Read through lesser-known Holocaust texts

When Jews think about Holocaust writings, we often first remember Anne Frank.
That’s true for me, but never again will I count her as the only young girl who left a diary behind. I had no idea there were any others until I read Rutka’s Notebook, subtitled A Voice from the Holocaust. The cover calls it “the long-lost diary” of another young girl, and adds that some are now calling its author “the Polish Anne Frank.” I don’t agree with that; the two girls — and their writings — are so very different. But for many, their similar ages during a similar time spur the connection.
This old/new Holocaust story first surfaced about a decade ago, when, after 61 years, a non-Jewish woman — then 82 years old — finally made public that she had kept to herself, for all that time, the slim notebook a childhood friend had asked her to hold for safekeeping — just before she, Rutka, went off to die in an Auschwitz gas chamber. It was finally published as this book in 2008, with copyright owned by Yad Vashem.
As a document, this defies comparison to Anne Frank’s diary — the two are incredibly different. Anne, as we all know, showed us the interior life of a maturing teenager, defining her future hopes and dreams. Rutka left a different kind of record: of a younger but still maturing teenager’s everyday activities and escapades, very much “in the moment” of approaching adulthood. Anne’s writings might be termed “philosophical” when read next to Rutka’s down-to-earth reportage of actual personal happenings.
The difference: Rutka was never in hiding, so she had the kind of exterior life that Anne was denied. Although her small family — parents and a much younger brother — were moved several times by the Nazis into ghetto settings, she had constant open contact with her friends. Most of her notebook is frivolous, even childish. But Rutka did see the horrors of roundups and deportations, and even ugly murders, before it was her turn to experience all three of these herself. And her knowledge of reality underlies everything; she writes as matter-of-factly about watching a baby coldly killed before its own mother’s eyes as she does about wondering to whom she’d give her first kiss. Also, this is a very brief document, covering only January to April of 1943.
By itself, Rutka’s notebook would be only a pamphlet. But its finding sparked much else, all now parts of this book. Although her mother and brother perished with her, her father survived; he remarried after the horrors, had a child, and it is this daughter, the later-discovered Zahava Laskier Scherz, who introduces Rutka with a moving essay on “The Sister I Never Knew.” Zahava also writes the fascinating story of her father’s three very different life stages — perhaps the most important reading of all.
This book surprised me with a bibliography of more than a dozen other adolescent Holocaust diaries and notebooks that I had never before known existed — five young boys among the authors. And for me especially, there was also a bit of family learning that provided previously elusive information to answer a question my sister and I had asked all our lives: Her name is Ruth, but those in the generation of our Boubby the Philosopher always called her “Root.” Here, I found that this wasn’t because those elders couldn’t pronounce the “th,” but that Rutka is the eastern European diminutive of Ruth, and is often shortened in conversation to that formerly mysterious “Root”!
This volume would make a worthy addition to the library of anyone wishing to explore one of the lesser-known aspects of the Holocaust. It’s easy reading, although some of the subject matter is painful to confront and absorb. I bought my copy at a bookshop clearance for $1, but it’s still available on Amazon for less than $5. Either way: so very little for such a big lesson in our history.

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