Holocaust Museum restoration expert saves ghetto diary

Working with the precision of a jeweler and at the speed of an Andy Warhol film, Emily Jacobson slowly and methodically pieced together the charred, coffee-colored wisps of paper.

Slowly but inevitably, a collection of tatters that, since the end of World War II, had resembled an envelope of incinerated postage stamps, were transformed into a visceral wail from the past.

“One little section had the words ‘witnesses’ and ‘monstrous’ and ‘mothers and children thrown’ and ‘one infant … and the other shot,'” recalled Jacobson, a restoration expert at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.

“There were all these little fragments and I was thinking, ‘What is going on here?'”

Jacobson is, literally, a paper person. Whenever the Holocaust Museum obtains a war-era document that’s in bad shape, it falls upon her to restore it to a legible state. Other museum experts specialize in restoring shoes, hairbrushes, concentration camp uniforms or Star of David armbands. It’s an extremely esoteric occupation, and not the sort a kindergartener tells his class he wants to be when he grows up.

It’s also a painstaking job that calls for knowledge of chemistry, history and incredible patience. Over the course of two and a half years, Jacobson meticulously reconstituted the 20 aforementioned soiled paper fragments into five double-sided pages retelling one girl’s horrific experiences in the Warsaw ghetto.

The Maryland resident spoke about the diary and her efforts to salvage it Thursday, April 6 at a Palo Alto senior facility.

The diary was penned by a girl of 16 or 17 named Debora, and no last name is known. Along with another Jewish girl of similar age named Lusia Hornstein, Debora lived outside the Warsaw ghetto in 1943 and ’44, posing as a Polish Catholic.

Both girls participated in the Polish uprising against the Nazis in 1944. Hornstein acted as a nurse and delivered anti-Nazi newspapers — which was an incredibly efficient way to get oneself killed. But it was Debora who did not survive; the diarist was killed by a German bomb.

After the Russians overran Warsaw in 1944, Hornstein returned to her former safe house to recover the diary she knew her friend kept. Jacobson believes that house was probably reduced to rubble based on the charring of the fragments, which had grown brittle and cracked along where the five pages were folded into quadrants.

Amazingly, Hornstein located the diary, and wrapped it in a scrap of Polish newspaper from which it would not emerge for six decades. Along with her future husband, she earned a medical degree in Heidelberg and immigrated to the United States. She kept the diary’s existence a secret until she was on her deathbed in 1998; it was not donated to the Holocaust Museum until 2002.

The first thing Jacobson realized when she, figuratively, got her hands on the scraps was that she would never, literally, be able to get her hands on them.

“Really, they were in such bad shape that you could breathe on it and another piece breaks off,” she said.

Splicing together the brown, brittle fragments would not be unlike reconstructing a jigsaw puzzle — a puzzle that disintegrates with one false move and takes 30 months to assemble. The first thing she did was take extensive digital photographs of the scraps and begin splicing them together on her computer, sparing the originals any further human contact.

After years of painstaking labor, Jacobson’s work was complete. The transcript of Debora’s diary can be downloaded from the Holocaust Museum’s archive at www.ushmm.org/research/library (put “Debora’s diary” into the search text).

And, after 60 years of resting, fragmented, in drawers and 30 months of restoration, the text is still as heartbreakingly evocative as ever:

By horses we took mother’s casket to the funeral home. There were there some more corpses who were not yet buried. It was a ghastly sight. Those corpses were either shot, or burned. The Kantor said a prayer over mother’s casket. I glanced at the pile of corpses. Way on the top I noticed a child. A little girl maybe two years old. She made the illusion of a little angel…

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.