Tuesday, May 27, 2008

A child in the ghetto

Rutka Laskier, a 14 year old Jewish teenager, was confined with her family to the Będzin ghetto, in southern Poland, and then killed by the Nazis at Auschwitz in 1943. Her short diary, from 1943, was discovered in 2005, and printed first in Polish and then in English and Hebrew editions. A more lavish version with maps and photographs has now been published in the US, and the publishers are calling Laskier the ‘Polish Anne Frank’.

Laskier was born in the Free City of Danzig (now Gdańsk, Poland), then a predominantly German-speaking autonomous city-state. Soon after, though, in the early 1930s, her father moved the family to Będzin, the southern Polish city where his parents had come from. During World War II, the family was eventually forced into the city’s Jewish ghetto. Subsequently, Rutka, her mother and brother were transported to Auschwitz concentration camp, where they were killed, probably in a gas chamber. Her father, however, survived the war, went to Israel, remarried, had another daughter, and died in 1982.

For three months, while still in the Będzin ghetto, Rutka wrote a diary. Her friend, Stanisława Sapińska, helped her to hide it under some floorboards; and later, when the ghetto had been cleared and Rutka had gone, Sapińska went back to recover it. She kept the book safe for over 60 years, and secret. It was only in 2005 that her family persuaded her to allow it to be published. (The story is well told on Wikipedia’s Rutka Laskier web page.)

Subsequently, Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority, published English and Hebrew editions. Its website has an informative article about the diary. ‘While forming a chilling human and historical document,’ it says, ‘Holocaust diaries have great documentary value for the understanding of the period from the viewpoint of those who experienced it - as an illustration of life in the ghettos, in camps or in hiding, as well as in battling Holocaust deniers.’

The New York Times has a good selection of extracts from the diary. Here is one from 6 February 1943: ‘Oh, I forgot the most important thing. I saw how a soldier tore a baby, who was only a few months old, out of its mother’s hands and bashed his head against an electric pylon. The baby’s brain splashed on the wood. The mother went crazy. I am writing this as if nothing has happened. . .’ And The Times online has other extracts and an interview with Rutka’s half-sister.

The new version of the diary, just published by Times Inc. Home Entertainment in collaboration with Yad Vashem, is called Rutka’s Notebook: A Voice from the Holocaust. According to Publishers Weekly it sets Laskier’s writings within a larger context: ‘Pages on the left feature her diary entries, typeset on what looks like parchment, while pages to the right feature maps, historical documents, or photographs (including several of Laskier with family members and friends), as well as historical commentary and annotations explaining obscure terminology.’

The co-publishers claim this is a ‘Polish Anne Frank’, but not everyone agrees. Canada’s Calgary Herald says ‘she is nothing of the kind’. Frank’s diary, Naomi Lakritz says in the article, ‘was richly textured with detailed descriptions of people, places, conversations and events. One could walk right in to Frank’s life; trying to catch more than a glimpse of Laskier’s family and friends is like discerning their shapes through a pane of frosted glass.’

The Diary Junction - Data and links for over 500 historical and literary diarists, including Anne Frank.

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