Urbach, was also tracked down in an old-age home in Tel Aviv. She wrote a memoir about her experiences, by Yad Vashem, called Through the Window of My Home: Recollections from the Lodz Ghetto. Unfortunately, though, she suffers from dementia and cannot add anything to Rwyka’s narrative. Dr. Friedman describes her first face-to-face meeting with Esther and Mina, which didn’t take place until her next visit to Israel. “I couldn’t wait. I wanted them to see the actual diary. The archivists were concerned; they didn’t want me to remove it from the premises. But I believed that Rywka’s cousins deserved to see the original, so I carried it with me in a box and held it on my lap on the airplane. I even slept with it! I didn’t let it out of my sight the entire time. Esther and Mina were overwhelmed with emotion when they saw it. “After the war, it was very hard for them to talk about what happened. They both thought that Rywka had died. So it was very painful for them to learn that she had actually lived for several months after the war ended.
Not only was it upsetting to relive all those memories, it was also distressing not being able to fill in the blanks. Nonetheless, they still consider the diary a gift. They see how their children and grandchildren have been strengthened by hearing their story. For Holocaust survivors there is nothing more important than bearing witness—and this is a very profound way for them to do that. The diary speaks for itself. There were a lot of tears.” Dr. Friedman even took the diary to Yad Vashem. “I wanted Rywka to ‘go’ to Yad Vashem. I said a prayer there.” What differentiates Rywka’s diary from other written chronicles of the time? “What’s unique here is that this is the story of a religious girl, which makes it especially meaningful for members of the religious community. The fact that she was a girl of deep faith makes it more powerful. Most of the diaries we have, or fragments of diaries, weren’t written by religious people. Rywka’s faith is interwoven through every aspect of her life. Having to work on Shabbos was deeply painful to her. Historians also feel that the diary provides rare information about daily life in the Lodz Ghetto. It has historical import for research and academics.” Indeed, it is fascinating to read Rywka’s descriptions of the “assemblies” she attended. The book describes them as informal gatherings led by a young teacher from the Bais Yaakov in Krakow, where the girls in the Lodz Ghetto learned Chumash, Tehillim, Pirkei Avos and Chovos Halevavos.
Rywka describes these assemblies as a lifeline. “Being involved in this project has been one of the most meaningful experiences of my career,” Dr. Friedman confides. “This is extremely important to Holocaust education. It is a great gift to know that her words will be heard worldwide. Rywka will have fulfilled her dream of becoming a writer. G-d works in mysterious ways. He preserved her story and made her wish come true. That is very meaningful to me. “It also underscores for all of us how much we lost. I had a sister who died in Treblinka and a brother who died in the Warsaw Ghetto. In some ways, I feel that Rywka has now become my sister. My sister didn’t have a voice, but Rywka was able to assume it. I wish I could tell them, ‘We are sorry that you had to die, but we haven’t forgotten you. We’ll always mourn you and won’t let you down.’” Dr. Friedman tells me that the book is currently being translated into Hebrew, and a Polish edition is planned for next year. JFCS and Lehrhaus Judaica have also put out softcover readers that are available for Holocaust education. “It’s inspiring to see how Rywka’s story resonates with young people. In one chapter she writes that she can envision a day in the future when young people will be sitting around the table reading about what happened and not believing it. She saw into the future that people would read her words. Well, that has come to pass.”
THE NEXT GENERATION
I NEXT SPOKE with Hadassah Halamish, Mina’s daughter, who is representing the family with regard to the diary. “My mother is Rywka’s cousin. Their fathers were brothers,” she explains. I ask her if she was aware of Rywka’s existence before the diary was discovered. “I asked my mother about all our family members. She would always answer, ‘I don’t remember. I was only 12.’ If I pressed her, she’d say, ‘She’s dead. I don’t remember.’” “How did she react to the discovery of the diary?” I want to know. “She was very shaken up. All of the old memories came to the surface. We knew what had happened to her in Lodz, in Auschwitz and in Bergen-Belsen, but she had always related the facts plainly, without any feeling. It was hard for her to elaborate. The diary, though, is full of emotion. To read it is to bring the story to life. “At first it was very hard for all of us. It was hard for my mother because it brought up memories she wanted to forget. It was difficult for my mother to accept some of what Rywka had written. Memory is subjective. My mother and her sister don’t always remember the same things; Rywka’s version is different too. “When we first got the phone call from Anita Friedman, my mother was shocked. ‘Now?’ she asked. ‘After 70 years?! It’s as if she’s alive again.’” “Tell me about what it was like to actually see the diary,” I say. “Well, it made it impossible to deny it any longer. My mother doesn’t really remember much Polish but my aunt still remembers, so she started to read some of the pages. “It was even more traumatic when Anita told us that Rywka was alive after my mother and aunt thought she had died. That was really hard for them to accept. They were both in shock.
Just two weeks ago my mother said to me, ‘To think that Rywka woke up and was alone and thought that no one from the family was left...’ It hurts her to think how Rywka must have felt. This is something no one dreamed of before the diary was found.” Overall, though, Hadassah tells me that her family is thrilled with the discovery. “The book is amazing. It’s beautiful. The family is very happy that the diary was published. I give speeches about the Holocaust in schools, and I bring my mother along wherever I’m invited so she can talk about it too. In the past she was reluctant, but now she’s talking about her experiences so much more, especially to us, her children and grandchildren. “We are so grateful to everyone at JFCS, Judy Janec and Ewa Wiatr, and to everyone else who was involved. The diary has had so many practical implications. Thanks to Judy’s research, last year the entire family accompanied my mother and aunt to Lodz and erected a matzeivah on Rywka’s father’s kever, including on it the names of his wife, Miriam, his mother and all of his children, who don’t have a final resting place.
We had no idea where his gravesite was located before Judy found it! It was also the hundredth yahrtzeit of my mother’s grandfather, Rav Eliyahu Chaim Eisen. He was the rav of Lodz. Next year I’m going back—and I’ll have a place to leave a stone. Every day we learn something else. And who knows, maybe someone will read the diary and tell us what happened to our Rywka.” “Did your mother know that Rywka was keeping a diary?” “No. She had no idea. In the diary Rywka writes that her cousins weren’t aware of its existence. It took a while for my mother to believe it. After all, it was such a long time ago! Esther knew, though. She was actually upset about it at the time because Rywka was always very busy writing, and it took her away from helping around the house. Still, she was the one who encouraged her to write and provided her with ink.” “What was Rywka like? How does your mother describe her?” “Rywka was two years younger than my mother. She had curly black hair and big brown eyes that were full of wisdom. She was a very clever girl. She had never told us much about her or her sister Chana, who died on the day of liberation.
Now when I ask, she starts to remember.” “How has Rywka’s diary affected you personally?” I ask. “No matter how hard we try, we cannot comprehend what took place during the Holocaust, but a diary like this really helps. It’s brought the topic so much closer. I read more about it and ask my mother questions all the time. I’m so wrapped up in the diary that I can hardly believe it’s almost Pesach! It’s changed my life completely.” I mention to her that Judy Janec told me that Hadassah and Anastasia met at a recent JFCS gala honoring Rywka’s family and ask her how it went. “It was the highlight of my trip,” she tells me. “I told her that what she did was amazing. ‘If I found an old notebook in my grandmother’s house, it would never occur to me to keep it. Look what you did by hanging on to it for so long! Just saying thank you is so inadequate.’ “You know,” Hadassah continues, “my granddaughter once asked me how we could publicize something so personal.
A diary is meant to be private. I told her that Rywka had written, ‘Maybe there will come a day when I will do something good for everyone.’ I believe that if Rywka knew how much good her diary would accomplish, she would certainly have given us her permission.’ This comforted her—and me.” I ask her about her involvement in Holocaust education in Israel. “Rywka’s diary isn’t just a story. I like speaking to girls who are around 14, the age Rywka was when she kept the diary. Lots of children are afraid to hear about the Holocaust, so it isn’t easy. But I tell them how Rywka lived, not how she died. Rywka’s diary is full of life, not death. Her diary is readable; it draws you in. That’s why it’s such an important teaching tool. It’s our obligation to impart what happened to the next generation. “My mother needs to forget in order to live. I need to remember in order to live.”
WHATEVER HAPPENED TO RYWKA LIPSZYC
RYWKA LIPSZYC was positively identified by Ewa Wiatr who transcribed the diary. When it was finally translated into English in 2011 and Judy Janec was able to read it, she began her search in earnest. “My first step was to search the central database of Shoah victims’ names at Yad Vashem. It’s really an amazing resource. I’d like to emphasize that these records are being updated all the time as new evidence comes to light, so you really have to keep trying. In this case, a record popped up on my second attempt, indicating that Rywka had died at BergenBelsen at age 16. “I was taken aback. At that point, all we knew was that she had been deported to Auschwitz from the Lodz Ghetto and that her diary was found there. So I pulled the backup copy the record was based on and saw that it was a testimony sheet from 1955 that had been filled out by her cousin, Mina Boyer.
There was an even more recent entry from 2000! “Next I accessed the archives at Bergen-Belsen and was told that Rywka’s name was on a list of inmates who had been liberated; there was no record of her having died at Bergen-Belsen.” The discrepancy led Judy to keep digging. “Then I received information from the US Holocaust Memorial Museum stating that not only had Rywka not died in BergenBelsen but that she had been transferred to a hospital in Niendorf, Germany, on July 23 or July 25, 1945. The displaced persons record had been filled out in a nearby transit camp in Lübeck. “After the liberation, Mina and Esther were set to go to Sweden to recuperate. They went to the hospital in Bergen-Belsen to see Rywka and were told by the doctor that she was dying [and that] it was only a matter of time, so they reluctantly continued on to Sweden. Rywka, however, was subsequently transferred to Niendorf. This was confirmed by a document I received from the International Tracing Service consisting of a list of people who had been sent to the Niendorf hospital who were too ill to be evacuated to Sweden. Rywka’s name was on the list! “Then I found a record in an academic database, written by a Jewish relief worker from Ireland who was working in Germany, stating that some of these patients had died and were buried in the Lübeck cemetery.
But a member of the Jewish community who made a trip to the cemetery failed to find Rywka’s grave. “Out of desperation, I wrote to the local newspaper in Lübeck, asking them to run an article about my search for Rywka in the hope it might jar some memories. It got one response, from a student of Jewish studies from Lübeck. After doing some research she discovered that five of the nine girls who had been patients in the Niendorf hospital were buried in Lübeck. Rywka wasn’t one of them.” But Judy was undeterred. “In October 2012, I went by myself to Poland and Germany, visiting archives and retracing Rywka’s steps. I walked through all the graveyards. Then I went to England to do more research—anything to find a clue.” Unfortunately, she wasn’t able to learn Rywka’s ultimate fate. “But I haven’t given up,” she insists. “I keep hoping that somehow we’ll find out. I believe that she probably did die. In her displaced persons record she stated that she wanted to go to Palestine. If she lived, I’m sure she would have gone there and certainly gotten in touch with her cousins. But she seems to have vanished. Part of me hopes that someone will read this book and say, ‘I know who she is!’ And even if she isn’t alive—which she might very well be; she would be 85 in September—maybe someone can tell us what happened to her. You never know.