Notes From The Attic
The Diary of Petr Ginz, 1941-1942
Edited by Chava Pressburger, translated by Elena Lappin
Atlantic Monthly Press, 192 pages, $24.
When the Columbia space shuttle exploded in February 2003, there was a drawing on board — a moonscape by a young Auschwitz victim named Petr Ginz. In the aftermath of the explosion, news reports mentioning the Ginz drawing reached the Czech Republic, where a Prague resident made a significant discovery: He was in possession of Ginz’s pre-Auschwitz wartime diary. Apparently, it had been collecting dust in his attic for decades. Now, more than 60 years after 16-year-old Ginz died in a gas chamber, his sister — a survivor — is publishing the diary.
Perhaps because the circumstances surrounding the diary’s discovery are so cinematic, the publicity campaign for “The Diary of Petr Ginz, 1941-1942” has been somewhat frenzied. Ginz’s moonscape and a few short stories found along with the diary indicate that the Prague teenager had artistic ambitions, so the Atlantic Monthly Press has tried to market Ginz as a symbol of lost talent. Reviewers have followed suit. The International Herald Tribune, for example, compares Ginz to Anne Frank and calls the teenage victim “a budding Czech literary and artistic genius whose life was cut short by the Nazis.” Die Welt, a German newspaper, describes Ginz as “a talented and courageous youth.”
Emphasis on talent makes good sense when discussing Anne Frank, a truly extraordinary prose stylist. Yet talk of genius seems exaggerated with reference to Ginz. Perhaps Ginz would have grown up to lead the Czech literary scene, perhaps not. His diary is spare — more of a log than a journal — and the entries are short, most often just one or two lines. After recording the date, it was Ginz’s habit to describe his whereabouts and activities without analysis or comment. One typical entry from May 17, 1942, read: “Homework in the morning. In the afternoon outside.” Two days later, on May 19: “In the morning at home and in town. In the afternoon at school.” Then, on May 22: “Home all day, nothing special.”
Not every entry is quite so laconic. The diary includes a mature poem in which Ginz enumerates the restrictions placed upon Jews in Nazi-occupied Prague: “the outcast Jew/must give up all habits he knew:/he can’t buy clothes, can’t buy a shoe,/since dressing well is not his due.” After receiving a transport summons, Ginz provides a heartbreaking description of his last day at home: “While walking, I tried to absorb, for the last time, the street noise I would not hear again for a long time.”
Nevertheless, “The Diary of Petr Ginz” is not literature. Why, then, have some members of the media treated it as such? The simple answer is that a literary journal is more marketable than a collection of notes. But there’s something else at work here: the impulse to commemorate Holocaust victims, and to convey the horror of the Holocaust itself, by pretending that every victim was somehow extraordinary or singular. That impulse is terribly misguided. If there had been no Anne Franks, if there had been no “budding geniuses,” if each and every one of the 6 million victims had been perfectly ordinary, the Holocaust would have been no less horrific.
It’s better to see Petr Ginz as he really was: an ordinary boy who found himself, to quote Art Spiegelman, “on the fault line where World History and Personal History collide.” The diary is certainly worth reading — not for the sporadic poetic passages but as a historical document, or as a case study of adolescent psychology under duress.
Juliet Lapidos is a freelance journalist living in Brooklyn.