Our Lost Warsaw Ghetto Diary
My relative wrote one of the Shoah’s most revealing documents. Why doesn’t anyone know of it?
“Jews began to write,” wrote Emmanuel Ringelblum, the most famous Warsaw Ghetto chronicler, recalling efforts to document the destruction. Ringelblum founded the Oneg Shabbat group, the collection of “journalists, writers, teachers, public figures, youth, even children,” who decided they would record their experiences. The group buried an archive of selected materials, to bear witness. “A great deal was written,” Ringelblum recounted, before his own murder, “but most of it was lost during the deportations and extermination of Warsaw’s Jews. Only the material hidden in the ghetto archive remained.”
That’s what Ringelblum believed.
But missing from the famous ghetto archive is the diary of a man named Reuven Ben-Shem. About 800 pages long, penned in minuscule handwriting that is almost impossible to read with the naked eye, the diary is a remarkable account, clear-eyed and poignant, spanning roughly the time from the establishment of the ghetto to the arrival of Soviet troops in Warsaw. It contains references to everything its author had ever studied—from Mishnah and Torah to secular literature and the work of Sigmund Freud, with whom Ben-Shem learned in Vienna in the interwar period—as well as a close observation of the ways in which Jews were forced to become animals, not metaphorically, but actually. And it is written in modern Hebrew. “It is a fabulous document,” said Amos Goldberg, senior lecturer in Holocaust Studies at the Department of Jewish History at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, who recently wrote a book on Holocaust diaries. “It has incredible descriptive force.”
February 1942. The street is teeming with sights so maddening, so depraved that it is hard to find any equivalent in the treasury of humanity’s degradation. There is no doubt that the denizens of the jungle and animals will never behave this way. The dead are naked. When someone had just starved, they cover him in wrapping paper and lie him down on the sidewalk, and at night his friends, or just beggars, walk out, and undress him completely, and leave him all naked with no shoes, no dress or even underwear. And in the morning, as you go out in the street and the wind blows off the wrapping papers covering the dead, you see the organs of men, women and children all scrawny, the quivering organs of death in the street. You see the naked bodies, frozen stuck to the sidewalk. The body becomes one with the stone, congealed. One dead chunk screaming with poverty and disgust.
Ben-Shem kept his diary in a leather satchel that he carried with him from the ghetto to the Aryan side of Warsaw, to Lublin, through Romania and onto the illegal ship that ferried him to Palestine in 1946. It remained in the family home until about four years ago when his Israeli-born son Kami showed all 800 pages, stored exactly as it had been in Warsaw, to a researcher named Laurence Weinbaum, who had stumbled upon the name Reuven Ben-Shem dotted throughout Chaim Lazar’s Muranowska 7, a biography of the Revisionist Zionist underground in the Warsaw Ghetto. Intrigued, Weinbaum tracked down the Ben-Shem family and was eventually invited to see what the family had at home. “You can imagine it felt like the moment when the Bedouin presented the Dead Sea scrolls,” he told me, during a recent interview in his Jerusalem office.
What Weinbaum found was, in his opinion, one of the most important works of first-person narrative to have survived the Shoah. The diary, he says, “is extraordinary for several reasons: one it is contemporaneous. It is also in Hebrew. Most of the diarists wrote in Yiddish or Polish. And Feldschuh (Ben-Shem’s original name) had extraordinary intellectual horizons.” He was also, points out Havi Dreyfus, a senior lecturer in the department of Jewish History at the University of Tel Aviv, a broad observer, from the deportations, to religious life, to the extremes of ghetto poverty—to intense, painful, descriptions of his desperate desire to allow his young daughter Josima, a piano prodigy, to live. He was a brilliant Hebraist and fluent in—at least—three other languages. Agrees David Silberklang, senior historian at Yad Vashem, “What Reuven Feldschuh did was of great significance. It will be a huge book if the entire diary is published.” Silberklang believes that the diary is “potentially similar to” the impact Victor Klemperer’s diaries had in the 1990s, “because of the quality of the writer and the richness of experience and expanse of years.”
I wouldn’t know of Reuven Ben-Shem’s diary, either, except that he was my grandfather’s first cousin.
Late on a recent Friday night in the Tel Aviv suburb of Ramat Gan, I attended a Shabbat dinner. At some point, the guests moved from table to couch, and an array of liquors was lined up on the coffee table. Our host, Kami Ben-Shem, receded into a back room and returned with a selection of crumbling, yellow paper. The first page—kept in a plastic sleeve, the sort that might be used by children in a binder for school—was an announcement for a concert.
“15 March 1941” it is dated, at the top, “Josima Feldschuh” it says, above the image of a rosy-cheeked girl with a bow in her hair, sitting at a piano, and then, below her photo, it is written in Polish, “11 year old piano virtuoso.” The program promises selections from Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro and Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony, a concert held at Rymarska 12, the heart of the Warsaw Ghetto. Two years later, the girl, Kami’s half-sister, was smuggled to the Aryan side just before the uprising. Her father had feared her death for all his months in the ghetto.
January 1942. There’s talk recently of the vandals murdering the children and the blood of all the fathers hardens in their veins as they listen to such whispers… I returned home and I am all shaken. My child is sleeping, I am looking at her. My eye deceives me and I don’t see her. She disappears, the bed grows empty. I was frightened. I bent over and held her so forcefully that she woke up, quizzical and afraid. She calmed down as she saw me, and her face radiated with a lovely smile. She sent me a kiss by air, turned over to her side, and fell asleep. Inside of me fritters a demon of fear.
Josima died of tuberculosis some weeks after she went into hiding; soon after, her mother, Pnina, a musicologist, took her own life. Only Reuven survived. After the war, Reuven never spoke of Josima, but her framed photo hung like a ghostly mezuzah in the doorway to his home, so each member of Ben-Shem’s new postwar family would see her as they came in and as they went out.
Yet the fact that few outside Ben-Shem’s immediate family circle ever learned of the diary’s existence was not because the family kept it squirreled away; Reuven himself contacted Yad Vashem in the 1960s about his text; his cousin was Rachel Auerbach, the first person tasked by Yad Vashem with collecting survivor testimonies after the war. (Though she lived with Reuven in the ghetto, if Auerbach knew of her relative’s diary, she never wrote of it.) Reuven’s diary disappeared in plain sight in part because of the layered nature of historiography, the way in which popular writers and academics alike have changed their perception of what first-person accounts mean to the narrative of the Holocaust—and also due to Reuven’s own meanderings through Zionist political movements. The fate of his work underscores the arbitrary nature of those we celebrate, those who become heroes, and those who are forgotten.
My grandfather and his cousin Reuven lived together in Vienna, when Reuven was a student in the 1920s, studying psychology under Freud, and also in rabbinics at a modern rabbinical school. Reuven had recently spent several years in Palestine where he had been, briefly, a halutz, and a founder of the Kibbutz Kiryat Anavim, outside Jerusalem; at the time he was active in Hashomer Hatzair. Yet he returned to Europe in the early 1920s, when he received word his father had been murdered in a Ukrainian pogrom; the news came just before a radical split with his left-wing Zionist roots, and he went on to become a leader in the burgeoning movement of right-wing Revisionist Zionism. He was a friend and devotee of Ze’ev Jabotinsky, a founder of Betar, and then he founded another nationalist right-wing group called Hashomer Haleumi—National Guard—(one of his scouts, a woman named Shoshana Kossower-Rozencwajg, would one day be his rescuer from the ghetto).
Reuven’s right-wing activity, and his aggressive polemics against socialism and Marxism, suggests one theory on why his name was buried in the postwar period. Reuven’s published papers in the 1920s talk about “a Jewish race,” refer to Communism as a “poison to Jewish children,” and express a militant, militaristic vitriol for all things of the then-ascendant left, explains Daniel Kupfert Heller, a newly minted historian who wrote on Betar for his doctoral dissertation at Stanford. Though Reuven broke with Jabotinsky in 1933 (essentially calling him a fascist), the revisionists, says Kupfert Heller, were “swept under the rug in the 1950s” as Israel grappled with “who owned the legacy of fighting and self-defense” during the Holocaust.
“The standard narrative was it was only the Zionist socialists,” who had been active in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, historian Kupfert Heller says, “So, one might think of Reuven’s diary as part of this broader embarrassment in Israeli national culture around the idea of right-wing Zionists. … Jews that espoused ideas that were parallel to the fascists were embarrassing.” But its purposeful forgetting, he says, may be a means of understanding “how we commemorate the past. One of the things that Reuven represents to me are the complexities and nuances that have really been [lost] by so many who commemorate the experience of Polish Jewry—we know so much about how they died and so little on how they lived.”
March 1942: I do not know if I will be able to get this journal out of here, or if it will live on without me after I have been covered by a layer of earth and oblivion. In any case, it is my wish that the truth be reflected in this journal—the truth of how people lived inside the earth, in a place where scorching lava is being formed under the burning, spewing volcano that is Hitler’s Europe.
My grandfather was 12 years Reuven’s junior, also orphaned, and they were very close. And yet no one in my part of the family ever knew about Reuven’s faithful documentation of Nazi occupation of Warsaw, life in the ghetto, and the Soviet invasion, nor did they know of his role as a leading revisionist Zionist. We, the American cousins, knew little to nothing of Josima—although we knew Reuven had lost everyone and that he had named Kami, whose full name is Nekamia, “Revenge God.” His second marriage was to another survivor, with an equally harrowing tale: She survived after jumping from the train to Treblinka, leaving behind a half-dozen siblings. With her he eventually also had another daughter, Rina, who now lives in America.
In their correspondence after the war Reuven chided my grandfather for not living in Israel—the only place, he wrote, that a Jew could ever be comfortable or happy. To some degree, Reuven’s emphasis on the importance of postwar life in Israel—he was a cultural attaché to Argentina in the 1950s, tasked with drumming up interest in aliyah; upon return, his daughter Rina Ben-Shem (now Mariuma) was given the first bat mitzvah in Israeli history, she told me—may have contributed to his diary’s sequestration. But the forgetting, or burying, of the diary is also a reflection of a trend in historiography that is only changing now, some 70 years after the events took place: the valorization of eyewitness accounts.
That may sound absurd—after all, the diary of Anne Frank is perhaps the best-known testimony of the Shoah, and it has been celebrated, read, performed, since the 1950s. But the truth is, Frank is an exception. Alexandra Garbarini, chair of the Jewish Studies Department at Williams College and the author of Numbered Days: Diaries and the Holocaust, explained to me that these documents were long seen as of limited value, because diaries are inherently local, narrowly focused, and, in the case of Holocaust diaries, the diarists themselves were often isolated from outside news sources. So, historians first had to see that diaries were sources both resonant and relevant to telling a larger story and also see the importance of telling smaller stories about everyday life. “You have to both care about and think there is something historically significant in what happens to that corpse on the street in the ghetto and what that helps us to understand about Nazism, genocide, anti-Semitism, and Jewish relations,” she said. “What the diary most reveals is daily life in the ghetto and helping to understand one man’s perspective—one insightful, intelligent, educated figure—to understand through his perspective what was happening to Jewish society in Warsaw under wartime occupation.
“But I also wonder,” she mused, “how forthcoming [Reuven] was,” about what he had carried to Israel with him. Amos Goldberg, the Hebrew University historian of diaries, points out that Victor Klemperer’s diary only came to light during the debate among ordinary Germans sparked by Daniel Goldhagen’s 1997 book Hitler’s Willing Executioners. “You need good public relations,” said Goldberg, especially if the author is dead. “It’s arbitrary, in a sense” who succeeds, whose work becomes iconic.
Monday, July 20, 1942. At half past ten the rumor is spreading. Suddenly, from underground—deportation, the deportation of [the Jews of] Warsaw. All of Warsaw! Half of Warsaw! One hundred thousand! Two hundred thousand! Only the foreigners! Only the beggars! Everyone, except the officials! … Deportation, deportation … then … like madmen, like people on fire, everyone started to run, half a million people running—to the community [building], from the community [building] home, to the police, to relatives, to strangers! Everyone is running, running, deportation, deportation! What we have feared has come to pass! Vernichtung [extermination] commando, deportation! We ran home, we fell into each other’s arms, we hugged, we kissed, we bid one another farewell forever. We swore not to be separated, but to die together, to run away, to go into hiding together! The city burst into tears, the sound of which was certainly heard all over the world, but not on high. “Deportation,” cried every child, every old person, every stone, every wall, every sidewalk. The street shook as if millions of terrified demons had jumped on it, and were running and being pushed.
Perhaps, says Sharon, Kami’s daughter, who is my age, publishing something about the diary can be a bit of a tikkun—a reparation, a balm. Yad Vashem has promised to publish the diary, but so far there doesn’t seem to be a concrete plan in the works. It will require someone to spend a few years transcribing—and then, hopefully, translating—before it even has the chance to meet Klemperer on the shelf. Sharon and I looked together at the pages of notes her grandfather kept on Josima, her piano-prodigy aunt. After the war, Weinbaum tells us, Reuven wrote a children’s book called Beyn Chomot HaGhetto—Between the Ghetto Walls. The book is a work of fiction whose heroine is named Josima—and she fights the Germans. In this story, she wins.
The author wishes to acknowledge the translation work of Laurence Weinbaum, Sharon Ben-Shem Da-Silva, and Liel Leibovitz.
Did Zosa Szajkowski save precious documents from the Nazis, or did he steal the cultural patrimony of French Jews?