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

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

Jun 2023 | Jewish Peoplehood

Ensuring the continuity of Jewish peoplehood has always been one of the Koret Foundation’s priorities. Central to our commitment is preserving and honoring the history of Jewish communities. We first wrote in 2017 about the discovery and publication of Rywka Lipszyc’s diary and the museum exhibition it inspired in Kraków. The Girl in the Diary: Searching for Rywka from the Łódź Ghetto has since traveled to five cities in the US as well as to Germany, Ireland, Japan, and South Africa. The panel version of the exhibition has been presented at over ten venues across Poland, including the Museum of the Former German Kulmhof Death Camp in Chełmno. Rywka’s diary continues to resonate, and we want to share the ongoing story.

Seventy-eight years after the end of World War II, the number of Jewish Holocaust survivors is dwindling rapidly, while Holocaust denial is swelling across social media. In the US, many adults have “significant gaps in knowledge of the Holocaust.” A report commissioned by the Conference on Jewish Materials Claims Against Germany, published in 2018, found that among millennials (ages 18–34), almost 25 percent of respondents either hadn’t heard, or were unsure whether they had heard, of the Holocaust.  

First-hand accounts from survivors are a powerful tool in educating both Jews and non-Jews. Also valuable, and extremely rare, are personal accounts from those who did not survive. Anne Frank was not the only young Jewish girl who kept a diary during WWII to express her thoughts and feelings. Fortunately, miraculously, her diary survived the Holocaust—and continues to engage the minds and spirits of children and adults around the world. 

In 2010, the diary of another young Jewish girl, Rywka Lipszyc, came to light and found a champion in San Francisco. The diary provides a framework not only for teaching history but also for discussing faith and resistance, personal conscience and civic duty, in the context of the Holocaust and today. Holocaust education is far more than facts about an event in the past; it’s a means to inspire students to have the moral courage to speak out against injustice. 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.  

The diary also inspired a hugely successful 2017 exhibition at the Galicia Jewish Museum in Krakow, Poland, titled The Girl in the Diary: Searching for Rywka from the Łódź Ghetto. The exhibition then traveled to the US, opening at the Jewish Museum Milwaukee just weeks before the March 2020 pandemic lockdown. When cultural institutions were able to re-open, Rywka spent the fall of 2021 at the Holocaust Memorial Center, outside of Detroit, engaging local audiences and media, as well as inspiring Zoom presentations that represent a permanent contribution to Holocaust history. The diary of Rywka Lipszyc, originally written in Polish, has been translated and published in English and 18 other languages.

The exhibition traveled to Buffalo and Dallas in 2022. It is traveling to Illinois and Ohio in 2023, and to Florida in 2024. Notably, not all of the venues are Jewish institutions.   

The diary of Rywka Lipszyc was discovered in the ruins of the crematorium at Auschwitz in 1945.
The diary of Rywka Lipszyc, originally written in Polish (at right), has also been translated and published in French (left), English (center) and 16 other languages.
Kraków, Summer 2017: Publicity in Kraków’s main market square for the exhibition at the Galicia Jewish Museum.
Kraków, Summer 2017: Jakub Nowakowski, executive director of the Galicia Jewish Museum (center), offers visitors insights about Rywka’s diary.
Kraków, Summer 2017: Photos of the Łódź Ghetto are continuously projected, taken in the early 1940s by two “residents” of the ghetto and a German non-Jewish accounting clerk.

Auschwitz, 1945: Seeing the light of day

Rywka Lipszyc’s diary was rescued in the spring of 1945, from 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. 

Teenaged Rywka Lipszyc had begun her diary in October 1943. She had been subsisting in the Jewish ghetto in Łódź (pronounced “Ludge”), 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. 

We do not know exactly what happened to Rywka at the end of the War, as no documentation has been found confirming her death. In one of the final entries in her diary, Rywka imagines herself as an older woman, sitting at a table in a dimly lit room, telling young people her story. She wrote, “I’m telling them stories and I can see their surprised eyes. It’s boggling their minds that something like that could happen.” Through the determination of Dr. Anita Friedman in San Francisco, Rywka’s story is available to people across the world. 

San Francisco, 2010: Ensuring a future for the diary

More than 60 years later, Dr. Berezovskaya’s granddaughter visited Moscow from her home in California. Among her deceased grandmother’s papers, she rediscovered the notebook, still in its special envelope. She brought the packet with her back to San Francisco, resolved to find out what the notebook was and where it belonged. 

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 Łódź Ghetto began to gain momentum. The JFCS Holocaust Center, under Dr. Friedman’s stewardship, has leveraged the diary’s value as a teaching tool. The Center developed a curriculum that includes workshops for educators and resource guides for teachers, and this is being used in Holocaust education around the world.  

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, 2017: Bringing Rywka’s story to life in Poland

In June 2017, The Girl in the Diary: Searching for Rywka from the Łódź Ghetto, opened at the Galicia Jewish Museum in Krakow for a nine-month run. It attracted the largest opening month attendance in the museum’s history and was ultimately seen by almost 50,000 visitors from more than 30 countries. The Koret Foundation was honored to be a major sponsor of the exhibition, and our commitment to telling this story is ongoing.  

The museum, established in 2004, commemorates the victims of the Holocaust and celebrates 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. 

Jakub Nowakowski, executive director of the museum, described his team’s approach to developing the exhibition, “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.” 

Nowakowski also emphasized that the story presented in the exhibition is primarily that of women, elaborating: “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 women to provide the exhibition’s commentary, including a rabbi, a physician, a psychologist, and several academics. In tandem, 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 kindly left us some of her most inner thoughts and feelings in a crucial moment of history; her voice is one of millions of others we will never know.”

Visitor responses to “The Girl in the Diary” exhibition

The Jewish Museum Milwaukee

“Dear Rywka, If only you knew that people all over the world are searching to find out what became of your fate. I believe that somehow you know.... Your words are now being shared worldwide.... May your story live on forever.”

Visitor responses to “The Girl in the Diary” exhibition

The Jewish Museum Milwaukee

“We need to read, see, feel it. We need this so we aren’t influenced by others’ re-writing of history. If we read, see, and feel it we won’t allow ourselves to deny it and won’t let it happen again.”

Visitor responses to “The Girl in the Diary” exhibition

The Jewish Museum Milwaukee

Rywka in America, 2020–onward: Traveling from coast to coast

Jakub Nowakowski comments, “Our team designed the exhibition to make it easier to travel it internationally after its presentation in Krakow.” The exhibition’s central glass multi-media table is modular; the text on the glass is a series of removable stickers, originally in English and Polish, replaced with English-only for US audiences. Nowakowski adds, “The scenography is key, it’s a highly specific environment rather than simply an installation.” 

In the fall of 2017, a delegation of five Jewish museum professionals from around the US toured The Girl in the Diary in Krakow. Curator Molly Dubin of the Jewish Museum Milwaukee (JMM) was among them, and she recalls, “One of the main things that attracted me is the importance of the personal narrative. You had these very personal writings, all about Rywka trying to come of age in this terrifying situation, juxtaposed with actual artifacts from the Łódź ghetto, and things that had been dug up from the killing site at Chelmno. Plus, there’s this great aspect of research, of reconstructing.” 

The Girl in the Diary opened at the JMM in January 2020, but had to close halfway through its scheduled run, due to the pandemic. Education director Ellie Gettinger and videographer Cassie A. Sacotte, JMM’s special events and programs coordinator, recorded a 15-minute walk-through of the exhibition for conducting virtual tours. Gettinger comments, “It’s also a permanent record of the exhibition, and the video has now been viewed over 1,300 times. That said, what you can’t experience remotely is the meditative aspect of being in that room.” 

Dubin adds, “We had a ‘library corner’ set up with related books and a response section with a little booklet we provided where visitors could write what they felt about Rywka and her diary and why it was important to read and share her story. We had a bookcase where everyone who wanted to could display their booklets to be picked up and read by other visitors. The reflections were deep, attesting to the impact of the exhibition.” 

Gettinger observes, “Helping students put themselves in Rywka’s shoes brought a much deeper level of understanding. I think the pandemic, and the restrictions on everyone’s physical ‘freedoms,’ have actually caused young people—who have so many ways to communicate with their friends—to think about what it meant for Rywka to be so cut off.”  

In the fall of 2021, The Girl in the Diary: Searching for Rywka from the Łódź Ghetto opened at The Zekelman Holocaust Center (The HC) outside Detroit, Michigan. The HC’s mission is “to promote lessons of the Holocaust and how they apply today.” For Rywka’s four-month run at The HC, curator Mark Mulder and director of events & public relations Sarah Saltzman developed programs for the Center’s diverse audiences: current members and donors, the local community at large, and students from across Michigan and their parents. Mulder adds, “We want to make sure everything we do honors the memories and the lives of Holocaust victims and survivors. Hopefully, our visitors leave with a sense that ‘remembering’ is active, and that their memories can become something.” 

Saltzman comments that The Girl in the Diary has sparked many inquiries and received in-depth press coverage, despite lower than usual attendance due to Covid concerns. The HC’s rich exhibition-related programming has reached an international audience via Zoom. Videos are permanently available in the HC’s Past Events archive, further extending the Center’s emphasis on education and engagement. (Links and descriptions are provided at the end of this piece.) 

The Zekelman Holocaust Center is the first Holocaust center in the US. Detroit’s large Jewish community dates back to the 18th and 19th centuries.
Curator Mark Mulder leads a special tour through the first section of The Girl in the Diary. Photo courtesy: Jerry Zolynsky
WWII veteran Doug Harvey and Holocaust survivor Sophie Tajch Klisman, who was confined to the Łódź Ghetto during the same years as Rywka. Harvey was a member of the 84th Infantry Division that liberated Salzwedel, the third and final concentration camp Klisman survived. Photo courtesy: Jerry Zolynsky
The artifacts set in glass boxes beneath the table surface are on loan from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and the Jewish Historical Institute of Poland. Photo courtesy: Jerry Zolynsky

Nowakowski most recently attended the opening of The Girl in the Diary at the Illinois Holocaust Museum in Skokie, outside Chicago. He comments, Rywka looks wonderful in the museum’s special exhibitions gallery, which is quite large. The team has included some objects from the museum’s own collection, all relevant and meaningful. Also, the museum has produced all the exhibition texts both in English and in Polish, to attract Poles living in the Chicago area. A small group of Holocaust survivors from Łódź were present at the opening, which was particularly moving.” 

At the Illinois Holocaust Museum, all the exhibition text appears in both English and Polish.
On the floor, a huge schematic of the Łódź Ghetto starkly depicts the separation of the residents from life outside the ghetto.
The exhibition follows Rywka’s physical diary, from the Łódź Ghetto, to Auschwitz, to Moscow, to San Francisco.

Rywka’s actual diary has had a long journey. We will never know exactly how it survived the Holocaust. What we do know is where the diary has come to rest. In 2015, the descendants of Zinaida Berezovskaya, the Soviet doctor who had discovered the diary 70 years earlier, formally gifted the notebook 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. Award-winning filmmaker Yoav Potash is also producing a feature-length documentary film about Rywka’s diary, entitled “Diary from the Ashes.”

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. The exhibition based on her diary provides a powerful visual experience for visitors of all ages and levels of familiarity with the Holocaust. Rywka’s story is our collective story.