Skip to main content
PBS logo

Book Review of We Are Witnesses : Five Diaries Of Teenagers Who Died In The Holocaust

We Are Witnesses : Five Diaries Of Teenagers Who Died In The Holocaust
terez93 avatar reviewed on + 323 more book reviews

I've been reading quite a few books of this type recently, after a visit to the Anne Frank exhibit at the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles. Many of them have been on my to-read list for quite some time, and I wanted to read more of the personal experiences of individuals who were eyewitnesses to what occurred in that tragic decade, as opposed to the traditional narrative histories I usually read. It's important to note that Anne Frank's groundbreaking record of her experiences in hiding represented only one person's view; there were no doubt thousands of similar accounts, but they are much less well-known.

This book is a compilation of similar written accounts of teenagers who experienced some of the worst atrocities ever inflicted by man, and who likewise showed an almost superhuman resilience in the face of almost certain death. The first account is that of David Rubinowicz, a Polish Jew who lived in a small village in Poland with his two siblings and his parents, who owned a dairy. He recounts the arrest of his father who was sent to a labor camp, but returned home for a brief time, but the entire family was murdered at Treblinka in September, 1942, along with 850,000 other Jews in a little over a year.

Yitzhak Rudashevski was the son of a typesetter father and a seamstress mother, in Vilnius, Lithuania. A committed and idealistic Communist (many Jewish residents believed that communism was the answer to the persecution to which they had been subjected) after the Soviet arrival, Yitzhak witnessed the invasion by the Germans and the abandonment of the red-star wearing Soviets, leaving them to the mercy of Hitler's armies. How he met his end, and when, is unclear, but it appears that he was "liquidated" in the fall of 1943 with the other Vilnius ghetto residents, either in a death camp or from being worked to death in an Estonian labor camp, at age fifteen.

The third author, Moshe Flinker, was born in the Hague, Netherlands, to an orthodox Jewish businessman father and a Polish immigrant mother. He was thirteen when the Nazis invaded in 1940, and soon after, his family migrated to Belgium to live under false papers as Dutch nationals in an attempt to conceal their Jewish heritage and faith. The latter was perhaps the most difficult aspect of the struggle for devout orthodox Moshe. Despite his clinging to his faith to the last, betrayed, the family was sent to Auschwitz. Although several siblings survived, Moshe did not. Despite his love for his religion, it's clear that Mosche struggled with his faith and the suffering he and his people were enduring. He wrote in his diary: "I think that upon experiencing such great anguish [people] will think that there is no God at all in the universe, because had there been a God, he would not have let such things happen to His people. I have heard this said many times already - and indeed, what can God intend by all these calamities that are happening to us in this terrible period? It seems to me that the time has come for our redemption, or rather, that we are more or less worthy of being redeemed."

The fourth writer, Eva Heyman, like Anne Frank, started writing a diary she was given as a gift on her thirteenth birthday. She lived in Hungary with her mother and grandparents, and speaks passionately about what was taken from them, starting with her grandfather's pharmacy. She seems the most ready to resist, confronting even the police who had come to confiscate her bicycle. Moved into the ghetto in Budapest, she was eventually deported and sent to Auschwitz, where Mengele himself may have sent her to the gas chamber, because of infection in her feet. Eva's mother and grandfather survived the war, but only for a short time. He died at age fifty-one in 1949, and her mother shortly thereafter committed suicide.

The final author in this collection is Anne Frank: I will, for the sake of space, comment little on her account as it's so famous. So much so, in fact, that the editor wrote: "Anne's diary is world famous. It has been translated into dozens of languages. It has been made into a movie and play.... Teachers use it in their classrooms. Presidents have quoted from it. She's the 'world's most famous child.'"

One of the key themes in Anne Frank's diary is that of the interpersonal conflict which arose between the residents of the Annex, doubtless a result of the unimaginable strain of remaining in hiding under appalling conditions of confinement. Other accounts likewise speak of strained relationships: after their home is ransacked, their food and valuables confiscated, and summary arrests, David Rubinowicz's father snaps and savagely beats him with a belt for not tidying up a woodshed, but is then later deported: despite the terrible brutality, when his father was being taken away in a truck, David laments, "I saw him on the last truck; his eyes were red with weeping. I kept on looking at him until he disappeared around the corner; then I had a sudden fit of crying, and I felt how much I love him and how much he loves me. And only now did I feel that what I wrote... about him not loving me was a beastly lie, and who knows if I won't have to pay for doubting him when it wasn't true at all... I cried a very long time, and every time I thought of Father's tear-stained face, I began sobbing all over again. The dearest person in the whole world we had, they've taken away from us-and ill as well."

Another key theme in this collection is the betrayal of other members of the community against the Jews when the Nazis began attacking them. Yitzhak wrote of the vicious attacks of other Lithuanians against Jewish residents for supporting the Soviets and embracing communism: "The Lithuanians especially had not forgotten that many Jews had welcomed Soviet soldiers with open arms, and were eager to get revenge.... The Germans could afford to remain aloof as the locals took revenge on the Jews for having supported the Soviets." The Lithuanians themselves reportedly dragged residents from their homes and drove them to train stations for deportation or to be shipped off to labor camps, sometimes in exchange for money from the Germans. Mosche Flinker's family, like the Frank family, was betrayed to the Nazis and sent to Auschwitz, where Mosche and his parents were murdered, although several of his siblings survived, and returned to their hiding place in Belgium, where his diary was found.

All of the authors of these accounts, in fact, did eventually perish in ways some too horrible to even contemplate. Their words speak to their terrible fear and anxiety, more for family members than for themselves, but also to their strength of spirit and the acknowledgement of how critical a period in history it was, such that the actions of their persecutors needed to be recorded, as did the heroic deeds of their community members who surrounded them, some of whom risked their own lives to help others. As the editor, a Holocaust survivor himself, noted: "living under the gun took its toll. Murders 'for no reason,' arrests 'for any trifle,' and humiliations and beatings and requisitionings and roundups and fear, always fear. 'If only you could have one quiet day,' [David] wrote on April 19, 1942. 'My nerves are utterly exhausted; whenever I hear of anyone's distress, I burst into tears, my head starts aching, and I'm exhausted, as if I'd been doing the hardest possible work. It's not only me; everyone feels the same.'" This, written by a thirteen-year-old who would not survive. The theme of humanity remains strong, despite the madness going on around these young but insightful people and their loved ones.

------------NOTABLE PASSAGES------------
In Germany, the Nazis came for the Communists, and I didn't speak up because I was not a Communist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn't speak up because I was not a Jew. Then they came for the labor unionists, and I didn't speak up because I was not a labor unionist. Then they came for the Catholics and I was a Protestant so I didn't speak up. Then they came for me..... By that time there was no one to speak up for anyone.
-Martin Niemoller (1892-1964)

We live in a time when you can't speak out; all you can do is keep quiet and swallow everything.

I walk burdened and irritated. The Lithuanians drive us on, do not let us rest. I think of nothing; not what I am losing, not what I have just lost, not what is in store for me. I o not see the streets before me, the people passing by. I only feel that I am terribly weary, I feel that an insult, a hurt is burning inside me. Here is the ghetto gate. I feel that I have been robbed, my freedom is being robbed from me, my home, and the familiar Vilna [Vilnius] streets I love so much. I have been cut off from all that is dear and precious to me.

I shall never stop hoping... because the moment I stop hoping I shall cease to exist. All I hav is hope; my entire being depends on it. And at the same time I have nothing. What will these useless hopes bring me? I don't know what to do.