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Warsaw diary offers fascinating look into Jewish girls’ prewar life
Girls dubbed diary ‘book of life,’ and wrote about their friendship, pains of adolescence, Zionist education, Hebrew language studies, and longing for Israel. In the end, only one of them survived Holocaust.
By Ofer Aderet | Apr.07, 2013 | 3:21 AM | 3
“Today there is Hebrew day,” Bracha Kuszmierz wrote in her elegant notebook, one day in 1929. Later on, she writes (in Polish), “The voices could be heard already since the morning. Everyone must speak Hebrew, those are Chaim’s instructions. Whoever cannot speak Hebrew it would be better if they didn’t speak at all, certainly not in Polish. We must make an effort to use only the ‘iwryt’ language and hence, those who don’t know [to speak] kept their mouths shut tight.”
There are 205 pages in this notebook, filled with elegantly written Polish − the work of Jewish, Zionist teenage girls who lived in Warsaw a decade before the outbreak of World War II. Bracha, then a young teenager, was just one of the girls who wrote in the notebook, but she apparently was the only one who survived the Holocaust. All the girls were friends at a Warsaw group called Yotztrot (Creators), belonging to the left-wing Zionist youth movement Hashomer Hatzair. Between 1929 and 1930 they wrote in the notebook, in effect a diary, which they dubbed the “book of life.”
The girls wrote about different topics: the friendships among the girls in the group; the pains of adolescence; Zionist education; Hebrew language studies; and the future awaiting them in the land of Israel, the object of their dreams. Leafing through the notebook occasionally reveals some words written in Hebrew next to drawings, pictures, dried flowers, thoughts and slogans like “Hazak v’amatz” (“be strong and brave”).
“This book remained in my home for a long time. When I brought it, everyone delighted in it as in an old, beloved and precious friend one meets after many years. Or it reminds one of a pair of lovers who fall into each other’s arms, joyful at the thrilling meeting,” Bracha wrote in the notebook. “Or a better allegory, when two parents meet their children whom they have not seen for a long time. In this book we see ourselves. How lovely it is to leaf through the book. There is nothing earth-shattering in it, it does not even seem to have served as a ‘life book,’ but look closely: In it each of us is seen clearly, each one ‘breathes’ in it, and it is not surprising that through it we can observe each of our lives.”
The troop’s counselor, Roma, immigrated to Mandate-era Palestine in 1930. At the farewell party her scouts presented her with this volume, which was well preserved in Eretz Israel. Bracha and the other girls remained in Poland. After the Nazis’ ascent to power and the invasion of Poland, Bracha and her family lived within the confines of the Warsaw Ghetto. In the summer of 1942 her parents were deported to Treblinka, where they were killed.
Bracha survived in the ghetto thanks to her work as a seamstress in a German factory. “She owned a treasure, a sewing machine,” said her daughter, Esti Katz. After the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in 1943, Bracha fled the ghetto through the sewer tunnels. Fleeing with her was her sister, Manya, and her brother-in-law, Stefan (Shalom) Grajek, who went on to become one of the founders of Kibbutz Lohamei Hageta’ot.
They hid in an apartment in the “Aryan” side of the city. At some point the sisters were separated. Manya found refuge in an abandoned celluloid factory in the Praga quarter, together with a number of other fighters, including Eliezer Geller, one of the leaders of the uprising, and Tosia Altman, who fought in the revolt. She died in a fire that broke out in the factory on May 24, 1943.
Bracha was captured at a later stage and sent first to the Majdenek extermination camp, then to Auschwitz, and then, on the Death March, to Bergen-Belsen. She met her future husband, Benjamin Mondschein, in the Landsberg displaced persons camp, where their daughter Ester was born. In 1948 they immigrated to Israel.
The family moved to the Haifa suburb of Kiryat Haim. One day, in the mid-1950s, while strolling along the beach, Bracha ran into Roma, her old scout leader from Warsaw. They rekindled their friendship, and at one point Roma gave the notebook to Bracha.
“Occasionally we would take it out and browse through it, but it was only when I grew up that I suddenly understood the significance of this notebook,” said Bracha’s daughter, Esti. “It was only then that I realized it documents the vibrant Jewish life before the war, that it tells of ordinary people, who dreamed and loved. And then the story took on great meaning for me.”
When her mother was on her deathbed, around three years ago, Esti gave the notebook to the archives of the Ghetto Fighters’ House museum, at Kibbutz Lohamei Hageta’ot. The notebook was scanned and uploaded, while the original is preserved in the archives.
“I donated it to the archive because its pages began to yellow and to fade, and it needs to be kept in better conditions than at home,” Esti said.