Other Anne Franks
Helga’s Diary: A Young Girl’s Account of Life in a Concentration Camp
by Helga Weiss, translated by Neil Bermel
New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2013, 248 pp., $24.95, hardcover
Rutka’s Notebook: A Voice from the Holocaust
by Rutka Laskier
Jerusalem and New York: Time, Inc. andYad Vashem, 2008, 90 pp., $19.95, hardcover
Reviewed by Harriet Malinowitz
1929: Anne Frank is born in Frankfurt, Germany; Rutka Laskier is born in Bedzin, Poland; and Helga Weiss is born in Prague, Czechoslovakia. All are Jewish; all will confront the Holocaust; all will write diaries that will be hidden when their authors are deported; and all their diaries will be retrieved by others after the war. Anne Frank’s diary will be published in the immediate postwar period and have a huge impact on world culture. Helga Weiss will put her journal in a drawer and leave it there for more than sixty years—until she decides, “It’s high time I put my effects in order.” Rutka Laskier’s journal will remain sequestered for a similar amount of time, until the friend, now aged eighty, to whom she entrusted it finally makes it public. Anne Frank and Rutka Laskier will die in concentration camps. All three diaries will convey harrowing narratives; all three will also result in volumes that present complicated issues of authorship, genre, reception, and the relationship of personal narrative to historical events.
Anne Frank’s became the famous one—not only because of the timing of her journal’s entry into the wider world, but also because the girl who wrote it was an enormously gifted, ambitious, and disciplined artist, who makes a number of references in her diary to her literary aspirations. When she hears the suggestion, on a Dutch radio newscast, that wartime diaries and letters be collected when all is over, she envisions publishing a “romance of the ‘Secret Annexe’”—adding, “But seriously, it would seem quite funny ten years after the war if we Jews were to tell how we lived and what we ate and talked about here.” From other sources, we know that at that point, she began intensively revising her diary with a wider audience in mind—and that what was published in 1947 as Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl is actually the fruit of that revision, further redacted by her father.
In 2006, the 1943 diary of Rutka Laskier was made public, and she was immediately “dubbed the Polish Anne Frank.” Just who first dubbed her this is unclear; the analogy is serially restated in the passive voice, without elaboration. Of course, to a large extent, it’s obvious: Laskier was a perceptive, intellectually engaged girl from a well-off family, exactly Anne Frank’s age, and she kept a diary during the same period. She endured a parallel tightening of the noose of Nazi occupation in her own community, quaked with similar fears, felt caged and longed for freedom—and ultimately met the same fate. Like Frank, Laskier confessed to mood swings, eccentricity, and behavior that was not always received well by others. She, too, swiveled between documenting the terrors of her situation and recounting “normal” teenage preoccupations with boys, girlfriends, conflicts with parents, awakening sexuality, and her appearance.
But Laskier’s diary—which seems to have remained mostly intact—though studded with powerful and articulate observations, is much briefer than Frank’s. It was written between January and April 1943, and consists of sixty handwritten pages—which turned into just 23 of printed text in a very large font. Unlike Frank, who addresses her diary to “Kitty,” Laskier creates no pretense of an addressee, and she does not explain the diary’s provenance—she simply plunges right in, writing, “I cannot grasp that it is already 1943, four years since this hell began.” While Frank professed to be uninterested in politics, there are suggestions that some in Laskier’s circle, and perhaps she herself, were involved with the Polish underground resistance. (For example, she writes on March 9: “I want to learn how to work. To be a Communist and not to work doesn’t go together.”) And while Frank’s diary is rich with detail and tackles it all with a keen zest for analysis, Laskier’s tends toward the cursory and cryptic; hers is actually more diary-like in its assumption that the reader can fill in the gaps, because the reader is herself. While language and reflection were soul-saving for Frank, Laskier writes: “I don’t understand why I can’t pour out my heart even on paper. It’s very difficult to self-analyze.”
When the Germans seized Bedzin in 1939, the town’s Jews—whose long, vital history there stretched back to the thirteenth century—numbered about 21,000, or 42 percent of the total population. Characteristic Holocaust-era atrocities soon followed, including the burning of the town synagogue with 200 people inside. Laskier witnesses unspeakably traumatic events: “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.”
As Laskier’s diary opens, she is living with her parents and little brother in a neighborhood that the Germans have converted into an “open” Jewish ghetto—that is, they must live there, but they are not imprisoned in it 24 hours a day. The non-Jewish owners of the house have been temporarily evicted in order for Jews to be installed, but the daughter of the family, Stanislawa Sapinska, comes back to check on the property from time to time. In the process, she befriends Laskier. The two agree on a hiding place for the diary in the event of Laskier’s deportation (and this is indeed where Sapinska finds it at the war’s end).
In the course of just one diary entry that begins, “Something has broken in me,” the arc of Laskier’s ruminations ranges from “I think my womanhood has awoken in me….I have never had such sensations until now,” to a description of an Aktion, or selection, in which her parents and brother are sent to the “good” side (they may return home, for now), while she and several of her friends are placed in the area designated for those who will be deported. “The weirdest thing was that we didn’t cry at all. AT ALL,” Laskier writes. By a combination of initiative—she jumps out a first-floor window and runs away—and luck—the officer who intercepts her is drunk and doesn’t notice her yellow star—she escapes.
The diary halts abruptly, shortly before the Laskier family is transferred to the Kamionka “closed” ghetto, located in a crowded, squalid neighborhood on the outskirts of town. Some months later, an editorial note tells us, the residents of Kamionka were deported to Auschwitz. Of the Laskier family, only Laskier’s father, Yaacov, survived; he emigrated to Palestine and remarried.
Until recently, it was believed that Laskier had been gassed immediately in Auschwitz; it wasn’t until after the diary’s publication in book form that the even grislier facts came to light. Apparently, Laskier lived in Auschwitz for about six months, fell extremely ill with cholera and, unable to walk, was pushed to the crematorium in a wheelbarrow by a fellow prisoner. According to the survivor, “[Laskier] begged me to take her to the electric fence so that she could kill herself. But an SS officer with a gun was following us and wouldn’t allow it.” This was revealed in a 2009 BBC documentary (now viewable as Rutka Laskier: The Polish Anne Frank on YouTube).
Sapinska kept the diary in her own home for more than sixty years: “I treated it as my personal memory,” she explains in the BBC documentary. In 2006, she was finally persuaded by a nephew to make it public. The original volume ended up in Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority in Jerusalem, and it was published in Poland and Israel before its English edition. The most remarkable feature of the diary’s afterlife was its presentation to Zahava (Laskier) Scherz—Laskier’s father’s Israeli child by his second marriage; until she was fourteen, she never knew she had had a half-sister and -brother who died. Scherz took a passionate interest in Laskier’s story and contributed two essays to this volume.
The English edition is overproduced and thickly padded with myriad voices that all but drown out Laskier’s. One can surmise that the editors felt that Laskier’s diary alone was not a book-length project and thus chose to supplement it with essays by people related in one way or another to her—or the diary’s—story. Captioned photographs of Bedzin and its people, and reproductions of documents are, of course, valuable additions, and often Laskier’s references need contextualizing. But the editors also chose to include “lessons” about the Holocaust, lest this be a reader’s first foray into it. Irritatingly, these images and commentaries, which could have been placed as appendices or endnotes, occupy the right side of each page, facing Laskier’s diary on the left (as in a bilingual edition, though this is not). Thus, Laskier’s narrative can never be the sole object of the reader’s attention, and one’s attempt to follow her words is continually interrupted unless one resolves to ignore what is under one’s nose and firmly turn the page. In addition to making the reading of Laskier’s short work confusing and pointlessly nonlinear, the design makes it difficult to sort out, in the end, what one actually gleaned from Laskier from what slipped in on the side. This, of course, may or may not matter; it all depends on what one seeks in a Holocaust narrative. (More on this later.)
Now, in 2013, another Holocaust diary of a young girl has been published. Unsurprisingly, its author, too, has been heralded as “the other Anne Frank.” Helga’s Diary is comparable to Frank’s in its breadth, and it is the only one of the three discussed here whose story continues through the Auschwitz experience and beyond, to liberation. This is only partly due to the fact that Helga Weiss is the only one of the three who survived.
As with Frank’s and Laskier’s diaries, Weiss’s inevitably ends when the worst of the nightmare begins. Her first section covers the beginnings: decampments to air raid shelters from the Weiss family’s comfortable home in Prague; the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1938; the escalating restrictions on Jews’ movements and activities; round-ups and transfers. The second, longest, part encompasses the family’s deportation to, and almost three-year incarceration in, Terezín (often known by its German name, Theresienstadt)—a former military fortress turned into a transit ghetto for Jews and used as a “model” camp for international eyes by German propagandists. This meant that, amidst brutality, hard work, and carts bearing corpses in the lanes, there existed some modicum of real food, mattresses to sleep on, and sufficient staples to facilitate holiday festivities, covert schooling, and cultural events such as concerts and plays; when the Red Cross visited, cafes, boutique shops, and a carousel sprouted up as well.
Upon the Weisses’ deportation from Terezín to Auschwitz in October 1944, Weiss’s diary was preserved thanks to an uncle, Josef Polák, who fortuitously worked in the records department of Terezín. Polák bricked numerous Terezín documents, including Weiss’s diary and her many drawings, which constitute her truer métier, into a wall, where they remained safely until after the war. Ultimately, Weiss and her mother—who survived together against astounding odds (of 15,000 children deported to Auschwitz from Terezín, only 100 came out alive)—returned to their former apartment in Prague—where Weiss, now in her eighties, still lives. She resumed work on the narrative, revising in the postwar years what she had already written and, significantly, expanding the story into a third section that features the most horrific events—in Auschwitz, Mauthausen, and along the hellish course of marathon train rides and forced marches. Yet she continued to relate her memories in diary form, for dramatic immediacy. Finally, the pages were put in a drawer to yellow while, over the course of more than sixty years, Weiss raised a family and pursued a career in painting.
She explains the manuscript’s latter-day resurrection in the practical terms that characterize much of her writing: “I like things tidy and don’t want to leave a mess behind.” She learned to use a computer and, typing and printing out the earlier drafts, went on revising. She resisted using a professional editor because, as she says in a 2012 author’s note, “I fear that, with changes, the authenticity and force of the narration would be lost. May readers treat this diary charitably and accept it for what it is.”
But accepting the diary “for what it is” poses a challenge more intriguing than Weiss may have imagined. Billed as a diary and written according to the conventions of the genre, most of it actually constitutes a far more hybrid type of memoir, in which the original, “raw” events have been filtered through the voluminous Holocaust discourses of the ensuing decades. The earnest pursuit of “authenticity” has plunged more than one writer into a doomed attempt to represent the unrepresentable. At best, the line between the letter and the spirit of events when one is bearing witness may be negligible; at worst, one can be charged with outright, even deliberate, fraud. (Think of the narratives of the slave/abolitionist Harriet Jacobs and the Nobel Peace Laureate Rigoberta Menchu, on the one hand; the hoaxes of James Frey and Holocaust love-story memoirist Herman Rosenblat on the other.)
Weiss’s case is closer to Jacobs’s and Menchu’s. There is no evidence that she sought to falsify events—only to spice up their presentation. She describes approaching Auschwitz on the train:
I can see people, but what are they wearing? It looks like pajamas, and they’ve all got the same ones….My God, those are prisoners’ clothes! .... What’s this? The train has stopped…. We’re not getting off here, surely? Or—why didn’t it occur to me earlier?—this is Auschwitz, of course.
Similarly, she describes the moment of liberation, in an entry “dated” May 5, 1945 (but written some time between late 1945 and early 2013):
What is it I see? Am I dreaming? Can I really believe it, can it be true?....[U]p high, on the tower of Mauthausen—a white flag flutters! ....The voices thrum and people repeat as if in a fevered ecstasy: PEACE, PEACE, PEACE….The woods, nature, the building is friendlier; I feel like dancing, whooping. We made it. We survived the war. PEACE IS HERE.
Was Weiss thinking of Steven Spielberg? Aristotelian catharsis? The latter-day cachet of Holocaust witness testimony? What is the point of adding hokey flair to a story that in itself is indisputably remarkable?
In contrast, consider Weiss’s visual art. One of the most interesting facets of her book is the inclusion of her many drawings, both black-and-white sketches and color plates, depicting Terezín life. It was not her initial impulse to find material in the stark realities of the camp. The first color plate, entitled “Snowman” (December 1941), depicts a cheerful winterscape in which two warmly dressed children pat the final touches on their sculpture. Its caption says, “The first picture that I made in Terezín. I smuggled it to my father in the men’s barracks and he wrote back, ‘Draw what you see!’” Thereafter, Weiss followed this good advice: pictures of soup lines, a hospital during an encephalitis epidemic, and a quarantined Polish children’s transport portray the grim realities that belie the “not-so-bad” reputation of Terezín.
In her narrative, though, she doesn’t seem to trust her senses, or honor their limits, in the same way. Numerous footnotes by her translator, Neil Bermel, indicate errors of fact and chronology, and inform us that particular entries “were rewritten extensively by Weiss after the war.” Weiss looks forward to seeing a Terezín premiere of Smetana’s opera The Bartered Bride, but Bermel explains that the line, inserted much later, “works thematically, but comes several months too early.” Similarly, she pronounces a lecture on Rembrandt “interesting” and muses, “I hope they keep having these lectures; I’ll definitely go again,” though it turns out that this, too, did not appear in the original manuscript. Clearly, these events lingered in her memory in the years that followed. It is certainly extraordinary, and worth noting, that arts and culture flourished amid such wretchedness. But who, exactly, is noting this? It is the Weiss of later—either immediately afterward, or in the twenty-first century, after living a full life. There is an unsettling—because unacknowledged—disjunction between that Weiss and the young girl who kept a diary.
”I don’t want to set down a series of bald facts in a diary like most people do,” Anne Frank asserted in one of her first logs. And she didn’t. Neither did Laskier. Neither did Mary Berg (whose eloquent diary of growing up in the Warsaw Ghetto I reviewed in WRB in 2008 and highly recommend). And neither did that other brilliant Holocaust memoirist, Primo Levi, nor the stunningly insightful women whose narratives, recorded in the 1980s, appear in the collection The Last Seven Months of Anne Frank (1988, 1991). But Weiss’s bent was journalistic rather than literary; she was a chronicler, not a contemplator; outward-gazing rather than introspective; and perhaps she felt that the simple facts of her extremely unsimple circumstances needed a little rhetorical glitz to elevate her account from informational dossier to inspirational classic.
In any case, as both readers and writers we do a Holocaust narrative a great disservice if we reduce it simply to its plot. As narratologists have argued, the what and the how of a story are two different—albeit related—things. “[T]hings happen and they get told,” says James E. Young, a scholar of Holocaust writing (in “Toward a Received History of the Holocaust.” History and Theory, Vol. 36, No. 4, December 1997). Facts don’t speak; people do.
And these stories are just the tip of the iceberg. In addition to the millions of people who perished, there were untold numbers of diaries that perished as well. Anne Frank’s sister Margot kept a diary we have never read; and Weiss tells Neil Bermel in an appended interview (which is actually one of the most fascinating parts of the book), “In Terezín loads of children kept diaries; and … adults as well, because people needed to come to terms with the situation and so they started to write.” I see no “other Anne Frank” in either Rutka Laskier or Helga Weiss, and I do not expect to find one among those diarists whose pages may still someday be pulled out of drawers or attics. It trivializes them to treat Frank as the template and other Holocaust diarists as reproductions, because of the commonalities of some of their circumstances. If you want world-class literary autobiography, go to Frank; if you want unique evocations of how other human beings perceived and endured the Holocaust, go to Rutka Laskier, Helga Weiss, and whatever other precious shards of humanity have been, and may still be, salvaged from the staggering rubble.
Harriet Malinowitz is professor of English and director of the Writing Center at Long Island University, Brooklyn—where the administration has denied her a sabbatical for her work on Zionism and Propaganda (while refusing to state a reason). She is grateful to her union, and to be on a unionized faculty generally. Arbitration is scheduled for late July.