the column | A diary saved me, but not herby dan pine
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Don’t get me wrong. I love the synagogue 50th anniversaries, the latke-and-vodka galas, the seders in the desert. These stories make the Jewish community go, and make this newspaper go, too.
But some stories are better than others.
Such was the case three weeks ago with my cover story about Rywka Lipszyc, the 14-year-old Jewish girl from Lodz, Poland, whose ghetto diary was found in the ashes of Auschwitz by a Soviet doctor after the camp’s liberation.
Hidden for decades in the Soviet Union, Rywka’s diary eventually was discovered by the doctor’s granddaughter, brought to San Francisco, translated by the Holocaust Center of Northern California and recently published by Jewish Family and Children’s Services.
It’s a hardcover miracle, now available at retail.
I could tell immediately this story had meaning not only for the Jewish community, but also for me personally. Though I never experienced the fear and privation Rywka suffered, I, too, was a teenage diarist.
From the time I was 14 until age 22, I kept a diary. I hardly missed a day. My entire drama-ridden high school and early post–high school experience was captured on paper: page after page, notebook after notebook of overwrought, hand-scrawled self-importance.
Twice in my adult life I revisited the diary from start to finish, and found it an astonishing document.
It starts out as a simplistic chronicle of my daily activities, with an occasional poorly rendered rhetorical flourish. As I get into my late teens and more deeply reliant on my friends, the diary changes.
It becomes a refuge, a sounding board and, most important, the scaffolding for my emerging adult personality.
In vivid detail I write about Rolling Stones concerts, high school crushes, a calamitous trip to Europe, painful pangs of desire and loneliness.
My diary overflows with hysteria and linguistic excess, alternating between self-loathing and self-aggrandizement. One day I see myself as the greatest writer of my generation or, more accurately, of all time. The next day, I am a worthless dweeb bemoaning the fact that no one understands me.
Looking back, I come away with two overarching impressions of young Dan the diarist. One, the process of ego-construction is long and difficult. Fortunately I had the diary to confide in, to work through endless doubts and musings.
The other impression: By keeping a diary, I taught myself how to write. I did not learn it in high school, nor in college. I learned it through the daily discipline of confession, trying out different voices, stretching to be a better stylist than I was at the time.
Though written in a different time and place, and under far different circumstances, Rywka’s diary hit me hard. Not only because of her shocking depiction of ghetto life, but because so much of her diary seemed normal.
In many respects Rywka’s diary reads like that of any 14-year-old anywhere, anytime. She gossips about other kids. She writes bad poems. She fawns over an older teen she admires excessively. She punctuates her entries with exclamations and melodramatic asides. All this while starving.
Like me, Rywka wanted to be a writer. I could feel her straining to express herself more eloquently as the diary goes along (it covers the six months between October 1943 and April 1944).
Rywka, too, invokes that inalienable right of teenhood: to see oneself as the center of the universe, even when the world, apparently, has gone to hell.
Through it all, it is impossible not to identify with her hunger to live, her need to make sense of the madness all around her. Rywka wanted to grow up.
She did not get to. Though she survived the war, the paper trail on Rywka Lipszyc goes cold about six months after the end of the war. Most likely she died alone in a hospital, her entire family dead, her poor body worn out from the ordeal.
I got to live. I got to work out my teen angst and become a writer, just like I always wanted. And so, I felt a deep kinship with Rywka and felt duty-bound to recount her story.
I owed it to her, one teenage dreamer to another.
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