VE Day Reader: A Polish Girl’s Holocaust Diary

Rutka Laskier and her baby brother in 1938. They were both murdered in Auschwitz in 1943.

Rutka Laskier and her baby brother in 1938. They were both murdered in Auschwitz in 1943.

A teenage Jewish girl living under the Nazis in Poland during 1943 feared she was “turning into an animal waiting to die”, according to her diary, which documents the final months before her death in the Auschwitz concentration camp.

Rutka Laskier, 14, the same age as the Dutch teenager Anne Frank, wrote the 60-page diary over a four-month period in Bedzin, Poland. The diary, published by Israel’s Holocaust museum, documents the steady collapse of the ghetto under the weight of the Nazi occupation and deportations, as well as the first loves, friendships and jealousies of an adolescent girl growing up during the war.

News of the concentration camps, including Auschwitz, and the brutal killings of Jews, filtered through to her.

Writing on February 5 1943, she said:

“I simply can’t believe that one day I will be allowed to leave this house without the yellow star. Or even that this war will end one day. If this happens I will probably lose my mind from joy.

“The little faith I used to have has been completely shattered. If God existed, he would have certainly not permitted that human beings be thrown alive into furnaces, and the heads of little toddlers be smashed with the butt of guns or be shoved into sacks and gassed to death.”

Later she wrote: “The rope around us is getting tighter and tighter. I’m turning into an animal waiting to die.” Her final entry is brief: “I’m very bored. The entire day I’m walking around the room. I have nothing to do.”

The last entry is dated April 24 1943, at which point she hid the notebook in the basement of the house her family were living in, a building that had been confiscated by the Nazis to be part of the Bedzin ghetto. In August that year, the teenager and her family were transported to the Auschwitz concentration camp and it is thought she was killed immediately.

The diary was found after the war by Stanislawa Sapinska, a Christian whose family owned the house lived in by the Laskiers, and who had met Rutka several times during the war.

Ms Sapinska, now in her late 80s, took the diary and kept it secret for more than 60 years until one of her nephews last year convinced her to present it to Yad Vashem, Israel’s national Holocaust museum and archive in Jerusalem.

“She wanted me to save the diary,” Ms Sapinska told the Associated Press. “She said ‘I don’t know if I will survive, but I want the diary to live on, so that everyone will know what happened to the Jews’.”

The diary was authenticated by Yad Vashem, which has now published it as Rutka’s Notebook, in Hebrew and English. Rutka’s father, Yaakov, was the only member of the family to survive the camp. He moved to Israel and had a new family. He died in 1986.

His daughter in Israel, Zahava Sherz, who has written a foreword to the diary, knew nothing about Rutka before the journal surfaced. “I was struck by this deep connection to Rutka,” said Dr Sherz, 57. “I was an only child, and now I suddenly have an older sister. This black hole was suddenly filled and I immediately fell in love with her.”

Diary entry from February 20 1943

“I have a feeling that I am writing for the last time. There is an Aktion [a Nazi arrest operation] in town. I’m not allowed to go out and I’m going crazy, imprisoned in my own house. For a few days, something’s in the air. The town is breathlessly waiting in anticipation, and this anticipation is the worst of all. I wish it would end already! This torment; this is hell.

“I try to escape from these thoughts, of the next day, but they keep haunting me like nagging flies. If only I could say, it’s over, you only die once. But I can’t, because despite all these atrocities I want to live, and wait for the following day. That means waiting for Auschwitz or labour camp. I must not think about this so now I’ll start writing about private matters.”

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Caturday Reader: Cat in Polish Animal Shelter Makes the Best Nurse

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Cats get a bad rap, but they can be sensitive and nurturing too. The cutest nurse at a Polish animal shelter is under a foot tall, with pointed ears and black fur.

Rademenes, a black cat who lives at the shelter in Bydgoszcz, does the important work of providing comfort and companionship to animals undergoing medical treatment. Duties include gently resting on top of recovering cats and spooning canine patients.

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Rademenes came to live at the animal shelter after his original owners brought him in with an inflamed respiratory tract, and feared he was too sick to make a recovery, Polish news channel TVN Meteo reported. But veterinarian Lucyna Kuziel-Zawalich took a liking to the cat, and managed to nurse him back to health before taking him in as her own.

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Now Rademenes is considered an important asset to office staff, comforting patients after surgery and sometimes cleaning their ears.

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On the Web: Check out more photos of Rademenes on the job via Imgur.

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Germany: Auschwitz SS Guard Charged with Accessory to 300,000 Murders

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Oskar Groening, who was a guard at Auschwitz, has been charged with 300,000 counts of accessory to murder. Photo: Crash MacDuff

Prosecutors say Oskar Groening, now 93, dealt with belongings and counted money of Hungarian Jews sent to their deaths.

Prosecutors in Germany have charged a 93-year-old man with 300,000 counts of accessory to murder for serving as an SS guard at the Nazis’ Auschwitz death camp.

Groening is accused of helping operate the death camp in occupied Poland between May and June 1944, when 425,000 Jews from Hungary were brought there and at least 300,000 almost immediately gassed to death.

In his job dealing with the belongings stolen from camp victims, prosecutors said among other things he was charged with helping collect and tally money that was found.

“He helped the Nazi regime benefit economically, and supported the systematic killings,” state prosecutors in the city of Hannover said in a statement.

Groening’s attorney, Hans Holtermann, declined to comment on the charges.

Groening has openly talked about his time as a guard and said while he witnessed horrific atrocities, he didn’t commit any crimes himself.

In 2005 he told Der Spiegel magazine he recalled one incident on “ramp duty” when he heard a baby crying. “I saw another SS soldier grab the baby by the legs,” he said. “He smashed the baby’s head against the iron side of a truck until it was silent.”

Groening, who lives in the Hannover area, is one of about 30 former Auschwitz guards who federal investigators last year said state prosecutors should pursue under a new precedent in German law.

Groening is the fourth case investigated by Hannover: two have been shelved because the suspects have been deemed unfit for trial and one was closed when the suspect died.

Thomas Walther, who represents 20 Auschwitz victims and their families as co-plaintiffs in the case against Groening as allowed under German law, said it was their last chance “to participate in bringing justice to one of the SS men who had a part in the murder of their closest relatives”.

“Many of the co-plaintiffs are among the last survivors of Auschwitz,” he told the Associated Press.

Photo: Crash MacDuff

Photo: Crash MacDuff

The case against Oskar Gröning highlights Germany judiciary’s Holocaust problem. With only 50 out of 6,500 SS guards at Auschwitz convicted, critics say German law has been too slow to seek justice.

He was once called “the accountant of Auschwitz,” but he is also one of the few former Nazi death camp guards to speak out against Holocaust deniers. Now, at the age of 93, he is to face trial in Germany, and his case has highlighted what some historians see as the failure of the German judiciary to bring Holocaust perpetrators to justice.

From 1942 to 1944, Oskar Gröning counted money taken from the luggage of murdered Jews and sent it back to SS headquarters in Berlin. He also stood guard as the transports of human beings entered the camp.

That much has long been known, not least because he himself described his experiences to the media, but it has taken a new investigation, carried out by Germany’s central office for the investigation of Nazi crimes in Ludwigsburg, for charges to be brought against him. In February this year, the office searched the homes of several former members of the SS across Germany. Of these, Gröning is the only one to have been pronounced fit enough to stand trial.

For what state prosecutors called “legal and evidence reasons”, Gröning’s formal charges relate only to two months of his time at the camp – 16 May to 11 July 1944, the time of the so-called Hungary Operation, when “around 425,000 people from Hungary arrived at the camp in Auschwitz-Birkenau”, of whom “at least 300,000 found their deaths in the gas chambers”. Gröning has therefore been charged with 300,000 counts of accessory to murder.

Gröning caught public attention in 2005 when he appeared in the BBC documentary Auschwitz: The Nazis and the ‘Final Solution’, in which he described how being confronted by Holocaust deniers had led to him to speak out. “I see it as my task now, at my age, to face up to these things that I experienced, and to oppose the Holocaust deniers who claim that Auschwitz never happened,” he said. “I saw the crematoria, I saw the burning pits.”

But Gröning also denied his culpability, telling Der Spiegel magazine in the same year: “Accomplice would almost be too much for me. I would describe my role as a small cog in the gears. If you can describe that as guilt, then I am guilty, but not voluntarily. Legally speaking, I am innocent.”

Auschwitz-Birkenau survivors when the camp was liberated by Russian troops in 1945. Photo courtesy of Simon Wiesenthal Center. Used by permission.

Auschwitz-Birkenau survivors when the camp was liberated by Russian troops in 1945. Photo courtesy of Simon Wiesenthal Center. Used by permission.

State prosecutors disagree – but only now. Despite high-profile trials in Nuremberg just after the war, and Frankfurt in 1964, the German judiciary has been notoriously sluggish about punishing those directly involved in the Holocaust. A previous case against Gröning himself was dropped for lack of evidence by Frankfurt prosecutors in 1985. The historian Andreas Eichmüller once calculated that of the 6,500 SS members who worked at Auschwitz and survived the war, only 49 had ever been convicted.

Jörg Friedrich, a historian and author of Acquittal for Nazi Justice: The Sentencing of National Socialist Judges since 1948, challenges the view that the German judiciary dragged its heels. “There were hundreds of thousands of investigations, kilometres of investigation documents,” he told the Guardian. “I don’t know of any state that did the same … A compromise had to be drawn between assimilation and prosecution, and I think Germany was a success in both cases.” The legal difficulty is in defining individual guilt; attempts to convict other SS members have failed in the past because they could not be linked to specific murders. Ingo Müller, law professor and author of Terrible Lawyers: the Past Our Judiciary Has Not Overcome, thinks this is a historical failure. “Just participating in the Holocaust doesn’t count.”

On the Web: Official site of the Auschwitz-Birkenau (German Nazi Concentration and Extermination Camp) Memorial and State Museum.

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HAUNTING SMILE OF GIRL FACING THE HOLOCAUST

How Hitler’s personal photographer captured for history the plight of the Jews in Nazi-occupied Poland

  • Hugo Jaeger’s photographs normally celebrate the glory and triumphalism of the Third Reich
  • But in this set he depicts the tragic circumstances of Jews while allowing them to retain their humanity and dignity
  • Taken in the Polish town of Kutno in 1939 and 1940 they have been released to mark the official establishment of the Warsaw Ghetto

She has such natural beauty, she could pass for a movie star.

She smiles, her demeanour relaxed. In normal times, this young woman would surely have enjoyed a bright and happy future, perhaps with a husband, children, grandchildren.

But soon after this photograph was taken, she would face almost certain death. The haunting image is one of a series depicting Jews in Nazi-occupied Poland before they were rounded up to be sent to the gas chambers.

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Despite the awfulness of her predicament, this Jewish woman manages to smile brightly for the camera as she poses for Jaeger.

Never again. Ever.

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