A new exhibit coming to Jewish Museum Milwaukee will explore the content and context of a diary found in the rubble of the liberated Auschwitz-Birkenau camp, which went unexamined for more than 60 years.
“The Girl in the Diary: Searching for Rywka From the Łódź Ghetto” was first mounted by the Galicia Jewish Museum in Kraków, Poland in 2017. The exhibit opening at Jewish Museum Milwaukee, a program of Milwaukee Jewish Federation, will be its premiere in the United States.
The exhibit is centered around a 112-page diary written by Jewish teen Rywka Lipszyc about her life in the Łódź Ghetto between October 1943 and April 1944, discovered by a Red Army doctor at Auschwitz in 1945.
“When people were sent to the camps and separated, they were stripped of their belongings. So the fact that it was found and in incredible condition is amazing,” notes Jewish Museum Milwaukee curator Molly Dubin.
“We now have this new voice that speaks to a period of time in the Łódź Ghetto that scholars didn’t have a lot of information about.”
The diary languished among the Soviet doctor’s possessions for years, well after she died. In 2008, her granddaughter, who was living in San Francisco, took it home with her.
She brought it to San Francisco Jewish Children and Family Services, where Dr. Anita Friedman was one of the diary’s first readers. Friedman was instrumental in putting together a research team from Israel, Poland and the U.S., trying to uncover what happened to Rywka (pronounced “Rivka”), which turned out to be a great mystery, according to Dubin.
“Did she survive? Did she live a long life? Was she able to bring to fruition many of the dreams she talked about as a little girl?”
The researchers worked to track down Rywka’s relatives to obtain their testimony and unravel the mystery.
Rywka was 11 when the war broke out. Early on, her father was killed, and her mother died of an illness. Two of her younger siblings were taken away, and she and a younger sister wound up living with cousins.
Although a cousin of Rywka’s assumed she had died of an illness shortly after the war, researchers discovered a signed displaced persons registration card from mid-to-late 1945, including her desired destination listed as Palestine.
“And that,” says Dubin, “is when the trail goes cold.”
The exhibit includes a huge interactive multimedia light table with reproduced excerpts from the diary; commentary and analysis by scholars, rabbis, and psychiatrists, to put the diary into context; compartments with historical artifacts; and images from people in the Łódź Ghetto projected onto the walls, to help attendees see life as it was in the ghetto.
Nearly 70 years after its discovery, “The Diary of Rywka Lipszyc” was first published in 2014, in Hebrew, English and Polish, by northern California’s Jewish Family and Children’s Services Holocaust Center, in whose archives the original diary is now held.
Dubin notes that while there are a number of Holocaust-era diaries young people wrote in ghettos and concentration camps, the majority are written by young men. Anne Frank’s diary is the most comparable, with the primary difference being that Rywka was Orthodox.
“It was really her faith in God that was her anchor for surviving,” observes Dubin. “Her faith is a blessing and a curse. It’s also hugely difficult for her, like when she talks about being forced to work on Shabbat, she talks about having to betray her faith. She was documenting what it felt like to work, to be starving… But above all, it’s a coming-of-age story. Grappling with emotions and insecurities, against the backdrop of atrocities.”
The Girl in the Diary: Searching for Rywka From the Łódź Ghetto opens at Jewish Museum Milwaukee on Jan. 24 – after a preview event on Jan. 23 – and runs through May 17, 2020.
How to go
What: “The Girl in the Diary: Searching for Rywka From the Łódź Ghetto”
When: Jan. 24-May 17, 2020
Where: Jewish Museum Milwaukee, 1360 N. Prospect Ave.
More info: 414-390-5730; JewishMuseumMilwaukee.org