Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Rutka's Notebook

Rutka Laskier is 14 years old when she starts a diary in January 1943, “four years since . . . hell began.” The Nazis occupy Poland, and Rutka is well aware of the atrocities surrounding and awaiting her. According to Stanislawa Sapinska, a friend of Rutka who keeps the diary until 2006, Rutka suspects her own death is imminent. She hides the diary and arranges with Stanislawa to find and keep it.

The diary is brief—only 20 entries over a four-month period. For each page of the diary, the book includes a companion page providing context—photographs, historical background, definitions. It also features essays by Rutka’s half-sister, born in Israel after the Holocaust, and several Holocaust scholars.

Most of the diary is similar to any teenage girls. Rutka writes about her friends, difficulties with her parents, and her crush on a boy named Janek. One moment she loves him; the next she hates him. These entries could have been taken straight from my own journal. Although from a historical perspective I longed for more information about the occupation, the personal details Rutka includes make the diary heartbreaking. She could be any other young girl—except that her life is stolen from her.

The few passages about the Nazi occupation are all the more disturbing in contrast with Rutka’s “normal” life. She writes, “Something has broken inside me. When I pass by a German, everything shrinks in me.” In another entry she derides herself for calling on God. “If God existed,” she writes, “He would have certainly not permitted that human beings be thrown alive into furnaces, and the heads of little toddlers be smashed with butts of guns.”

Rutka’s diary ends abruptly, and she gives no hint that she suspects her life will soon end. In fact, Rutka’s last entry complains of boredom. A few days later, she is moved with her family to a ghetto and later to Auschwitz.

Rutka has been called the Polish Anne Frank. Her diary does not have the length and depth of Frank’s, but it does provide insight into and personalize events that are so difficult to comprehend.

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