Rywka’s Diary: Giving voice to an ordinary girl in extraordinary circumstances

Jewish Peoplehood

Rywka’s Diary: Giving voice to an ordinary girl in extraordinary circumstances

Jewish Peoplehood

Ensuring the continuity of Jewish peoplehood has always been one of Koret’s priorities. Preserving and honoring the history of Jewish communities is central to this commitment. Holocaust remembrance advocates and educators agree that first-hand accounts from survivors are the most powerful and memorable learning tool. As the horrors of World War II recede in current memory, and the number of Jewish Holocaust survivors continues to dwindle, education is increasingly vital.

A diary discovered 

Teenaged Rywka Lipszyc began a diary in October 1943. She had been subsisting in the Jewish ghetto in Lodz, Poland for over two years. She wrote in her diary until April 1944, and then the dated entries simply stopped. Throughout her writing, Rywka’s religious faith never wavered, providing her with great comfort, optimism, and the strength to maintain her religious practice in private.

The diary was found in the spring of 1945, among the ruins of the crematorium in Auschwitz, by Zinaida Berezovskaya, a doctor with the Soviet army. Dr. Berezovskaya carefully annotated a newspaper photograph of the destroyed crematorium to show exactly where she had found the stained, worn notebook. After a time she abandoned her efforts to have the diary translated, and placed it in a beautiful envelope for safekeeping. More than 60 years later, in 2008, the doctor’s granddaughter, visiting Moscow from her home in California, discovered the notebook among her deceased grandmother’s papers, still in its special envelope. She took the packet with her back to San Francisco, resolved to find out what the notebook was and where it belonged.

Pages from the diary of Rywka Lipszyc.
Rywka Lipszyc's Lodz ghetto registration card. (Courtesy of Archiwum Panstowoe w Lodz)

Rwyka’s diary finds a champion 

In 2010, Dr. Anita Friedman, executive director of Jewish Family and Children’s Services (JFCS) in San Francisco—and a daughter of Holocaust survivors—was presented with an old, tattered school notebook. (Dr. Friedman is also a president of the Koret Foundation.) And almost immediately, the project to understand and ultimately publish the notebook’s contents as Rywka’s Diary: The Writings of a Jewish Girl from the Lodz Ghetto began to gain momentum. Subsequently, Rywka’s diary took on a larger life, inspiring a museum exhibition, extensive educational tools, and 15 foreign-language editions.

When I first saw the notebook, I sensed the power that the mysterious volume contained, even though I don’t understand Polish. Why was this notebook in San Francisco? Who had written these words? The writer had carefully penned 112 pages, now yellowed and stained. I could touch them, but what did they say?

Dr. Anita Friedman, Executive Director of Jewish Family and Children’s Services in San Francisco

Excerpts from the epilogue to the Polish-language edition of Rywka’s Diary

When I read Rywka’s diary in English translation, I understood why the Torah teaches us that words spoken from the heart enter the heart. Having lost my own sister in Treblinka in 1943, I felt that Rywka was speaking to me ... and I wanted to allow her to speak to posterity.

Dr. Anita Friedman, Executive Director of Jewish Family and Children’s Services in San Francisco

Excerpts from the epilogue to the Polish-language edition of Rywka’s Diary

How could such a moving manuscript be produced by a child whose formal education ended when she was about 11 years old? The secret is in its complete, intimate honesty. She was just one of hundreds of thousands of young Jews who felt similarly, but left behind neither names nor a record of their lives.  Rywka speaks for all of them.

Dr. Anita Friedman, Executive Director of Jewish Family and Children’s Services in San Francisco

Excerpts from the epilogue to the Polish-language edition of Rywka’s Diary

At 14 years of age, Rywka imagines herself as an older woman, sitting at a table in a dimly lit room, warm, telling young people her story. She writes, “I’m telling them stories and I can see their surprised eyes. It’s boggling their minds that something like that could happen.”

Dr. Anita Friedman, Executive Director of Jewish Family and Children’s Services in San Francisco

Excerpts from the epilogue to the Polish-language edition of Rywka’s Diary

I also wanted to publish Rywka’s diary for the survivors. One of their deepest fears is that the memory of one of the greatest crimes in human history will fade. The publication of the diary has inspired 15 foreign language editions, a theatre production, and an extraordinary museum exhibition. A full-length documentary will be released in 2019.

Dr. Anita Friedman, executive director of Jewish Family and Children’s Services

Excerpts from the epilogue to the Polish-language edition of Rywka’s Diary

The enthusiastic reception Rywka’s story has received around the globe—in a world plagued by hate, anti-Semitism, racism, and genocide—must give us great hope. Through Rywka’s eyes, we see the truth, both the worst and the best of what human beings are capable of.

Dr. Anita Friedman, Executive Director of Jewish Family and Children’s Services in San Francisco

Excerpts from the epilogue to the Polish-language edition of Rywka’s Diary

The Jewish Family and Children’s Services Holocaust Center, under Dr. Friedman’s stewardship, has leveraged the diary’s value as a teaching tool. The Center’s original curriculum, including workshops for educators and resource guides for teachers, is being used in Holocaust education around the world, providing a framework for discussing faith and resistance, personal conscience and civic duty, in the context of the Holocaust and today. A story like Rywka’s helps teach students to discern, discuss, stand on the strength of their convictions—and to respect the convictions of others. Holocaust teaching is not just about an event in the past; it’s also essential to inspire students to have the moral courage to speak out against injustice.

Dr. Friedman has spoken about Rywka’s Diary all over the world. A full-length documentary of the story of Rywka’s diary is in final production, slated for global distribution in 2019. Dr. Friedman observes, “The diary’s popularity is an international phenomenon, and further underscores the strong present interest to learn about the past in order to prepare for the future.”

  • Krakow: Bringing Rywka’s story to life at the Galicia Jewish Museum

    The Galicia Jewish Museum in Krakow was established in 2004 to commemorate the victims of the Holocaust and to celebrate the Jewish culture of Polish Galicia. The museum’s exhibitions, educational programs, and cultural activities present Jewish history from a new perspective, seeking to dispel stereotypes and misconceptions typically associated with Jewish life in Poland.

    In June 2017, The Girl in the Diary: Searching for Rywka from the Łódź Ghetto, opened at the museum for a nine-month run. It attracted the largest opening month attendance in the museum’s history and was ultimately seen by 48,506 visitors (from more than 30 countries).

    “Searching” is a key theme of the exhibition: no photos of Rywka are known to exist, nor does any documentation of her death; all that remains of her short life is her diary. Jakub Nowakowski, executive director of the Galicia Jewish Museum, comments, “We do not know what Rywka looked like. We do not know how she smiled, or how she expressed sadness. The only portrait of her is the one that emerges from her own words. Unable to visually portray Rywka, we decided that all characters represented in photos at the exhibition would also remain anonymous.”

    Enlargements of photographs taken by the three most prolific photographers of the Łódź ghetto form a dramatic part of the exhibition, capturing in stark relief what Rywka saw and experienced. Two of the three, Henryk Ross and Mendel Grossman, were “residents” of the ghetto who took thousands of photographs at mortal peril to themselves and their families, then stored and secreted them—an invaluable example of resistance within the ghetto.

    Nowakowski points out that the story presented in the exhibition is primarily that of women. He elaborates: “Rywka and her female cousins fought to survive, first in the Łódź ghetto and then in the concentration camps in occupied Poland, Austria, and Germany. The world we know from Rywka’s diary is a world of women—their relationships, their pain and longing, their courage and daily struggle, their fears and hopes. When we started to work on this exhibition, we became deeply moved by this feminist perspective.” To honor this, Nowakowski and his team invited only women to provide the exhibition’s commentary, including a rabbi, a physician, a psychologist, and several academics.

    The museum’s education department developed workshops that aimed to “inspire reflection on the fate of Rywka and the many other victims of the Holocaust whose names we do not know, people of whom there are no photographs or documents.” Rywka represents all those who perished, their lost hopes and dreams.

    The exhibition will travel internationally. Its next two confirmed venues are the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City (opening in September 2018) and the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco (2019). The JFCS Holocaust Center is partnering to develop the educational programming and curricula for these and future exhibitions.

  • Warsaw: Training educators with Rywka’s Diary

    The POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews opened in Warsaw in 2014 to tell the story of the 1,000 years of Jewish history in Poland. The museum’s education center plays a key role in advancing the institution’s mission: to preserve the past and to shape the future.

    The center’s staff has taken the lead in developing Polish-language educational materials inspired by Rywka’s diary. The first step, of course, was to publish the diary in Polish. The Diary of Rywka Lipszyc, edited by Ewa Wiatr, was published in October 2017, and promptly received Polityka magazine’s prestigious Historical Award in the diaries and memoirs category.

    Monika Kosynska, Head of the POLIN’s Teachers’ Section, comments, “Rywka, a girl who found herself in an extremely dangerous and humiliating situation, kept her faith as a shield against the Nazis. Her ‘spiritual resistance’ is an excellent denial of the perception that Jews went like lambs to the slaughter.” Kosynska adds, “We designed materials to promote thinking and discussion about taking action to ensure a better future.”

    The Association of the Jewish Historical Institute of Poland partnered with the POLIN Museum to design digital materials that use the diary as a basis for teacher-led activities to develop critical thinking skills and historical empathy—not only in history classes, but in Polish language and civics courses as well. Teachers are able to build on the Rywka’s diary story using testimonies from the USC Shoah Foundation’s IWitness portal.

    A month after the publication of Rywka’s Diary in Polish, the USC Shoah Foundation held an inaugural iTeach professional development seminar in Lodz, attended by 26 high school humanities teachers from across the city. The day’s focus was a newly developed IWitness activity, “The will to survive in hell,” about the Jewish population’s civil and spiritual resistance during the Holocaust, using Rywka’s diary as one example.

Fence surrounding the Lodz ghetto and German warning sign. (Courtesy of Yad Vashem Photo Archive, Archival signature 4062/311)
Jewish girls studying together in the Lodz ghetto. (Courtesy of Archiwum Panstowoe w Lodzi, Archival Signature 1109:71-2369)
The Galicia Jewish Museum's exhibition of The Girl in the Diary: Searching for Rywka from the Lodz Ghetto
The Galicia Jewish Museum's exhibition of The Girl in the Diary: Searching for Rywka from the Lodz Ghetto
The Galicia Jewish Museum's exhibition of The Girl in the Diary: Searching for Rywka from the Lodz Ghetto
Lodz teachers at the USC Shoah Foundation's iTeach seminar, learning from Rywka’s diary on the IWitness portal.

It has now been 73 years since the end of the Holocaust. A study released in the spring of 2018, commissioned by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, reported that many adults in the U.S. have “significant gaps in knowledge of the Holocaust.” Among millennials (ages 18–34), almost 25 percent of respondents either hadn’t heard, or were unsure whether they had heard, of the Holocaust.

This frightening statistic reaffirms the Koret Foundation’s commitment to Holocaust education for Jews and non-Jews. Rywka Lipszyc’s diary and the exhibitions and educational programs it has inspired serve to remind us of the dangers of anti-Semitism and xenophobia.

In 2015, the descendants of Zinaida Berezovskaya, the Soviet doctor who had discovered the diary 70 years earlier, formally gifted it to Rywka’s cousins in Israel, who have in turn entrusted it to Yad Vashem, Israel’s official memorial to the victims of the Holocaust. A million visitors every year will now be able to see this extraordinary artifact and learn about the “ordinary girl” who confided her anguish, her moments of joy, and her unwavering faith to her notebook. The publication of Rywka’s diary fulfills her dream of becoming a writer and illustrates the power of individual faith and strength in the face of evil. Rywka’s story is our collective story.

Epilogue from Rywka's Diary

By Dr. Anita Friedman

In 2010, I received an old and tattered school notebook, presented to me to decide if it might have some value. I could not understand Polish, but I suspected the power that the mysterious volume contained. Why was this notebook in San Francisco and who wrote these words? 

I turned over each of the 112 yellowed, stained pages, noting how every word was carefully penned, every page filled with them. Something had to be done to allow the writer to speak to posterity. That seemed to have been the author’s purpose.

After authenticating and translating the text, the identity of the 14-year-old author was revealed, along with her anguished and inspiring story. After extensive research, I also learned that the diary had been found buried near the crematoria in Auschwitz and that Rywka was found—still barely alive—in Bergen Belsen when the war ended in 1945.

When I read Rywka’s words in English translation, I understood why the Torah teaches us that words spoken from the heart enter the heart. Having lost my own sister in Treblinka in 1943, I felt that Rywka was speaking to me. You may feel this way too.

How could such a beautiful manuscript be produced by a child whose formal education ended when she was about 11 years old, when the Nazis invaded Poland? The secret is in its complete, intimate honesty. Rywka speaks unguardedly about the pleasures and pains of adolescence, her yearnings and vanishing dreams, deep family tensions and her feeling of being entirely alone in a murderous world—all feelings that remind me that Rywka was just one of hundreds of thousands of young Jews who felt similarly, but left behind neither names nor a record of their lives. Rywka speaks for all of them.

I decided to create this book—Rywka’s Diary—to make it possible for Rywka to speak to the world. She wanted to be a writer. This was her dream, and she even talks about this in her diary—at 14 years of age, she imagines herself as an older woman, sitting at a table in a barely lit room, warm, and telling young people her story. She writes, “I’m telling them stories and I can see their surprised eyes. It’s boggling their minds that something like that could happen.”  Rywka understood even then that young people want to hear the stories of old people who come from another world.

I also decided to publish Rywka’s diary for the survivors.  One of their greatest fears is that the memory of one of the greatest crimes in human history would fade.

With the worldwide enthusiastic reception of this book, the opposite appears to be happening. In the last few years alone, Rywka’s Diary has already been published in 15 languages, developed into a theater performance and a film, made into posters, and taught in schools on all continents using a Rywka’s Diary website designed for educators. An extraordinary museum exhibit was created to tell the story of the book’s creation; it will travel to museums in many major cities.  In a world plagued by hate, anti-Semitism, racism, and genocide, that gives us great hope.

Rywka’s emotional struggles resonate in the hearts of each of us, as we grope our way through an uncertain and often unkind world. Her words also give us hope because through her eyes we see the truth: we see both the worst and the best of what human beings are capable of.

The choice is ours.

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