Beyond Anne Frank
In Search of Young Writers’ Diaries of the Holocaust
Fresh out of college, in the summer of 1991, I went looking for a first job in my hometown of Washington, D.C. Thanks to several prior stints as a research assistant, and despite knowing little about the Holocaust, I was hired as a researcher in the Special Exhibitions Department at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM). The museum as we now know it did not yet exist. The building was under construction, a restricted hard-hat zone where we picked our way over wooden planks and around scaffolding; the younger members of the staff, myself included, swiped loose bricks or giant nuts and bolts to use as paperweights and, more important, to keep as markers of our insider status. Until shortly before the museum opened to the public, we were scattered in nondescript suites on various floors of an office building on L Street. We worked in relative obscurity; many people had never heard of the museum and didn’t know what we were doing. In fact, until the museum opened in April 1993, there was no central repository for documentation, scholarship, and education about the Holocaust in the United States.
It took several months to get my bearings in the job. In early 1992, I joined the curatorial team for Remember the Children: Daniel’s Story, the museum’s exhibition planned for young visitors. Soon after, I was dispatched to the museum’s library in search of diaries written by children during the Holocaust. There wasn’t much of a library yet—just a lot of books waiting to be catalogued and shelved, and a card catalogue in the form of a box of index cards. Mostly, we didn’t bother with it. We just asked the librarian, Bill Connelly, for whatever we wanted; he disappeared for a while and then came back with a wisecrack and book in hand. So when I came looking for the diaries of teenagers, I asked Bill what to read. He rummaged around in the piles and then handed me a stack of books—worn and weathered copies of the diaries of Yitskhok Rudashevski, Dawid Rubinowicz, Moshe Flinker, Éva Heyman, and Mary Berg, together with a few volumes that included excerpts of young writers’ diaries from the Łódz ́ and Terezín ghettos. I had never heard of any of them. Nearly every one—except those of Anne Frank, Etty Hillesum, and Hannah Senesh—was either out of print, only available in excerpts, or both.
After more than twenty years, I still remember the sudden, overwhelming experience of reading those diaries for the first time. From out of the vast body of historical studies and scholarly analyses, videotaped testimonies of aged survivors, and hauntingly silent photographs and film footage, there emerged a single, clear, unmistakably human voice. And another. Still another. One was chatty, another reflective, a third earnest; some were lyrical and others pragmatic; some were bitter, angry, hopeful, resigned, sarcastic, resentful, pleading, and often all of the above. Alone in my small office, these diaries happened to me with a visceral force, as if the writer was pulling me by the hand back in time and into a specific place, leading me through the courtyards of the Vilna ghetto or into an apartment in Brussels or on the open streets of a desperately poor village in Poland. I began to see in my mind what they saw, hear their questions reverberate in my own head, and witness, in mute sympathy, the fear, loss, and despair that dominated so much of their lives.
Within weeks of reading the handful of diaries borrowed from the library, I began asking myself a series of questions that drove most of my work over the next decade: Why hasn’t the public taken notice of these writers? Why is Anne Frank the only young person we know to have written a diary? Are these diaries like hers or different? Do common themes run through them? And most of all, could it be true that in the immense universe of Holocaust documentation, only seven or eight young writers’ diaries survived? I thought of them like the Roman ruins that I so loved studying in college. If archaeologists could find shards of urns and pots that were thousands of years old, surely there must be more written fragments from this more recent past. But where to find them? And how, when I didn’t speak any languages but English and French, when I knew relatively little about the Holocaust, and when I myself was so young? Armed with little more than a sense of confidence in the legitimacy of my questions, I started scribbling ideas and thoughts in a spiral-bound notebook, courting what then seemed like an outlandish idea to research the subject, try to find more material, and bring these journals back from obscurity in the form of a published book.
Over the course of the next ten years, this endeavor dominated much of my life. Research in the early 1990s was much as it had been for centuries and almost nothing like it is now. With no Google to use for searching the Internet and with limited email, I read books and dug around in endnotes and footnotes. I searched through the finding aids of major Holocaust archives in Europe and Israel to chase down references to young writers’ diaries. I wrote letters to authors, publishers, historians, archivists, and sometimes survivors or the relatives of the deceased, and waited weeks for letters back. The process of gaining access to the written texts was slow and laborious. It could take months to make contact with a survivor, establish trust through communication, and persuade him or her to photocopy the diary pages and send them to me. Then months more could elapse before I would have the text translated so that I could read it. Eventually, my colleagues at the Holocaust Museum became aware of what I was doing. As they gathered archival material and interviewed survivors, they began to call me when a diary was donated to the museum or mentioned in an interview. I began to receive phone calls and letters about diaries not only from my colleagues but also from complete strangers. I can still recall the excitement I felt when I opened my mailbox and found one of those unmistakable envelopes—battered from a long journey, marked with foreign stamps, addressed to me in an unfamiliar hand. Standing in the lobby mailroom of my apartment building, keys in hand, bags on my shoulder, I would tear the parcel open to find out what was inside and then walk to the elevator and all the way to my front door without looking up, furiously scanning the enclosed pages trying to decipher what I had just received. Sometimes the packages contained long-awaited copies of diaries; a few times, I opened them to find letters from strangers who had learned of my work from mutual colleagues or friends, and who had taken pains to copy and send a handwritten diary that I had never known existed.
Although the research and discovery of diaries were exciting, the process as a whole was deeply personal and often difficult, for it involved grappling with the intellectual, moral, and emotional problems these writings raised. I continued to work on and off at the Holocaust Museum during these years, except for a short time beginning in 1994 when I left Washington to pursue my master’s degree in education and then briefly taught writing at a small college in Boston. There were fits and starts, setbacks, detours, and at least one attempt to abandon the project altogether. But the material had taken hold and refused to let go. In 1998, I had made enough progress to present a proposal for the book to an editor at Yale University Press. We signed a contract for publication the following year, and I left my job at the Holocaust Museum permanently, to set up shop in my home office, where I would spend the next two years turning the mass of rough translations, scribbled notes, unanswered questions, and half-formed ideas into a book.
As I gathered and sifted through diaries, setting aside the ones that didn’t fit into the scope of my project, I began to struggle with the genre. How to understand the meaning of these texts within the massive realm of Holocaust literature and scholarship? I didn’t want to see these writers as “other Anne Franks,” nor did I want to apply the perennially positive and hopeful framework that hung around her diary to the ones that I was reading. To do so rang false and offended my sense of grief for their suffering and deaths. I tackled this problem in the introduction to the book, critiquing the habit of mind that leads us to read young writers’ diaries as symbols of lost lives rather than as complicated and legitimate contributions to the historical and literary record of the Holocaust. I aimed not only to bring more young writers’ Holocaust diaries into the public discourse but also to present the whole—including Anne Frank’s powerful and endlessly interesting words—within a framework that reflects the inherent value of the diaries, rather than the reader’s wish for a comforting coda to the stories.
Salvaged Pages was published in 2002. The long and difficult work was over, and I expected that the book would have a typical life span, generating some interest for a while and then tapering off. All too soon, it would be time to decide what to do next.
And then, something unexpected happened. Within several months of the book’s publication, I began getting calls not from bookstores or reviewers but from teachers, organizers of educators’ conferences, and Jewish community leaders who organized local Holocaust education. They wanted to know if I would come to speak about Salvaged Pages, to show teachers how to use it in the classroom, and to share how it could complement instruction on Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl. At first, I accepted these invitations with hesitation. Holocaust education in the United States was in a state of transition; although educators at the USHMM and elsewhere were working to establish and disseminate a responsible methodology for teaching the subject in an American context, there were not yet widely adopted standards and best practices. Likewise, those who labored to bring Holocaust education into their schools and communities did not share identical educational aims. Many times, I met teachers and volunteers who were driven by an emotional, and often personal, connection to the Holocaust, which often came with a moral imperative to convey a fixed set of “lessons” to the next generation. A great many people, when faced with the overwhelming breadth of the subject matter, abandoned its historical specificity in favor of generalities and, all too often, clichés about “man’s inhumanity to man” and the like. Methodology and educational rationale could be equally uneven in schools. Whereas in one, the Holocaust was used as a point of entry for vague lessons about “tolerance,” in another, students read Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl and regurgitated well-worn phrases about “hope for humanity” and the “triumph of the human spirit” to the satisfaction of their teachers and school administrators. In still another, misguided instructors used punitive methods to teach the history, forcing students to “reenact” the Holocaust by requiring them to “experience” the suffering of the victims or even carry out oppressive tactics against one another. As I accepted more and more speaking engagements at educator conferences, in schools, at Jewish community centers, and in synagogues, I found myself in the thick of this emerging and changing field.
Now, thirteen years after the first edition’s publication, I have traveled across the United States, teaching the book in a dizzying number of cities. My memories of these places exist as a study in contrasts. One week, I am standing at a podium in a posh, hushed auditorium in a wealthy private school in California with students quietly typing into laptops; the next, I am in a cavernous auditorium with eight hundred rowdy middle schoolers in Tucson, Arizona, when a student stands up to ask me, “Do you speak Jew?” I am speaking to a group of young Orthodox women students from Yeshiva University, all with their heads covered, in long sleeves and skirts, and I am in an inner-city classroom with water stains and peeling plaster, where fights break out in the halls and students look at me with suspicion, doubting my ability to say anything of interest or meaning to them. I am in a nondescript conference center reading a difficult diary entry about Jews who profited from fellow victims to survive in the ghetto when a rabbi takes me to task for dishonoring the memory of the dead. I am in a room filled to capacity with Christians and Jews at the Mobile Public Library in Alabama, then in the hauntingly beautiful Jewish synagogue in Birmingham, and later in a small conference center in Monroeville, with sixty non-Jewish teachers, where the group says grace before eating and thanks Jesus for our food. I’ve met with students in small suburban school libraries, on parochial school campuses, in progressive charter school classrooms, and in rural community schools where no one has met a Jew, let alone learned the traditions, culture, and religion of the Holocaust’s primary victims. I have been in a lot of sterile conference centers and tired hotel ballrooms, where teachers come for the day and animate the space with their questions, their observations, and their deep engagement with the subject matter and its potential for students.
In every context, every time, whether I am with students or teachers, whether they know a little or a lot, we approach the diaries in the same basic way. We open the book and read diary entries aloud, lingering over the words and letting our questions bubble up. Our observations lead us to reflection, to contemplation, and to deeper understanding. Sometimes we discuss the historical reality of Nazi oppression in a particular place and time; sometimes we delve into the bottomless permutations of hunger and its reductive, devastating impact on the body, mind, and spirit; and sometimes we talk about hope, faith, and despair, or about shame, resentment, and anger, or about survival and loss. We talk about evil and God and ask who is responsible. We talk about Anne Frank and why her diary was read the way it was, and how to rethink it. The diaries never fail to provoke thoughts and questions; individually, they break down the Holocaust experience into moments that reflect the complexity of a life; taken together, they offer complementary and sometimes contradictory accounts that defy simplification and generalization. And although these texts cannot restore the lives of their writers or redeem their deaths, they can and do preserve memory and complicate, in the best possible way, our understanding of this historical past.
With these thoughts in mind, I traveled to Israel for the first time to speak at Yad Vashem’s Ninth International Educator’s Conference. In the week before the conference, I met and interviewed Sarah Kalivatsch, the first cousin of Yitskhok Rudashevski, and the following day, Leah Levy and Rebecca Schweber, two of Moshe Flinker’s sisters. They had all survived the Holocaust, and they remain the only living links to these writers. In each interview, we sat together for hours as I asked question after question, trying to revive sixty-year-old memories, to catch a glimpse of Yitskhok and Moshe, not as the writers I have known through their words, but as the boys they were at the time. The following week, during a morning plenary session, in an imposing auditorium filled with 450 educators from all over the world, I read from the diary that Moshe kept while passing as a non-Jew in occupied Belgium. More than any other writer, he wrote passionately about the promise of Jewish redemption and voiced his dreams of escaping oppression in occupied Europe for life in a Jewish homeland.
Each time I stand to [pray] I direct my whole soul to my lovely land, and I see it before my eyes; I see the coast, I see Tel Aviv, Jaffa, and Haifa. Then I see Jerusalem, with the Mount of Olives, and I see the Jordan as it flows from Lebanon to the Dead Sea. [. . .] Several times already I have asked myself whether I will ever get the chance to stand on its holy earth, if the Lord will permit me to walk about in my land. Oh, how my soul yearns for you, my homeland, how my eyes crave for the sight of you, my country, the Land of Israel.
Once again, the old words become new, as I see Tel Aviv, Jaffa, and Jerusalem not as the tourist I have been all week but through Moshe’s eyes as a devout Jew and a Zionist before the State of Israel even existed. And as I read—the morning after Hamas launched its first rockets into Jerusalem, beginning yet another war—half-expecting an air raid at any time, I remember that Moshe did not just dream of Israel but taught himself Arabic in hiding so that he could become a diplomat there after the war. It was a difficult and laborious effort but a necessary one, he wrote, for to ensure peace in Israel, he would need to “be able to speak with our brothers, the sons of Ishmael, who are also Abraham’s descendants.” Moshe did not live to walk on Israel’s “holy earth,” nor did he ever speak with its Arab inhabitants in their native tongue in search of understanding and peace. He was deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau and ultimately to Bergen-Belsen, where he succumbed to typhus instead. But on that perfect, clear morning in Jerusalem, as his words reverberated at Yad Vashem, they became more than his alone; to them, we added our own lament for the dream accomplished that he did not live to see, despair for the elusive promise of peace, and grief for all that was lost in his death.
I thought I had plumbed the depths of these diaries in the years it took to assemble Salvaged Pages. But these experiences over more than a decade have taught me that there is no bottom. They are not static texts but dynamic ones that continue to provoke original reflection by readers in their own particular time and places. As such, we read them not only to shed light on the historical past but also to illuminate our own morally complicated present. And perhaps, in the best of circumstances, they take us one step further by shifting, or even shaping what we think and believe and feel. There is no telling what good may come of that. At the end of the day, the words these writers labored to produce as refugees, in hiding, and in ghetto throughout Nazi Europe continue to reverberate among readers, posing new questions, challenging assumptions, and sparking dialogue about the Holocaust and what it means to be human.