Newly discovered Warsaw ghetto diary describes last days of uprising

jerusalem | As flames engulfed the Warsaw ghetto in its last days in 1943, a young Jewish woman hiding from Nazi soldiers kept a journal about her fight to survive in a cramped basement.

The six-page diary, apparently the only account written during the uprising that survived the battle, has surfaced at a Holocaust museum in Israel.

The monthlong uprising by a few dozen desperate, starving Jews holding their own against the Nazis is one of the best known tales of Jewish heroism from the ashes of the Holocaust.

The author, who didn’t give her name and whose fate is unknown, described a nine-day period during the uprising. She lived on a bowl of soup and a cup of coffee a day. Outside, the Germans were burning down houses.

“The ghetto is burning for the fourth day,” she wrote. “You see only chimneys standing and the skeletons of burnt houses. At the first moment, the visions arouse a horrible chill.”

She wrote in neat Polish handwriting on graph paper. She never mentioned her name, disclosing only that she was a member of a Jewish youth group, indicating that she was in her late teens or early 20s.

The pages are part of a large collection of letters, notes and pages collected after the war by Adolf-Abraham Berman, a survivor of the ghetto and leader of the Jewish Underground who moved to Israel after the war.

Berman donated the artifacts in the 1970s to the Ghetto Fighters House, located at Kibbutz Lochamei Haghettaot, a communal village in northern Israel. Experts at the museum realized the importance of the pages only recently, while organizing the Berman archive for release to the public.

“The uniqueness of this diary is that it is the only one found in the world, that we know of, that was written right at the time of the fighting,” said Yossi Shavit, director of the museum’s archives. “The other diaries were written afterward.”

The Warsaw ghetto was established in Nazi-occupied Poland in 1940. Jews from surrounding areas were forced to crowd into the cramped neighborhood. At its peak in the spring of 1941, about 450,000 Jews lived in the 740-acre ghetto. Most died of starvation or were killed in Nazi gas chambers.

When the Germans moved to liquidate the walled ghetto entirely in 1943, 60,000 Jews were still alive there. Hundreds of them fought back with few weapons, little ammunition and limited food and water.

Against all odds, they held out for 27 days, until the Nazis burned down the ghetto.

Some Jews survived, escaping through the sewers into neighboring areas.

The woman’s account begins on day six of the uprising — April 24, 1943. She lives with several others in the basement of a home, hidden from the Nazis. The Germans set the house on fire several times and smoke seeps into the hiding place, making breathing difficult.

The Jews at first try to put out the blaze but later give up, apparently deciding the fire is a means to help cover up their hiding place.

At one point a neighboring hideout is burned and the occupants flee to the basement where the author is hiding. The newcomers have no food and are noisy, increasing the danger the hideout will be discovered.

Because of the overcrowding, the author must sleep with a child who tosses and turns constantly, making sleep impossible. Sometimes, she writes, she must guard the hideout.

Shavit, the director of the archives, said since the author’s identity is not known, it is unclear what became of her.

“We are not sure she was killed,” Shavit said. “She could be lying in a nursing home in the United States.”

The last entry, on May 2, is the longest, as if the writer understands her opportunity to describe the destruction is drawing to an end.

“The only thing we are left with is our hiding place,” she writes. “Of course this will not be a safe place for very long.”

The last words seem to indicate death is near.

“We live this day, this hour, this moment.”