The diary of Rywka Lipszyc (pronounced Rif-ka Lip-shitz) is a remarkable document not only for its content but for the fact that it has come to be published 70 years after its initial discovery. In the spring of 1945, Zinaida Berezovskaya, a Russian doctor accompanying the Soviet liberation forces, arrived at Auschwitz-Birkenau, where she found the well-preserved diary near the ruins of Crematorium III.
The doctor kept the diary in her possession until her death in 1983. In 1995 Berezovskaya’s granddaughter brought it to San Francisco, where she had emigrated four years earlier.
In 2014, the document was edited and published by San Francisco’s Jewish Family and Children’s Services, translated from Polish by Malgorzata Markoff with annotations by Ewa Wiatr. Last year HarperCollins republished it as “Rywka’s Diary: The Writings of a Jewish Girl from the Lodz Ghetto, Found at Auschwitz in 1945 and Published Seventy Years Later.” The HarperCollins edition includes historical and biographical essays and commentary.
Rywka Lipszyc was born on Sept. 15, 1929. During the six months that she was writing in her diary, she was a 14-year-old orphan living in the ghetto of Lodz, Poland, with her younger sister, Cipka, and three cousins, young women ranging in age from 17 to 20. In September 1942, the Nazis took her youngest sister, Tamarcia, and her brother Abramek to Chelmno, the death camp where they were both murdered.
We know that Rywka was shipped by cattle car to Auschwitz-Birkenau when the Lodz ghetto was liquidated in August 1944. She was sent from Auschwitz to Christianstadt, a women’s hard labor camp. Then, as the war was drawing to a close, she was forced to march to Bergen-Belsen. After the British liberated Bergen-Belsen, they transferred Rywka, who was gravely ill at the time, to a hospital in Niendorf on the German coast of the Baltic Sea, 18 miles north of Lubeck. The last bit of documentation we have concerning Rywka is a notation on the Displaced Persons record indicating that she was transferred from Bergen-Belsen to the Niendorf hospital on July 25, 1945. After that, she vanishes without a trace.
Had it not been for the publication of her diary 70 years after its discovery, Rywka would have remained one of the nameless 6,000,000. The diary, written in the Lodz ghetto from Oct. 3, 1943, to April 12, 1944, has brought this young Orthodox Jewish girl back to life.
Rywka documents the hardships of living in the crowded slum-like ghetto, which the Nazis had sealed off from the outside world on April 30, 1940. The young girl details her daily suffering and the suffering of those around her: the torments of ever-increasing starvation, rampant disease, the brutality of their Nazi oppressors, and – worst of all – the continuing threat of deportation to one of the death camps.
Rywka sees the grinding poverty in the ghetto reducing its inhabitants to mere animals. In her diary entry on March 21, 1944, she gives voice to her outrage that people have been stealing food from her household: “Because of starvation in the ghetto people steal food from other people when they are working or when they aren’t at home. ... When I thought that it (stealing other people’s food) was murder – worse: a slow killing of somebody, making him die slowly – when I thought about it, I was so furious about ‘him’ or ‘her’ that if they had been at hand, I’d tear them to pieces. Animal instincts...”
Again and again, Rywka fights to preserve her sense of human dignity. She rebels against the Nazi’s attempts to turn her into an inanimate machine, whose only task is to work or die. Feb. 7, 1944: “It hurts so much (for them we are not humans, just machines) ... But, I’m glad that I can ‘feel’ that it hurts because as long as it hurts, I’m a human being. I can feel...”
In addition to documenting her external surroundings, Rywka also pays close attention to her inner life, her wide swings in emotion, so typical of adolescents – even those who are fortunate enough to live in tranquil times within the protective embrace of loving families. On Nov. 24, 1943, she writes: “I’m sick of life ... Oh, dear God, when is it going to end? I don’t want to live at all. I have but one thought, ‘What a pity that Jews are not allowed to kill themselves.’ ”
Contrast such depth of despair with her buoyant exuberance on April 3, 1944: “Youth! Youth full of life. Something in me was calling. God ... I only know that I want to live! I want to live!!!”
As an Orthodox Jewish girl, Rywka is able to maintain some measure of emotional and spiritual balance in the face of overwhelming obstacles because of her firm faith in God. Feb. 2, 1944: “I love God so much! I can always and everywhere rely on God, but I have to help a little since nothing is going to happen by itself ...”
How does Rywka help herself a little? By turning to her diary. Jan. 7, 1944: “Oh, to write, to write, as long as I breathe / About everything, my diary.” On more than one occasion Rywka addresses her diary as if she is a living person, who “must be feeling sad, because you have to absorb so many sorrows.” (March 23, 1944).
It seems altogether fitting – and altogether ironic – that the last sentence of Rywka’s diary, composed on Wednesday, April 12, 1944, is never completed: “For now, I’m glad about this turn of events, because I was born in 1927 (In fact, she was born in 1929), but actually ...”
What caused Rywka to stop writing in mid-sentence, when she had so much more to say? We will never know. Nor will we know what Rywka Lipszyc might have achieved had her life not been cut short – a life filled with youthful dreams that would never come true.
JAMES B. ROSENBERG is rabbi emeritus at Temple Habonim in Barrington. Contact him at email@example.com.