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The Sister She Never Knew

Two months ago, Yad Vashem published the diary of Rutka Laskier, a Jewish girl from Poland who, at the age of 14, died in the Auschwitz concentration camp. Over the course of a few months in 1943, Rutka kept a diary while living in a ghetto in the town of Bedzin, about 20 miles from Auschwitz. She wrote about her first love, but also about the gas chambers. For 60 years, her Christian friend Stanislawa Sapinska preserved the diary. She and Rutka had agreed that Rutka would hide her diary under the stairs of her house and Sapinska would retrieve it after the war. In 2005, Sapinska decided to make it available to the public.

Rutka’s father, Yaacov, was the only family member to survive the Holocaust. He immigrated to Israel, remarried and had another daughter, Zahava Scherz, who works in Rehovot as a director of science and education communication at the Weizmann Institute of Science. She recently sat down with the Forward to discuss the sister she never met.

Rutka Laskier’s diary is compared to Anne Frank’s. In what sense, do you think, the diaries are similar?

I read Anne Frank’s diary some years ago, but I remember it quite well. In a way, Rutka’s diary is a completion to Anne Frank’s. Both of them were born in 1929, and both were Jewish girls who died in concentration camps. Both wrote about their love affairs and their personal lives on the one hand, and the Holocaust on the other. Besides the similarities, their situations were quite different. Rutka was not locked in a flat, but lived in an open ghetto. She knew about Auschwitz and the war between Germany and Russia. She even escaped an attempted deportation. I hate to say it, but there is more action in Rutka’s diary. It’s also much shorter.

I was surprised that a girl her age knew about Auschwitz

Yes, it’s unbelievable. It was a shock to me that she knew about the gas chambers. I thought Jewish people didn’t know about them until they came to Auschwitz. Stanislawa Sapinska, her friend, thinks that she possibly was connected to a secret organization. She was a very political person and a very sharp, strong and mature character.

Did your feelings change after you read the diary?

I knew that my father had a daughter who died in Auschwitz, but he didn’t talk to me about her a lot. I never felt like she was my sister. Then I got to know her through the diary and by meeting her friends, and all of a sudden she became real to me and very close. I discovered how wonderful she was. I became proud of her, and I started to love her. I became her sister, and she became mine. I grew up as an only child, and suddenly I wasn’t anymore. That is very nice.

How did you first learn of Rutka?

When I was a child, my father, Yaacov, never talked with me about his former family. At the age of 14, I found a photo album, which he didn’t keep with the others but between some cloths in a cupboard. I had noticed that my father and my mother took this album out and looked inside from time to time, and I wanted to see what was in there. I found the picture of a girl and asked my father why we looked so alike. He said, “That’s my daughter Rutka.” He told me he had a wife, a daughter and a son and that they were killed in the Holocaust. I was shocked. I cannot even explain how sorry I felt for him. You think your parents are normal people with a normal life, and suddenly you discover how much they have suffered. I couldn’t understand how people could suffer so much.

Did you know that your father had survived the Holocaust?

Yes, I did. He was in Auschwitz and had a tattoo on the inside of his left forearm. After Auschwitz, he was transferred to Sachsenhausen and worked in the Bernhard operation. The Jewish prisoners had to print false money for the Germans; the Germans wanted to use it to destabilize the economy of the Allies. It was a top-secret operation. At the end of the war, he was transferred to Austria. They were all doomed to death, but when the Americans came, the Germans escaped and left all the prisoners behind. Then he immigrated to Israel.

*How did he talk about Rutka?**

With a lot of love, sorrow and pain, but without giving any details. We only talked a few times about her. He only said that she was very smart and very mature, nothing more. I think he wanted to protect me and also himself. If you decide to continue with your life, you cannot live with your other life. He had to make a cut. I think he is fortunate that he didn’t know about the diary. I cried when I read it, and I didn’t even know her. He had enough bad memories. I fear that my father wouldn’t have been able to continue his life.

You wrote the foreword of the publication. Why did you choose to write it in such a sober, minimalistic style?

I wanted to give facts. I don’t see myself as a writer, and I didn’t want to divert the readers’ attention from Rutka’s diary. It’s her book, not mine.

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