Note: The Jewish world observes Yom Hashoah beginning at sunset on April 30. (Click here for details about local commemorations.) As part of the commemoration of Yom Hashoah, the Madison Jewish News is privileged to publish this remarkable story by Nira Scherz-Busch, a Madison psychologist. While the Madison Jewish News doesn’t normally carry articles this long, the story of Rutka Laskier is so extraordinary that we are making an exception.
The news swept the world like a storm. In 2006, Stanislava Spinska, an elderly resident of Bedzin, a small town in the Polish District of Zaglembie, contacted Adam Szydlowski, the President of the Zaglembie Jewish Cultural Center, with a fascinating tale. She revealed that for the past 63 years she kept in her possession a diary written by Rutka Laskier, a fourteen-year-old Jewish girl who perished in 1943 in the gas chambers of Auschwitz.
Rutka Laskier was one of two children born to Jacub (Yaakov) Laskier and his wife, Dorka – Dvora (nee: Hampel). She was born in 1929 in the free City of Danzig (now Gdansk, a port city in northern Poland), then a predominantly German-speaking autonomous city-state, where her father was a bank officer. The family was well off. Rutka’s grandfather was the co-owner of Laskier-Kleinberg & Company, a milling company that owned and operated a grist mill. In the early 30’s, the Laskier family moved to the Polish southern city of Bedzin, where the Hampel and Laskier families originated. Her brother Henius (Yoachim) was born a few years later, in 1937. Like other affluent Jewish children, Rutka attended a private school. “This was a very ex-pensive and well-known co-educational school, attended only by children whose parents could afford it,” says Linka Gold (now Kleinlerrer), Rutka’s childhood friend who now lives in London. “Rutka was an excellent student and very serious about her studies.”
The Germans conquered Bedzin at the very beginning of World War II, in September of 1939, burning the city’s main synagogue and 50 neighboring Jewish homes. In May 1942, about 5,000 people, mostly sick, elderly, welfare recipients with large families and Jews who found refuge in the town, were sent to Auschwitz. In the beginning of 1943, the Germans began gradually evacu-ating Jews from their homes and locating them in the suburb of Kamionce, a poor neighborhood turned into ghetto. The Laskier family was moved into a small, dilapidated house previously owned by Stanislava Spinska’s father. It was then that Rutka started writing her diary. She did not tell anyone about it and hid it from her parents and her friends.
“I cannot believe that it is already 1943, four years since this hell began,” says Rutka’s first diary entry of January 19, 1943. “The days pass by quickly, each day looking like the previous one. Every day it’s the same frozen and depressing boredom.” She moves on to tell the “exciting news” of family relatives possibly escaping to “the land of our forefathers, Palestine,” and her mixed feeling of “joy and envy” about the news, trying to cling to her love of her hometown with mixed fear and “unconscious curiosity” about “what will happen here.”
Having been “ordered” by her father to check on the house and its Jewish inhabitants, the Roman Catholic Stanislava Spinska, then in her twenties, and much older than Rutka, gradually became Rutka’s friend and confidante. “Rutka was very wise,” told Stanislava when she revealed the existence of the diary. Realizing she and her family would soon be sent to Auschwitz and knowing that she will not survive, Rutka told Stanislava about her secret diary and asked her to help her hide it. “I want the diary to survive after me,” she said. With the help of Stanislava, who knew the house well, the two decided upon hiding the 60 or so pages of the diary in a small crack in between the first and second floor tiles, when the Laskier family will move to the ghetto of Kamionca.
Rutka and her family were sent to Auschwitz in August 1943. Jacub (Yaakov) was told that Rutka, her mother Dvora, and her brother Henius and his own mother, Golde, died in the gas chambers of the camp a day after they arrived there. Learning of the death of his family, malnourished and desperate, he later recalled: “I figured that I had nothing to lose.” When told that he could choose the gas chambers or work for a “secret Nazi operation” which was looking for camp prisoners who had knowledge about coins, money printing, etc., he joined, and was transferred to Saksenhausen, a secret concentration camp, the site of the infamous “Bernhardt Operation” (portrayed in “The Counterfeiters,” the Austrian movie which recently won an Oscar as the Best Foreign Movie of 2008).
After the war ended, Stanislava returned to her old family home. Though hit twice during the war, first by the Germans and later by the Poles, who destroyed furniture and looted the apartments, the house retained its base floor. Amazed at the miracle, Stanislava found the diary, took it and hid it in her new home. From time to time she would read it, remembering her secret friendship with her gifted, beautiful, Jewish friend, and the horrors of the period. She was fearful of disclosing it in Communist Poland, still replete with anti-Semitism. Sixty-two years later, Stanislava hesitantly told her young niece about the diary. Shocked and moved to tears, her niece confided in her brother, who convinced Stanislava to tell the story to staff of the newly established Zaglembie Jewish Cultural Center and inquire about the whereabouts of Rutka’s remaining family.
Amazed by the rare find and recognizing its incredible value, Adam Szydlowski, who is not Jewish, quickly contacted Menachem Lior of the Zaglembie Survivors Association in Israel. Now living in Tel-Aviv, Israel, Menachem recalls: “After having asked Adam for more details about the girl’s family, I realized that I knew Rutka. She was a year younger than me, and we were both members of the Gordonia Youth Movement. I recognized the names Jakub Laskier (Yaakov Laskier in Israel) and his wife, Dvora Hampel, because my father wrote the memorial book for the (Bedzin) community, ‘Bedzin Book,’ along with the late Mordechai Hampel. I called Dahlia Hampel, Mordechai’s daughter, and through her I found that Jacob Lasker survived the Holocaust, married, and his daughter, Zahava, is married and lives in Rehovot.”
“For the First Time in My Life, I Have a Sister” – Life Discovered
Prof. Avigdor Scherz and his wife Zahava Laskier-Scherz, both scientists at the Weizmann Insti-tute of Science in Rehovot, Israel, were returning from a business trip to London. “The phone rang while I was loading my suitcases,” recalls Zahava “and a man I knew only by his family name from my parents, started asking me questions about my father, my birth date, and details about my early life. When I asked for the reason for his inquiry, he told me that a 60-page diary written by a Rutka Laskier, which he thought was my half-sister, was discovered in Bedzin, Poland and brought to the authorities.” Stunned, Zahava listened as Menachem told her about the beautiful, intelligent, brave and gifted writer and her amazing notebook, written part in pencil and part in pen on little school notebook, telling of her loves, her youth, her amazing strength and her spirit.
On Holocaust Day in April 2006, almost exactly 63 years after she finished writing her diary, sent to Auschwitz and murdered there along with her mother, grandmother, and younger brother Henius, Rutka Laskier’s diary “Pamientki Rutka” (“Remembering Rutka”) was published in Poland in a remarkable ceremony attended by the Israeli Ambassador to Poland, dignitaries from the Polish Government, Stanislava Spinska, and Zahava and her husband Avigdor. The original diary remained with Spinska. Adam and Sapinska promised to give it to Zahava and through her to Yad Vashem, once their wish to be invited to Israel was fulfilled. Shortly after its Polish publication, many internet sites and literary reviews in Poland welcomed the book. Children from Poland started writing to Rutka, identifying with stories of her boyfriends, her emerging woman-hood, her squabbles with her mother, and her gifted account of adolescence in the face of a mirror of horrors and destruction.
June 2007 brought the publication of “Rutka’s Notebook: January-April, 1943” in Hebrew and English by Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust Authority. A special Commemoration Ceremony at Yad Vashem was attended by the Israeli ambassador to Poland , Mr. Peleg, members of the Zaglembie Survivor Association, and international press, Stanislava Spinska gave Rutka’s origi-nal notebook to Dr. Zahava Laskier-Scherz, and through her to Yad Vashem. The news of the book, originally generated by Associated Press and Reuters, swept the world. “Rutka’s Note-book” has since been translated to Italian, Spanish, Japanese, and has become famous throughout the world as a rare voice of the heroism, valor, beauty and exceptional literary power of the words of a child who lived and loved amidst evil.
Time/Life Publications is presently preparing a new, revised publication of the book, planned for Holocaust Day, 2008 under the title “Rutka’s Notebook: Voices from the Holocaust,”and the BBC is preparing a documentary about the diary.
“The Girl Looked Just Like Me”– Zahava’s Story
Zahava Laskier grew up as an only child in sunny Givataim, Israel, a beautiful, tall, dark haired “Sabra” with an inquisitive mind and a love of learning. The Laskier family was well off. Hannah (Hanka), Zahava’s mother, was a pharmacist, and her father Yaakov, worked as an accountant. She knew that her parents were Holocaust survivors, and that her father was in Auschwitz. “He couldn’t hide it,” says Zahava, “the number was tattooed on his arm.” She knew the Hampel’s as “uncles.” We, the generation of kids born in Israel after the Holocaust, did not have grandpas or grandmas, no real uncles nor aunts. “For us, at the time,” says Zahava “everybody was an uncle.”
Our parents did not talk about “it.” The parents who arrived in Palestine before the start of the war were steeped in guilt for having left their dear ones to be slaughtered, and the survivors’ mere power to live depended on their silence and their ability to repress their memories. Those who did talk were looked upon with pity and even scorn. They were considered “obsessed,” “preoccupied with the past” and weak. The little we knew and talked about “it” (every year on Holocaust day ceremonies) was appalling, horrifying beyond words, and considered psychologically harmful to our young, free, strong spirit and image.
Leafing through some family papers at home, 14-year-old Zahava discovered a little red picture album. In it were pictures of her father with another woman, a girl, and a young boy. “The girl looked like me” says Zahava. “I confronted my father. In tears, he told me the story of his first marriage, his daughter Rutka, and his son Henius.”
“Rutka was 14 when she died. I was fourteen when I discovered her. I felt deep pity for my father,” says Zahava. “From that day on, I was very careful not to disappoint him, anger him, or cause him any pain. I was to be his solace, his only surviving child.”
Zahava grew up and moved to Jerusalem to attend the Hebrew University, where she completed her Doctorate in Science Education. There, in 1970 she met and married Avigdor Scherz, my brother, who was also completing his doctoral degree in Biochemistry.
Yaakov Laskier grew up a Zionist. In 1917, the tall, well built, handsome and intelligent young man of an affluent family, left his “first life,” his comfortable home, and headed for “The Prom-ised Land” with his friend. The group, known as “The Six from Bedzin,” which included Isser Be’eri, the first Director of the Mossad, and other young men, later famous in Israel, was among the founding fathers of the town Migdal. They made their way from Polish to Odessa, to Turkey, and to Israel. “My father used to proudly tell us how he met Usishkin and Bialik on his journey, and how he shared room with Trumpeldor, Israel’s National Hero.”
In the “second stage” of his life, Laskier helped in farms around Deganiah and the Kineret, until he contracted malaria and typhoid and was ordered by his doctors to return to Poland, where he could get necessary medical care.
Laskier’s “third life” started upon his recovery in Poland. He became a bank officer, and as he established himself, his dreams of returning to Israel diminished. He met and married Dvora (Dorka) Hampel. Dvora’s affluent parents had purchased a family plot in Israel, where Rutka’s maternal family lives to date. Dvora and Yaakov, however, remained in Poland.
Laskier’s “fourth life” began in 1945, after his horrific experiences in the Holocaust. He returned to Israel a “tall, gigantic man who was a muzleman in the camps” says his cousin Dahlia Mer-kazi, who lives in Tel Aviv. He told his relatives about the death of his family, and showed them a picture of Hannah, whom he met on his way to Israel, in a British detainment camp in Cyprus. He married Hannah with the blessings of the Hampel’s.
Twenty years after Rutka’s birth, in 1949, Yaakov and Hannah gave birth to a daughter; they named her Zahava, after Yaakov’s mother (Golde), who died in Auschwitz.
Yaakov worked in governmental and public institutions as an accountant , and Hannah resumed her work as a pharmacist. Yaakov Laskier died in Israel in 1986, having lived to meet his grand-son, Ishai, and his granddaughter, Ruthie, named after Rutka, his first child.
Closing Circles – Living with the Spirits of Dead People
“Only when I read the diary,” says Zahava, my sister-in-law, “did I truly feel that I had a sister . Until then, Rutka and Henius were ‘the children of my father.’ Rutka’s book gave me a real sis-ter.”
Growing up in Israel of “after,” we were taught to believe that what happened “there” was a ta-boo. Busy with the national effort of making things “normal,” we were carefully sheltered from any intimate encounter with the horrors that happened “there.” The Diary of Anne Frank was one of the few testimonies which allowed us to peak into the reality of children’s lives during the Holocaust. It was, in a way, horrific, and in a way, striking in its normalcy. It was also, “some-one else’s story,” not ours. “It,” we were taught to believe, will never happen again!
In 1961, a junior at the Hebrew University High School in Jerusalem, I asked to help cover the Eichmann Trial as a Junior Journalist for the youth magazine, Maariv La’Noar. For the better part of April-August of that year, I sat daily in the halls of court, gazing at the man in the glass cage, amazed that he looked human, that he could smile, sweat and drink water and taking in the horrific sights and voices of evil and pain which permeated the building. I thought of the wit-nesses as spirits, ghosts who came from hell, and continued to live in their own hell. I watched closely as they terminated “him,” and thought that evil thus ended.
Many years later, while studying in Paris, France, I met my first encounter with racial hatred, from a German boy who studied with us. I thought “it” went away - it did not. For the first time I feared for my life because I was “a Jew.”
In 2006, I picked up “Rutka’s Notebook” from the post office in Madison, trembling. Rutka, my sister-in-law’s sister, came to life with the gift of Stanislava, a Roman Catholic Polish woman. Rutka, as we recently found out, was born around the same day that Anne Frank was born, though many miles away. Her diary, like that of Anne, tells the story of adolescence in the pits of hell. But Rutka, I felt, as the book leashed my tears, is no stranger. She is family. “I am tall, thin, with pretty nice legs, and a slim waist. I have elongated hands...big black eyes, thick brown eye-brows and long eyelashes, very long, black hair, short-trimmed and back-combed, small but pug nose, nicely outlined lips, snow-white teeth - and there is my portrait,” I read in her entry of January 23, 1943, and the big, black eyes looked at me as I went on reading her carefully crafted description of the internal turmoil of teen-ager in a storm In those eyes, I saw Zahava, Yaakov, my niece, Ruthie and even little Gili - my family.
We all now have large families. Zahava and Avigdor Scherz are world renowned scientists, liv-ing in Rehovot, Israel, working and caring for their grown children, Ishai and Ruthie, their grandchildren, Ofir, Gili and baby Tamar, and my aging father, Abraham Scherz (94). I live and work in Madison, enjoying my husband Bill and our grown children, Elizabeth, Ian (in LA), Ore-lia (presently a Peace Corps Volunteer in Burkina Faso, West Africa) and “Nurse Maurit,” who visits and fills the empty nest with her visits after work at Meriter Hospital.
In approximately two months, the movie “The Counterfeiters,” telling the story of the “Bernhardt Operation” will be available in English. Rutka’s diary continues to sweep world media. Avigdor and Zazi were in Poland last month, helping the filming crew of the BBC, and planning their up-coming visit to the U.S. for the publication of “Rutka’s Notebook” here.
Perhaps, living with dead people is our legacy, a testimony to our unique heritage, our spiritual-ity, the true meaning of our lives and its continuation. And perhaps, in our midst, they are still so very much alive.