A Heroic Boy’s Diary 1940-1942

Henryk Grynberg


Paul was born the same year as Anne Frank in Berlin, where he lived with his parents and younger sister until 1938 when the Germans deported them to Poland. ‘They had dragged me out of bed and we rode on a train at night’ – he recalls. The family found shelter at his grandmother’s in Rymanów. His mother spoke German, his father spoke Polish, and his grandmother spoke Yiddish. Paul knew German, but he wrote in Polish ‘in order to practice the language’. Jewish children were not allowed to go to school, and so he and two other Jewish boys were tutored privately by a professional gentile teacher, Mrs. Nowicka. She gave him just a passing grade from Polish grammar, but the text of his diary is almost faultless. He wrote it from 1.03.1940 to 12.08.1942, just 95 entries, mostly a page or half a page, often merely a few sentences. Concisely like a good writer.

With sketchy but well-aimed strokes of pen, he portrayed his loved ones. ‘[Grandmother’s] tears were dripping into the dough. Grandma, I said, you are spoiling the cookies, they will be salty now’ (13.03.1940). ‘Grandma has a new habit. She fasts twice a week, nothing to eat or drink anything like on Yom Kippur. Mama does not believe this will help and so they quarrel twice a week (3.05.1941). ‘We don’t know what’s going on. Very many soldiers were marching along the main road... We also heard riding tanks, cannons and trucks; the panes were shaking in the windows… Grandma said that with such equipment you don’t go fishing in the San (19.05.1941). ‘Mama always dreamed that we would return to Berlin to our home at Unter den Linden, but now she dreams that we get back to the dwelling at Main Market’ (1.03.1940)—heir dwelling in Rymanów, appropriated by the German commandant. ‘Mama goes to the bakery at four in the morning. I wake up, when she closes the door and I look at my little sister. She has a face of a doll. I like to look at her when she sleeps’ (15.07.1940). In the photo, she indeed has delicate features but her large doll-like eyes are too intent and too serious for a doll. ‘She has found some old doll in the closet and talks to her all the time: ‘Sleep, Karolina, eat, Karolina…’ She promises the doll that daddy will come back and that we all will return to our home, and she will go to school’ (13.03.1940). Paul himself was not handsome: too long a nose, too narrow a forehead, too big eyeglasses, and sunken cheeks. Kafka would have looked like this, had he worn glasses. One more resemblance to Kafka:  Paul stayed six weeks in bed with a fever. ‘Doctor Bielecki came to see me almost every day and said I have something in my lungs’ (27.02.1941). One day the doctor was stopped by a German who warned him that he was not allowed to treat Jews. ‘To which the old doctor replied angrily and in perfect German: “It is I who decide whom to treat”’ (ibid). But from then on he would come to see him inconspicuously. Grandmother’s distant relative escaped from the Kraków ghetto with her three-year old daughter, who ”had seen her father shot and killed and could not sleep. Mama, mama, the Germans, the Germans, they are shooting, they are shooting!’- She cried every night. Until at the Seder they gave her some wine. ‘My daddy, my daddy has come’ – She said and fell asleep for the first time’ (22.04.1941). Now Paul had two little sisters. A gentile eyewitness would later say that when they stood in the middle of the marketplace – men, women and children separately – and she handed him some food for the road, Paul asked her to tell his dad that he was brave and did not cry. ‘He held Halinka with one hand and his little sister with the other.’ (p.79). Like Janusz Korczak.

His father and uncle, like many other Jews from Rymanów, had escaped to the Soviet side. Then the news came that all the refugees had been arrested and exiled to Siberia. He couldn’t understand ‘why suddenly Siberia?’ Mrs. Nowicka explained that „during tsarist rule, they sent there people who opposed the government.’ ‘But there are no more tsars in Russia and my dad does not oppose any government’ (26.06.1940) - the would-be Kafka kept wondering. ‘From my window I see tall trees; I hear the murmur of the little brook, and the birds waking up. Everything could have been so beautiful, but there are the Nazis and Siberia’ (15.07.1940) – he wrote during vacation in Iwonicz. He stood a whole day with his ‘nose glued to the window’ and cried watching ‘large rain drops dripping from the leaves’ (15.08.1940). He put into his notebook leaves from various trees for ‘a souvenir from this beautiful summer’ (27.08.1940).    

The child diarist saw Mr. Bodenstein „sobbing because his [elder] son is imprisoned in Russia and his younger son has not returned from [forced labour] camp’ (20.04.1941). He knew that ‘many people were killed in the camp near Lvov’ and that ‘many have died of hunger and disease in the ghettoes’ (23.06.1941). His friend’s mother was murdered during an investigation at the Gestapo (28.07.1941). ‘Eight Jewish boys had run away from the camp. People in town say the boys would try, through the Czech lands, to get to Palestine’ (1.08.1941). Paul knew some of them, including Josek Wenig. All of them were caught and tortured to death. Josek Wenig, both of whose legs the Germans cut off, was brought home on a wagon and ‘a few hours later turned blue and died in the arms of his mother’ (ibid). ‘Catholics came to his funeral, because Josek was a well-known footballer who had played a gentile team’ (13.08.1941). ‘Czesiek, Mr. Buczek’s only son, tried to run away.  He passed by our house and managed to run as far as the house of Goldszmit before a series of shots cut him down… They have apprehended several Poles and taken them away to Jaslo. It is known that nobody comes back from the Gestapo…’ (22.12.1941). In Iwonicz, ‘Mrs. Hauzner, the owner of a pension, was ordered to wash the high windows. She said that she is unable to climb a tall ladder. The German became very angry, took her with her daughter and her little son to the airfield in Krosno and shot them all’ (15.01.1942). ‘Yesterday, they executed two boys who had run away from the camp. The boys were from Sanok and must have tried to go home’ (22.06.1942). Paul saw and knew much more than did Anne Frank.

On the eve of the Jewish New Year (8.09.1941), his grandmother said that ‘tonight every Jew is judged by God… and in a week, on Yom Kippur, the verdict will be passed.’ Yet ‘one shouldn’t fear life or death, because such is the Jewish fate, which we must accept no matter what… Only after all the blood and tears have been shed, the Messiah will come, the dead will rise and we’ll all go to Jerusalem…’ ‘What is Grandma talking about?’ – asked his little sister. And the little Halinka said: ‘Let’s go now to Ruzalem.’ This night he ‘couldn’t sleep, ‘thinking of the verdict that Grandma said would come from Heaven’ (ibid). On Sukkoth, he is irritated by ‘Mrs. Szechner’s talking about how it was before the war… because what was will never come back and what will come is terrifying and unknown’ (14.10.1941). On the first night of Chanukah (15.12.1941), Mrs. Szechner told them the story of the Chanukah miracle. ‘We need a miracle too… because Jews have always lived only thanks to miracles’ – commented the prodigy. He did not know what to write when Mrs. Nowicka assigned them homework entitled „What will be after the war?’ (20.02.1942). Lonek Szerer told him about ‘a group of Jewish boys who have started a gym club and learn how to fight.’ He would like to join the club, but doubts whether ‘they would admit me because of my glasses’ (ibid). He heard that in the camp some Jews from outside of Rymanów ‘have paid a lot of money to Poles from the surrounding countryside so that the peasants should prepare dugouts in the forest where they could escape to…’ (ibid). During Shavuot, he noticed that ‘on the occasion of every Jewish Holiday, the Germans become increasingly worse and they beat people going to work’ (18.06.1942).

They cut short their last holiday in Iwonicz, because ‘the Germans placed posters all over the town’ announcing that all Jews over sixty had  to gather near the town hall (10.08.1942).  ‘Grandma has cooked a dinner as if for Shabbat… broth with noodles and apple compote… She has pulled out a pretty dress which she has not worn for a long time… It is night now, but there is light in all the windows, nobody sleeps… Mama is sitting on the bench outside the house pulling hair from her head and crying. Mrs. Szechner prays and cries alternately. Only Grandma rests calmly on her bed talking both to herself and to us all: “Don’t cry after me, don’t say Kaddish, and don’t sit Shiva. I’ll go there for my children…, and thanks to that my children will return from Siberia”’ (ibid).

    ‘I still hear women screaming ‘Mammeh. mammeh, I want to go with you!’, but the Germans beat everybody who came near. ‘Our Grandma stood in the first row. Everybody came out in the streets. The old people left on foot. Bronek, who followed them on a bicycle at a distance, came back late at night… They have all been shot and thrown in one grave. Mama says the Germans will take us too, because they don’t want to feed the Jews with food so much needed for the soldiers on the frontlines… She argued all night with Bronek, insisting that he take us to Iwonicz to his mother’s house. But Bronek would take only the girls, and Mama did not agree to separate us… Mrs. Szechner, too, said that at least the children should stay together’ (12.08.1942).

‘Now I understand what death is. It is not such a death as with old people where there is a funeral, Kaddish and a grave. Here death is quite different – with screaming, beating, crying – and one grave for all. I think that if Bronek does not want to take boys, then one day Mama and we will go too. I promised Grandma not to cry and I’ll keep my promise’ (ibid).

Paul’s notebook says it all.  More than the diary of Anne Frank does. And it should be the most required reading. Yet it remains virtually unknown. Published as Zeszyt Paula (Austeria 2014), it contains just 75 pages of text, half of which consists of the chaotic recollections of his elder first cousin Fryda Stary-Vogel about herself and an eight-page introduction by her daughter also about herself. And it is not Paul, but his elder cousin who appears on the cover as the author, and MichaÅ‚ Sobelman as ‘translator from the Hebrew’ as if nothing is there in the original Polish. Numerous footnotes translate all Hebraisms and the names of Jewish holidays, but there is no explanation for Germanized Yiddish expressions or the nonexistent place name Stary: refugees „write letters from Stary’ (p.34), the father had taken his violin ‘to Stary’ (p.36), uncle Mojsze ‘lives now in Stary’. A statement in the introduction that ‘rest of them was transported to the crematorium at Belżec’ (p. 12) reveals that its author or at least translator and editor did not know that there was no crematorium at that death camp, and the gaffe is repeated in a blurb on the back cover. Also cousin Fryda, who had survived the war in Russia, confuses crematoria with the gas chambers, when she states that ‘All people of faith had been led to the crematorium’ (p.25). The book does not contain information about the whereabouts of the original notebook. The formal modern manner of writing the dates as in the above quotations is also questionable.


MichaÅ‚ Sobelman confirms that he indeed translated Paul’s notebook from Hebrew, and explains that Fryda Stary-Vogel had apparently lost the original when leaving Poland in 1950, but had read it so many times that she was able to reconstruct it from memory and, helped by her Israeli-born daughter, wrote it down in Hebrew. After publishing the Polish version in 2014, Malka Shaham-Doron told an interviewer that her mother panicked when facing Polish custom officers and ‘pretending she urgently needed to go to the restroom, stepped out of the train car and buried the notebook together with some dollars under a tree in hope ‘she would one day return and retrieve it’ (Gazeta Wyborcza 25.10.2014). For the dollars in those days one could go to jail, but the notebook would have just been confiscated as a historical document and passed to the archives. The circumstances seem complicated indeed, but the back-and-forth translated diary sounds authentic and truthful, and the memory of this heroic boy and his loved ones must be preserved.

Postscript 2.  In Hebrew, ‘Stary’ is spelled without the vowel ‘a’ and so is, in fact, Stryj, a town across the German-Soviet occupation line, hence those letters ‘from Stary’, violin taken ‘to Stary’, and uncle living ‘in Stary’. This also proves that Paul’s diary has in indeed been translated from Polish to Hebrew and back to Polish.