Sunday, September 15, 2019

I don’t feel like living

‘A living person always has hope (sometimes unconsciously). Although life is difficult, it is also beautiful. Life has its strange charm. (I will tell you the truth: I don’t feel like living, it’s too much for me, I will go to sleep soon and I don’t want to get up).’ This is from the diary of Rywka Lipszyc, born 90 years ago today. She was a teenager confined to the Łódź Ghetto during the Holocaust in Poland and barely survived the war, dying not long after being liberated from a concentration camp. But astonishingly, a diary, a heart-rending diary she kept for six months in 1943-1944 was preserved in Russia for many years, and only recently, found its way to the US and into publication.

Rywka was born on 15 September 1929 into a Polish-Jewish family, the eldest of four children. The family was imprisoned in the Nazi ghetto at Łódź following the German invasion of Poland. Her mother and father both died in 1941-1942; Rywka, one sister and three cousins were deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in mid-1944. Her sister was gassed to death on arrival, while Rywka went to work for the women’s commando. Further moves followed, to Christianstadt in Krzystkowice, and to Bergen-Belsen concentration camp from where she was eventually liberated along with her surviving two sisters. She was, however, very ill, and was transported to a hospital in Niendorf, Germany, where, it is believed, she died, aged 16. Further information is available at the official Rwyka website and Wikipedia,

Extraordinarily, a diary kept by Rywka was found amid the ruins of the crematoria at Auschwitz-Birkenau in June 1945 by a Red Army doctor, Zinaida Berezovskaya. She took it back with her to the Soviet Union, and when she died it passed to her son along with other war memorabilia. When, the son died in 1992, Zinaida’s granddaughter, on a family visit to Russia, discovered the manuscript and took it back with her to the US. A decade later, in 2008, she brought it to the Jewish Family and Children’s Services (JFCS) Holocaust Center in San Francisco. A team of researchers and historians then began working to authenticate, preserve, transcribe, and translate the diary into English. Finally, it was edited by Anita Friedman, and published in 2014 as Rwyka’s Diary: The Writings of a Jewish Girl from the Lodz Ghetto by the JFCS Holocaust Centre and Lehrhaus Judaica (a Jewish educational institution now known as Hamaqom | The Place). For more on the diary and its provenance see the JFCS Holocaust Centre, the Rwyka website, the Koret Foundation, or Yad Vashem. There is further information on the website about the film Diary from the Ashes.

The Rwyka website also has a generous selection of extracts from the diary, organised by topic (disease and hunger, work, siblings, etc.). Here are a few of them.

11 December 1943
‘Sometimes I think that life is a dark road. On this road among the thorns there are other, more delicate flowers. These flowers have no life, they suffer because of the thorns. Sometimes the thorns are jealous of the flowers’ beauty and hurt them more. The flowers either become thorns themselves or suffer in silence and walk through the thorns.

They don’t always succeed but if they persevere, something good will come of it. I think it happens quite rarely but in my opinion every true Jew who is pursuing a goal suffers and keeps silent. Besides, I think life is beautiful and difficult, and I think one has to know how to live. I envy people who have suffered a lot and have lived a difficult life, and yet have won the battle with life. You know, Surcia, such people (when I read or hear about them) cheer me up. I then realize that I am not the only one or the first one, that I can have hope. But I’m not writing about myself.

You know, when I’m very upset I admire life. Then I wonder. Why at the same time are some people crying, while others are laughing or suffering? At the same time some are being born, others die or get sick. Those who are born grow up. They mature in order to live and suffer. And yet all of them want to live, desperately want to live. A living person always has hope (sometimes unconsciously). Although life is difficult, it is also beautiful. Life has its strange charm. (I will tell you the truth: I don’t feel like living, it’s too much for me, I will go to sleep soon and I don’t want to get up). Oh, Surcia, if I really couldn’t get up!’

14 February 1944
‘Mr. Zemel came and delivered a speech, or rather he repeated what the Chairman had said before. And: those who are to be deported but are hiding are being aided by other people. This is forbidden … Apparently, this is going to be some kind of easy labor.

But who knows? What’s more, during the working hours between 7 a.m. and 5 p.m. nobody will be allowed to walk in the streets. The ghetto is turning into a Arbeits Lager [Labor Camp}.. The apartments will have to be locked. Only the bed-ridden with medical certificates will be able to stay inside. Nobody else. Now I don’t know what’s going to happen to Saturdays … after all, an apartment can be locked with a padlock. What’s going to happen with attendance at the workshops? God! What’s going to happen? Only You know.’

16 February 1944
‘And … one secret … my cousins are almost out of marmalade and brown sugar, but Cipka and I still have quite a lot. This morning we were going to work (Cipka and I) and she told me that on Sunday when we went to get our rations, Chanusia said to Estusia that we’d finish our marmalade and sugar very quickly and they’d have to share theirs with us. Estusia replied, “I surely wouldn’t think otherwise.”

Stupid cousins, you were so wrong! I have my own satisfaction. I haven’t thought of being as “generous” as you! I don’t even think about it. Ha, ha, ha, at the bottom of my heart I’m sneering at them. Anyway, it’s not worth pondering over! Times are terrible … many people have left … there is hunger … but I’ve already written about it. I feel something, but I can’t express it, though I’d like to. I’d like to help everybody … I’d like to be helpful … I’d like to be useful! I’m full of these inexpressible emotions. I don’t know … it’s connected with my longing and I’m so sad. But I can’t be overwhelmed by sadness, because I know that nothing good will come out of it. I’m against evil … I want kindness! I do want it! There is a saying, “Where there’s a will, there’s a way,” but it doesn’t apply in my case … because I want to do so much … so much, but what can I do? Little, very little, almost nothing…’

28 February 1944
‘I couldn’t write in the workshop, because I was busy with Cipka’s dress. I had a small problem with the soup, so my break was rather sad (because of the soup). But to the point! Sewing something gives me a lot of pleasure and when I finish it I’ll know that I’m stronger … I’ll know that regardless of the conditions I’ll be able to move forward. I’ll have a profession. I won’t depend on my fate, but my fate will depend on me. I feel stronger.

A few years ago, in my dreams, when I was imagining my future, I could see sometimes: an evening, a studio, a desk, there is a woman sitting at the desk (an older woman), she’s writing … and writing, and writing … all the time … she forgets about her surroundings, she’s writing. I can see myself as this woman. Another time I could see a modest apartment which I share with my sister - earlier I thought it was Tamarcia, but today it’s more probable that it’s Cipka. Some other time I can see: an evening, a modest room with lights, all my family sitting at the table. It’s so nice … so warm, cozy … Oh, it’s so good! Later, when they all go to bed, I sit at the sewing machine and I’m sewing … sewing … it’s so sweet, so good … so delightful! Because everything I make with my own hands is our livelihood. It pays for bread, education, clothes … almost everything. The work I do with my own hands … I’m very grateful to Mrs. Kaufman for this … and then (obviously only when I think about it, because it’s not a reality yet), then I feel that, that I can be useful, and not only can, I have to, I have to! (I have to stop now and bring some water.)

Will I be able to write now as I was writing before? I have to try. (Oh, damn it! Cipka took my pencil case and a pen. I had to try four nibs. None of them is good and I can hardly write.) I know, because I’ve said it to myself many times that work is essential in human life, at least in mine. I’d like to dream up work for myself, difficult but rewarding so I’d know that I’m doing it for somebody, that there is somebody. This is most important: I’d like to give but also to take. It doesn’t come easy.’

5 April 1944
‘Because of the holidays there is a lot of commotion. But not everything is positive, unfortunately. Yesterday those who registered for matzos didn’t get any bread. They can starve for a few days or eat matzos. Well, it’s not so easy to be a Jew. At every step there are difficulties. And the weather is capricious, too, although no doubt it is much better, but … children who were adopted receive coupons, so Cipka and I do, too. What we’ll get, I don’t know, that will become clear today. Some kitchens were registering people for the holiday soup. A few girls from our group are leaving at 10 a.m. Today, we’ll find out. Anyway! I wish it were a holiday right now! During the holidays I won’t know where to go first, to Dorka Zand, to Mrs. Lebensztajn, to Dorka Borensztajn and … and I don’t know myself, and now … I’ve planned to write tomorrow, but I don’t know whether I’ll be able to or whether I’ll have an opportunity.

Three years ago the holidays fell on the same days. It was the last holiday, the last Seder with my Daddy. Oh, time goes by so quickly! Daddy was supposed to be released from the hospital for the holidays. Ereve Peysech [the Eve of Passover] like this year, fell on Friday, so Daddy came back on Thursday (like tomorrow). We, the children, were very impatient all day and every few minutes we would approach the window or the balcony to see if an ambulance was coming. […] I couldn’t stay still in one spot but I remember how happy I was that Daddy was coming back. We, the children, weren’t allowed in the hospital, so we would write letters and Mom would take them to Daddy. I discovered so much love for us in Daddy’s letters. God! Perhaps because of this separation, because of these letters, I loved him even more.

In the winter I saw Daddy in the hospital window. He was cheerful, he could easily pour his own reassurance into me, he said he was better, and soon we’d see each other. Didn’t I see for myself that he was doing better? Yes, that’s why I still believed his words. I was full of hope and reassurance myself. Later, Daddy took a turn for the worse, the hospital itself was getting worse, but nevertheless Daddy was supposed to come home for the holidays.

On that Thursday I didn’t remember or I didn’t want to remember that Daddy was feeling much worse than in the winter. However, I was very happy that finally he’d be at home. At that time I remembered only the good things, like Daddy holding my hand on Yom Kippur, the letters and the visits. […] In the evening, at last the ambulance stopped in front of the gate. I was on the balcony and my heart totally stopped for a second. And then it started to pound so violently that I thought my chest would explode. I had no idea what to do: stay in place or run to the door. I don’t exactly remember what I did. I only know that it seemed forever when my Daddy was climbing the stairs. Finally, finally, Daddy was in the room and … how disappointed I was … it wasn’t the same Daddy as the one in the hospital window. He didn’t even smile, didn’t respond to our greetings. He was upset and visibly tired. He wanted to go to bed as soon as possible. We had to leave the room.

God! This feeling! It was in the evening, but the light wasn’t on yet. In that darkness everything was black in front of my eyes. I simply didn’t see anything or anyone. Like a drunk I stumbled into the other room. I felt like sobbing, but I didn’t. I remained silent. Various thoughts were running through my head: what’s wrong with Daddy? Why is he so different? I didn’t expect this. […] I was telling myself that he was only tired, but I was overcome by a strange anxiety. I was bothered by the thought that Daddy wasn’t thinking about us. […] It is true, later I calmed down about the change in Daddy. We even talked to him, although I was very shy, but in my heart … there was a pain, a sorrow in my heart. I don’t know, I don’t know what to call it. Such feelings always wear me out, reduce my energy. I’m unable to do anything. When Daddy wanted a cup of tea, I brought it for him with great difficulty. I had to bring it, because it would look bad that here he is from the hospital and I’m disobedient. The next day I tried to do everything right, although Daddy was very upset. I tried to make every good moment last and not irritate him. Oh, nobody will ever know how hard it was for me and how “cold” I was feeling. And yet nobody knew. […] I withdrew into myself. Nobody could get anything out of me. After all nobody even supposed that I was worried. Oh, how much I needed a kind word, how much I wanted to be alone with Daddy. I wanted him to be like he was in the past. I missed all that and I felt so helpless, so helpless.

After a few days Daddy regained his cheerfulness and good spirits, but I didn’t have any more opportunities to fulfill my dreams. We were all very happy to be in one room with Daddy. We didn’t talk much, but we exchanged looks. Oh, those looks! I couldn’t say anything at all, not even that I wished him to get better, nothing … simply nothing. I was very awkward. But I wanted to, I wanted to. Only God knows this, because I didn’t tell anybody.

Oh, now I’m remembering it all. I can’t even look at Daddy anymore, only at his picture. But I’ll never see Daddy alive, never see him alive again, never again. God! How terrible it is! It’s going to be the third Seder without Daddy, and the second one without any man at all. Last year Aunt Chaiska was here, and today … today there is Estusia. Oh, it’s so tragic! If only Abramek were here! Oh, God, precisely on Pesach, at the Seder, Daddy will be missed most. Oh, he’ll be missed so much …’

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