Buried Words & Hidden Truths: A Guide for Reading Survivor Memoirs and Diaries
Posted November 06, 2017
Diaries written by Jews during the Holocaust were recorded under severe constraints. In the Netherlands, Anne Frank wrote her diary while hidden away from the world in a secret apartment built behind the family business, keeping very quiet so as not to be heard by the people who worked in the building.
Some diarists wrote in even more precarious situations: in a small town in Poland, Molly Applebaumwas hidden in a wooden box not tall enough for her to sit up in, buried underground in a farmer’s stable. Aside from her cousin Helena, who was in hiding with her, Molly’s only other daily companion was her diary. She recorded her feelings, impressions, fears and hopes, along with the conditions of life in hiding. She started the diary in early 1942 at the age of twelve and kept the diary for the duration of her time in hiding, from September 1942 to January 1945. Holocaust diaries are a rare and valuable source. Reading them provides insight into how Jews tried to make sense of what was unfolding around them, as well as the complexity of their emotional responses to the Holocaust.
Diaries are primary sources — documents and artifacts generated during the period under study, in this case the years 1933–1945 — and must be analyzed accordingly. When reading a diary we must consider the age, background and perspective of the author, and think about how these factors influence our reading of the text. The author of the diary, Molly, is an intelligent adolescent girl who has witnessed intense anti-Jewish violence and has been separated from her family. Confined in a tiny hiding place with her older cousin, their only outside contact was from Victor, their rescuer, and occasionally his sister Emilia. An understanding of the historical context is also essential when analyzing a primary source. Molly wrote during the peak years of killing in the Holocaust. Unlike Anne Frank, who was far removed from killing centres, Molly lived in Poland, where Jews were rounded up and killed in mass shootings near their homes or sent to killing centres located nearby. The punishment for Poles who helped Jews was very high, as was the level of Polish collaboration with the German occupiers.
Molly’s diary is a rich source of information on daily life in hiding in Poland. Her description of her new hiding place is immediate and evocative, written in the present tense as she experiences it, and available to us without the influence of editing or hindsight. In January 1943, Molly describes the physical toll hiding took on their bodies:
We changed our ‘accommodation’ today. We moved from the hideout in the barn to a box buried in the ground. It has a hole for light and air to come in, but we cannot sit in it. Lying idly for a whole day is horrible, for it is only at night when we can go out, stretch out in the stinking cold dark stable and shudder whenever we hear a dog bark. But it feels delightful, for our bones ache after an entire day spent lying. But how long can we stand in that darkness, cold and stench? Chilled to the bone and dead tired, after two hours we crawl back into our den, where we have our eiderdown and pillow. At six o’clock in the morning we crawl back out to wash ourselves a bit and relieve ourselves. After we go back in we lie there until night. In the evening we crawl back out and so on.
Many diarists were killed during the Holocaust, leaving their written words as their last testimony. Remarkably, Molly survived the Holocaust and chose to pick up the pen again more than fifty years later to write a memoir of her experiences.
Memoirs are very different kinds of texts than diaries and come with their own set of challenges and opportunities for learning about the Holocaust. Molly’s memoir follows a chronological narrative structure and uses the past tense to describe the events that she lived through. The memoir chronicles her entire life, allowing us to learn about her familybefore the war and how her life unfolded in the post-war years up to the present. It also includes her reflections on how the Holocaust has shaped her life. This version of her past includes what Molly has purposefully chosen to include, and, like all survivor memoirs, her narrative is influenced by popular and scholarly knowledge of the historical event we now refer to as the Holocaust. This influence is reflected in some passages that include her later interpretation of wartime developments, such as this comment on the deportation of Jews from her town in December 1942:
We heard rumours that all the missing people were taken to the East, to work on farms, but we wondered how they could survive without clothes, shoes and other basics. I think we preferred to be deceived; the truth would have been too harsh to swallow. We didn’t find out until much later that this was the first transport from Dąbrowa to the death camp of Bełżec.
Publishing the diary and memoir in the same volume throws into relief the different stories that a survivor can tell about their experiences. The most striking inconsistency in this volume is the way that Molly describes her relationship with her rescuer, Victor, in the diary as compared to the memoir. Molly dedicates her memoir to Victor and Emilia, the brother and sister who sheltered Molly and Helena. Throughout the memoir, Victor appears as generous and courageous, not giving up on his responsibility for the two girls even when his life is at stake. Victor and Emilia continue to help Molly after the war, and later Molly sends financial support to them and their descendants when she is established in Canada. Molly makes it clear that she owes her life to them and ends her memoir with an ode to their bravery:
I’d be remiss if I did not write about my connection with the family that saved my life. My original saviours, Victor and Emilia, brother and sister, are no longer alive, but their progeny lives on.... Their parents risked their lives for me for two and a half years, and I wonder who would do it now even for a day.
In contrast, Molly’s diary demonstrates that her feelings towards her rescuers changed dramatically over the course of the period in hiding. At first, Victor is their “beloved ‘uncle’ with a heart of gold.” But as the months stretch on and the risk of hiding Jews increases, Victor become a negligent and reluctant host, sometimes threatening to send them away or withholding food and other necessities. In June 1944, Molly writes, “his attitude toward us has changed for the worse. He no longer makes sure that we have what we can have and we are suffering terribly because of that.” The relationships changes in other ways too, as Victor starts having a sexual relationship with Helena, and later with Molly, who is thirteen years old. The sexual nature of their relationship is not mentioned in the memoir. How can we understand this omission?
One approach is to consider audience. For whom did Molly write her diary? At first, writing in the diary was a way to process her feelings for and loss of a beloved friend, as well as the increasing violence against Jews in Poland. But soon the diary became a record of Molly’s life in hiding and a place for her to vent her fears and frustrations. Given the private nature of the entries, it seems unlikely that she wrote the diary for posterity, like other Holocaust diarists. For Molly and Helena, who were cut off from the world and totally dependent on their rescuer, their relationship with him was a central feature of life in hiding, so Molly recorded their interactions alongside other developments.
The memoir’s audience is much clearer: in the preface Molly states that she wrote the memoir for her children and grandchildren, so that they could know her history. And she concludes the memoir by explaining that she translated it into Polish to send to her rescuers’ descendants, so that they would know what their parents had done. Given Molly’s intended readership, there was no place in this memoir for her sexual encounters with Victor. For many different reasons, Holocaust survivors’ accounts of their pasts include silences or omissions that are often assumed to be indications of trauma. In fact, survivors make deliberate choices based on their reflections on their experiences, their considerations of what is appropriate for a given audience, and what they feel able to bear at the time of telling. Whether or not Molly made this decision purposefully, some aspects of life in hiding that were communicable for her during the war became much less so afterwards.
Publishing Molly’s diary and memoir together provides an opportunity for students and educators to consider essential themes in the history of the Holocaust. The book teaches us about the physical and mental conditions of life in hiding, the dynamic bonds that formed between people in hiding, and the complex relationships of dependence that could develop in situations of rescue. And where the diary ends with the liberation of Poland, the memoir continues and shows Molly’s post-war life, though it is not the life readers want for her. As an orphan, Molly moves to Canada where she struggles to build a life and suffers in an unhappy marriage. Her memoir allows us to consider questions of survival, trauma and memory through the voice of a survivor looking back on her life.
Together, the diary and memoir share with us how Molly interpreted and represented her life during the Holocaust, and how she understands and chooses to communicate that same period many years later; both versions are Molly’s truths.