The diary of another young girl: Holocaust journal comes to light in San Francisco

Food distribution line in the Lodz Ghetto (Photo/Courtesy of Yad Vashem Photo Archive)

She was only 14.

A sensitive Jewish girl with a flair for writing, trapped in the maelstrom of the Holocaust. The only repository for her deepest feelings: a diary, found abandoned soon after the war.

Her name was not Anne.

Her name was Rywka.

Orphaned, starving, desperately relying on faith in God, Rywka Lipszyc (pronounced “Rivka Lipshitz”) wrote while living in a hell on earth, the Lodz Ghetto. Seven decades later, her story at last has come to light.

“The Diary of Rywka Lipszyc” — published by S.F.-based Jewish Family and Children’s Services in partnership with Lehrhaus Judaica — was exhaustively researched, authenticated and annotated. It took a team of historians, archivists and translators years to finalize the newly published book.

More than anything, the survival of the diary itself constitutes a modern-day miracle. It was found at Auschwitz in 1945 and then remained hidden for years in a closet in Siberia.

With its extraordinary recovery, preservation and publication, the world gains a renewed understanding of the human price of the Holocaust.

“It’s the kind of discovery that is so powerful, you know immediately it’s important,” said Anita Friedman, executive director of JFCS. “I knew we had to publish this diary.”

The 170-page book includes not only the full text of the diary, but also a deep analysis of it by National Jewish Book Award winner Alexandra Zapruder, as well as essays about the Lodz Ghetto, the Lipszyc family, the provenance of the diary and the mystery of Rywka herself, of whom no trace has been found.

It reads like a detective novel with an unsatisfying ending.

A Soviet Red Army doctor found the diary beside a crematorium at Auschwitz-Birkenau. It was remarkably well preserved. But how did it get there? Why did the doctor keep the diary hidden away for decades until her death, and why did her son do the same for another 10 years?

Most poignantly, what happened to Rywka?

Some questions have no answers. Those who worked on Rywka’s diary content themselves with the words of a cold and hungry child who faced the worst in humanity: “At moments like this,” Rywka wrote, “I want to live so much … Really one needs a lot of strength in order not to give up.”

Judy Janec noticed a new email in her inbox.

The staff archivist at the S.F.-based Holocaust Center of Northern California had been forwarded an email by the center’s director — a note from an émigré from the former Soviet Union now living in the Bay Area. It was 2008.

Anastasia Berezovskaya, who is not Jewish, wrote to the Holocaust Center, saying she had a World War II–era document in her possession and wanted to know whether the center would examine it.

Hand-scrawled in Polish, the document appeared to be an anonymous diary, covering a six-month period starting in October 1943, and written in the Lodz Ghetto, the longest standing Jewish ghetto of the war.

Zinaida Berezovskaya, the Red Army doctor who found the diary at Auschwitz

Before she discovered it in 1995 among her late father’s effects in his Moscow home, Berezovskaya had never heard a word about the diary. No legends, no old stories, no family lore.

“The only thing I knew was that my grandmother was in the war,” said Berezovskaya, a San Francisco therapist. “She was a pretty strange woman and [stayed out of contact with] the family in her last years.”

Anastasia has deduced that her grandmother, Zinaida Berezovskaya, a former Red Army doctor, entered Auschwitz with Soviet liberators and plucked the diary from the ashes of the camp. The granddaughter found the diary wrapped with an explanatory cover note and an accompanying Russian newspaper article, with a photo from February 1945 showing the exact spot where the diary was found.

Anastasia’s grandmother kept the diary hidden in her home in Omsk (in southwestern Siberia) until her death in 1983. She had apparently made a few futile attempts to learn more about it, but no one had any answers. Then Anastasia’s father kept it in Moscow until his death in 1995. Anastasia then took it back to San Francisco, where she had immigrated four years earlier.

“I knew it was an important document,” she said of her thinking at the time. “I thought I’d like to show it to someone and do something with it. In 1995, the Internet was not widely available, so I asked around. People didn’t have a clue.”

A few organizations had expressed mild interest, some asking Anastasia to send the diary in the mail. But she wasn’t eager to part with it. And so, for the most part, the diary remained closeted for another 13 years, until she finally brought it to Janec.

“You can imagine what it was like to see this document,” Janec recalled of the day Anastasia brought it to her office at the Holocaust Center of Northern California in 2008.

“It was an incredible experience. I said, ‘This is really remarkable, but in order to move forward, we need to consult people who know more than I do.’ So we very carefully and cautiously scanned some of the pages.”

The handwritten note she left describing where she found it and how she tried to have it translated. (Photo/The Diary of Rywka Lipszyc)

After that, experts examined the work and weighed in, among them Zachary Baker,  Stanford University’s Reinhard Family Curator of Judaica and Hebraica Collections, and Robert Moses Shapiro of Brooklyn College, a prominent scholar of the Lodz Ghetto.

They in turn brought in academics and researchers from Poland, including translator Malgorzata Markoff and annotator Ewa Wiatr. Their work, for the first time since the diary was written, uncovered its treasures, including the identity of its author.

“Ewa worked on the transcription, and that’s when she found out who the writer was,” Janec said. “Rywka identified herself in part of the diary.”

That triggered an entirely new detective assignment: Who was Rywka Lipszyc? Was she dead or alive, and how on earth did her diary survive the smokestacks of Auschwitz?

Janec consulted with the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., and the International Tracing Service, a German-based agency that researches lost Holocaust victims. She traveled to several European countries and to Israel’s Yad Vashem. Along the way, she picked up a paper trail, starting with records of the Lodz Ghetto archives, which included mention of the Lipszyc family.

There were six in all. Parents Yankel and Miriam Lipszyc, and their four children, Abramek, Cipka, Tamarcia and Rywka.

Yankel died in the ghetto in 1941, from complications following a beating at the hands of German guards. Miriam died of starvation a year later. Little Abramek and Tamarcia perished in the szpera (Polish for “curfew”), the horrific 1942 roundup and murder of seniors and small children deemed useless to the ghetto’s slave labor force.

Rywka started her diary 11 months later, on Oct. 3, 1943, abruptly ending it on April 12, 1944, four months before the Nazis liquidated the ghetto and transported all remaining prisoners to Auschwitz.

Rywka took her diary with her on that train.

Children looking for coal in the Lodz Ghetto (Photo/The Diary of Rywka Lipszyc)

Somehow it survived the journey and the terrifying first hours there, when Rywka would have been stripped of every possession. Her little sister, Cipka, was immediately selected for the gas chamber. The diary, tossed into the garbage, was likely rescued by a Sondercommando, a Jewish prisoner in charge of the grimmest job at Auschwitz: manning the mechanics of mass death.

“Probably someone in the Sondercommando dug it out,” theorized historian Fred Rosenbaum, founding director of Lehrhaus Judaica and the author of an 11-page essay about the Lodz Ghetto included in the newly published book. “Then it was available for the doctor, and she had to have the good sense to realize the significance of it, and keep it.

“I don’t want to overstate this, but it’s almost miraculous.”

Berezovskaya picked up the diary when the Red Army liberated Auschwitz in January 1945.

But had Rywka survived?

She had. Janec discovered that much of the girl’s final imprisonment was spent at a nearby labor camp, Christianstadt, and later at Bergen-Belsen, where she was liberated. Eventually the trail indicated Rywka had been hospitalized in Germany in the months after the war.

The last known record of her dated from September 1945, indicating she was still in a hospital, too sick for transfer. After that, no death record, no transfer record, no gravestone. Nothing.

Before Janec knew that, she had found a tantalizing bit of information, a record suggesting Rywka had died at age 16 in Bergen-Belsen. That came from the testimony of a survivor named Mina. Janec wondered if Mina was the same person named in the diary as Rywka’s cousin.

Perhaps she was still alive. It turned out Mina and her sister Esther (both mentioned in the diary) were alive and well in Israel.

That’s when Janec made the call.

“They were completely shocked,” Janec recalled of that initial contact. “It made their hearts sick to know she had lived. [In 1945] they were very sick, too, and were sent to Sweden.”

Rywka’s cousins, Mina and Esther, were the only members of their immediate and extended families to survive the Holocaust. These photos were taken in 1948.

Before they left for Sweden in July 1945, the cousins had seen Rywka, lying in the hospital unconscious. The doctor told them she would not survive more than a few days. The sisters departed, believing they would never see their cousin again.

At that moment, Rywka Lipszyc vanished from history. That is, until more than 60 years later when the granddaughter of the army doctor who found the diary came forth and handed it over to exactly the right people.

Rosenbaum could not believe his eyes when he first examined Rywka’s notebook. The Lodz Ghetto was much on his mind, as he had just finished collaborating on a memoir by Eva Libitzky, 90, a Lodz Ghetto survivor whose son, Moses Libitzky, today lives in Oakland.

He knew immediately the diary filled in important details about the history of the ghetto, as well as providing powerful new testimony to the savagery of the Holocaust.

“It’s an original document written in real time,” Rosenbaum said. “Her thoughts are not filtered by what came later. We have other diaries from the Lodz Ghetto, but none cover the period Rywka wrote about. That period is of great significance because it was a period of the most acute starvation. And she writes about that.”

Another reason he believes the diary is of historical value is because of Rywka’s religious faith, expressed in nearly every entry of the diary.

“While we have other diaries of teens in the war, it’s rare to have one by a religious teen,” Rosenbaum said. “Most of them are not religious. Here’s one who has faith in God, and that becomes her only comfort and shield from the hell she’s living in.”

Hadassa Halamish, Rywka’s cousin, speaks at the book launch in San Francisco on March 10

The diary captures that hell in chilling detail.

When Rywka begins it, she and her sister Cipka are the sole survivors of the immediate family. She works in a clothing factory making materiel for the German war machine.

As Rosenbaum notes in his essay, the Lodz Ghetto was an urban slave labor camp. Unlike, say, the Warsaw Ghetto, from which some Jewish workers could come and go (and occasionally sneak out of), the Lodz Ghetto was sealed tight. The area around it was a dead zone, meaning those inside were trapped, subject to starvation, deportations and countless other abuses.

That did not stop the Jewish prisoners from attempting to maintain normality. Rywka writes about attending school, Torah study and Jewish holiday celebrations. She has a schoolgirl crush on an older mentor, Surcia, and often dishes on her fellow teen girls.

It is eerily, tragically, like any other teen diary from any other era.

Rywka also reveals herself as a young writer infatuated with her newfound self-expression. Though war brought her formal education to an end when she was 10, Rywka wrestles with language to master her thoughts. Over time, she becomes a more confident writer, despite the horrors around her.

Those horrors dominate the diary: the ever-present cold. The fear of deportation. Grief over lost family members. Almost every entry ends with a cry from the heart, a wail of sorrow.

Rywka’s diary is a book of latter-day psalms, in which the young author cries out to God for help and comfort.

“It is very powerful, very touching,” Rosenbaum said. “Heartwrenching in many places. It’s also uplifting and inspirational: a girl who has an abiding faith in God despite it all.”

Though she could not have known the dramatic effect of her words 70 years later, Rywka’s penultimate entry from April 11, 1944 includes this passage: “Thank you, God, for the spring! Thank you for this mood! I don’t want to write much about it because I don’t want to mess it up, but I’ll write one very significant word: hope!”

In March 2012, the diary was hand-delivered to Mina Boyer and Esther Burstein, Rywka’s surviving cousins in Israel. Friedman of JFCS delivered it in person, the powerful moment captured on Israeli TV news.

“I knew it would be painful for them,” Friedman said, “because it brought up old memories. They had no idea this diary existed. They thought Rywka had died, and were upset to find out that, many months after the war, she was still alive. This poor child was all alone in some field hospital.”

In the new book, Burstein co-authors a chapter. She remembers that writing gave Rywka much satisfaction in the ghetto, and that it helped her forget about the hunger and pain. As for herself, Burstein writes, “We have our great revenge in that we’ve survived against those who wished to destroy us. We have a big family, a tribe among the glory of Israel.”

She’s right. A full-page photo near the end of the book depicts dozens of Rywka’s family members and their descendants in Israel. The smiles say it all.

Already the book is being taught in Israeli classrooms. JFCS is having it translated into Polish and Hebrew, and will develop Holocaust education curricula around it. The diary itself — still in good shape — will reside on permanent loan at the JFCS Tauber Holocaust Library in San Francisco.

At a March 10 launch party for the book, Mina Boyer’s daughter, Hadassa Halamish, flew in from Israel. Also attending was Anastasia Berezovskaya, the granddaughter of the doctor who found the diary. Meeting for the first time, the two embraced warmly.

Hadassa meets Anastasia Berezovskaya, granddaughter of the woman who found Rywka’s diary, for the first time. (Photos/Michael Fox)

Also there were many people who made the volume possible, such as staff members from JFCS, the Holocaust Center (which was absorbed by JFCS in 2011) and Lehrhaus Judaica, including Rosenbaum.

“I think [the diary and book] will play a major role in Holocaust education for future generations,” he said. “It will resonate with the countless teenagers who will study this work in the future. Rywka’s expression of hope will be an inspiration, especially for young people.”

One person was missing from this week’s happy launch event: Rywka Lipszyc, whose ultimate fate will probably never be known. No photo of her has survived.

“I knew from the beginning this had to be published,” said Janec, now retired. “Because it’s a miracle and a mystery: our little Rywka. It’s our obligation to make sure her words lived. If she didn’t, at least her words belong to everybody. Let’s make sure the world knows that Rywka lived.”

Unknowingly prescient, Rywka wrote these words in her diary: “At this moment I’d like to do so much for the world. I see many, many defects and I feel so sorry that I can’t find a place for myself. And when I realize that I don’t matter in the world, that I’m just a speck of dust … in order to screw up my courage I tell myself, ‘After all, I’m still young, very young, what else can happen?’ ”

And she adds: “Maybe I’ll grow up to be somebody, and then I’ll be able to do something.”


Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.