The scale of violence in the Holocaust is impossible to imagine for people living in the normal world. It was also unimaginable for European Jews, before the extermination process began. Even the most pessimistic predictions of the Nazis’ intentions were proven inadequate.
Since the scale of suffering in the Holocaust is unimaginable, all original testimony made during its long duration is precious.
They read like letters from hell.
Reports from the Warsaw Ghetto by Perec Opoczyński and Writings from the Warsaw Ghetto by Rachela Auerbach ought to be added to the list of exceptionally important documents from that period published in Poland in recent years.
Dawid Sierakowiak’s Diary is a unique document of this kind: five notebooks of entries, composed nearly daily from 28 June 1939 to 15 April 1943, when the author wrote his final sentence: “We truly have no escape.” Four months later, he starved to death in the Łódź Ghetto.
His first entries begin just before the war, on a vacation in the mountains. The fifteen-year-old’s enthusiastic account is interrupted by comments on the unsettling news from Germany. Yet Dawid’s most ambitious dreams have to do with his education. He also has well-developed political views – he considers himself a “socialist Zionist”, and is preparing to write a treatise titled The Semite, in which he aims to expound a program of accord and cooperation with the Arab inhabitants of Eretz-Israel.
Two months later, his entries of day-to-day life take on a dramatic pace. The war begins. There are air raids and chaos. Hurried entries from September 1939 reveal the boy’s level of awareness at the time and what was going on around him, wanting to believe the UK and France would immediately come to Poland’s defence and attack Nazi Germany.
Persecution begins. Right from the start, the Jewish population is treated more harshly, even at that point just in the form of a longer curfew. On September 13, five days after Łódź was taken by the Germans, an order is given closing the Synagogue and requiring stores to open on Rosh Hashanah. On November 7, the order goes out to wear a patch bearing the word “Jude”, and prohibiting decorative items such as shiny buttons. As each week goes by, the situation gets worse: Jews can no longer sit in the front car of the tram, expensive Jewish homes are taken over by Germans, and ordinary soldiers plunder Jewish apartments.
What historians call “the very worst kind of tragedy” is gathering speed.
In Sierakowiak’s entries, details of further oppression are interspersed with information he reads and learns, despite being expelled from his classes because he can’t afford to pay tuition. The Diary gives a precise look at the persecution as it grows day by day. A symbolic example of this is the Great Synagogue on Spacerowa Street in Łódź, which the Nazis first close, then set on fire, and finally blow up.
A long-term methodically introduced system of torment, humiliation, starvation, and physical compulsion into forced labour, destroyed the lives of the 250,000 Jews in Łódź. The four hundred pages of Sierakowiak’s account evocatively illustrate this process. His “hunger diaries” are a detailed account of the daily struggle against hunger, cold, scabies, and lice, but at the same time heroic attempts to continue studying and to earn money tutoring, so as to help his family scrape out a living in the Ghetto. He describes this closed district and the Jews brought there from all over Europe—whether Czechoslovakia, Luxembourg, or Austria.
The author’s changing writing style reveals his worsening physical and psychological exhaustion—the effects of starvation are imprinted in the narration. As the book goes on, he rarely has the strength to write or study. But we also witness his unrelenting will to fight on. In his entries, Sierakowiak does his utmost not to overlook any information, or rather speculation, that might give him even a shred of hope. The Diary cuts off when Sierakowiak died of starvation at the age of 19. His entire family perished. His journal survived. It was discovered after the war in a pile of kindling lying beside a stove.
Sierakowiak’s work is an extraordinarily valuable document of Holocaust literature, in terms of its scale, the period it covers, and its scrupulous records—but also the stylistic quality of the entries, which take an individual perspective, are matter-of-fact and precise, and nearly bereft of subjective commentary. The entries’ literary minimalism makes space for their painful factual material. The simplicity of the narration collides with unimaginable, long-term suffering.
In Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag wrote, “Remembering is an ethical act, has ethical value in and of itself.”
In Dawid Sierakowiak’s book, every word matters. It does not make for comfortable reading.
Translated by Sean Bye