Sunday 31 January 2010
The Loss of a World Entire
I wrote a piece earlier this month (A Love Greater than Hate) lamenting the death of Miep Gies, the Dutchwoman who supported Anne Frank and her family when they were hiding in Amsterdam and who later rescued Anne’s now world-famous Diary. Subsequent to that another wartime diary of a gifted Jewish teenager was drawn to my attention, that of Dawid Sierakowiak, who died in the Lodz Ghetto in August 1943, aged nineteen.
I had never heard either of Dawid or his account of life in the notorious ghetto, one of the longest-standing in Eastern Europe. My ignorance has now been made good and I offer this brief assessment of his remarkable day-by-day picture, drawn under the most unimaginably difficult circumstances.
To begin with, I should say that I would not make a direct comparison between the accounts of Anne and Dawid. Anne lived in fear of discovery but her Diary is concerned with so many aspects of life, thought and experience that might be shared by any perceptive teenager. I read Anne’s Diary as a kind of dialogue, with me as the other party. She never knew what lay beyond, and when she did she was no longer able to write.
Dawid did know. His account, therefore, is more of a strict record, an insight, lacking in the same degree of intimacy. But what a record it is; one of despair, occasionally punctuated by hope, only to fall back into even deeper levels of despair. He has a brilliant mind, an acute understanding, giving a painful and detailed record of the degradation and dehumanisation that was such an important part of the Holocaust.
The uncomfortable truth is that the Germans hardly feature at all in Dawid’s Diary. They are mostly a distant threat from over the wall for a community that was effectively sealed off from the world. It’s other Jews who do the Nazis’ work for them; bureaucratic elites that presided over the unequal distribution of an already inadequate supply of food; a ghetto police service which selects those to be sent beyond the wall to their ultimate death in the gas vans of Chelmno. It was a hierarchy all presided over by Chaim Rumkowski, one of the most controversial figures in Jewish Holocaust history. Here are Dawid’s own words from an entry in March, 1943;
Lunatics, perverts, and criminals like Rumkowski rule over us and determine our food allocations, work and health. No wonder the Germans don’t want to interfere in ghetto matters: the Jews will kill one another perfectly well, and, in the meantime, they will also squeeze maximum production out of one another.
One of the most heartbreaking episodes of all was Rumkowski’s ‘Give Me your Children’ plea, urging families to sacrifice all children ten years and younger to be handed over to the Germans. The point is that people did not know how the children –and the elderly – were going to die, but they certainly knew that they were going to die. The ensuing agony is recorded in detail by Dawid, as is the loss of his own elderly mother.
There is a dominant theme to this book – food, and the lack of it. Entry after entry mentions rations, what is available and, more often, what is not. It’s an impossible situation, a race of life against death, the only possibility of avoiding death being an end to the war. News does sometimes seep into the ghetto, snippets of information that make it clear that victory-and life –is hopelessly distant.
Parts of the Diary are missing and it breaks off abruptly in April, 1943. It did not have the same impact on Holocaust literature as Anne’s Diary essentially because the post-war Polish authorities attempted to submerge any document bearing on uniquely Jewish suffering.
I’m so glad I read this, so glad I now know something of the life of Dawid Sierakowiak. It also saddened me, not just his personal tragedy, his death and the death of his mother, his father and his sister. But there is something more; his loss may also have been the world’s loss. I’m thinking here of a passage near the beginning of his record, before the outbreak of the war, written when he was only fifteen;
I read and began to write a work I planned a long time ago about the immanent future of Jewry. The Semite covers a programme of reconciliation and cooperation with the Arabs.
Yes, what possibilities were ended forever in the life of Dawid Sierakowiak? The loss of a single life is the loss of a world entire.