Rutka Laskier was born into a Jewish family in Poland in 1929, the eldest of two children. Her exact date of birth is unknown, but is generally considered to be 12 June 1929, the same date as Anne Frank. Her father was a prosperous banker and Rutka enjoyed a relatively carefree childhood in the 1930s, learning to ski on family holidays and making many friends at her private school. Like millions of Jews in Europe, however, Rutka’s life was irrevocably altered with the outbreak of World War Two in September 1939, when Nazi troops invaded Poland.
Rutka’s hometown of Bedzin was occupied within days of the invasion and the family would have been quick to realise the danger they now faced. On 8 September, members of Bedzin’s Jewish community were burned to death while praying in the local synagogue. Such anti-Semitic brutality was commonplace and the Nazis soon began forcing Jews throughout Poland into areas of towns and cities where they were segregated from non-Jewish society. The Laskiers were no exception: they were moved from their comfortable home into a house that the Nazis had repossessed from a Catholic family to be part of Bedzin’s new Jewish ghetto.
Conditions in the ghettos were overcrowded, unsanitary and demoralizing. Several generations often dwelled in one small room and indeed Rutka, her parents, her brother and her grandmother all shared the same cramped living space. Over three years after the start of the war, in January 1943, the teenage Rutka began writing a diary, chronicling her life in the Bedzin ghetto in sixty pages of a notebook. Among the horrors she witnessed under the Nazi occupation was the brutal murder of a Jewish baby by a German soldier. She also recounted an ‘action’ that had taken place in August 1942, when Bedzin’s Jews were herded into a local sports stadium and subjected to a selection. Rutka had been selected for hard labour on this occasion; however, she escaped by jumping from a first floor window and returned to her family.
Like many ghetto Jews, Rutka Laskier worked for low wages in a local factory. Employment was a fragile safety net, as any Jew deemed ‘unproductive’ was at even greater risk of maltreatment, but it seems that Rutka worked in one of the factories that was reasonably safe. In her diary, Rutka not only reflected on work, the war and the increasing precariousness of the situation for Jews, but on social activities and budding relationships with boys. Her moods varied greatly, from confusion and frustration over her feelings towards certain male friends; to longing for freedom from the bounds of ghetto life and persecution, all the while fearing what her ultimate fate might be.
While many ghettos were initially ‘open’, permitting residents to move beyond the boundaries when a curfew was not in place, the majority were closed, with high walls, barbed wire and armed soldiers preventing anyone from leaving. As the Nazi campaign against the Jews twisted towards a policy of annihilation, many ghettos that had previously been open were sealed.
Soon after Rutka’s final diary entry, dated 24 April 1943, the Laskier family were moved from the open Bedzin ghetto to the closed Kamionka ghetto on the outskirts of the city. On 5 August 1943, they were deported to the Auschwitz extermination camp, just twenty miles away.
For decades it was assumed that Rutka was gassed on arrival, along with her mother, grandmother and younger brother Henius, who was just 6-years-old. In 2008, however, evidence surfaced that revealed Rutka had, in fact, survived several months in Auschwitz before contracting cholera. According to a fellow female inmate who survived, Rutka begged to be taken to the electric fence so she could end her life, but armed guards on the camp’s watch towers made this impossible. Her friend transported her to the crematoria on a wheelbarrow, as she was too weak to walk, and she died sometime in December 1943, aged 14.
Rutka’s father, Yaakov, was the only member of his family to survive the Holocaust and he remarried in Israel in 1947. Unbeknown to him, Rutka had hidden her diary in a gap beneath the top step and the landing of the house in which they had lived before moving to Kamionka. Stanislawa Sapinska, whose family owned the house, had been friends with Rutka and knew about the hiding place. When Stanislawa returned after the war, she found the diary almost perfectly preserved and kept it secret for over sixty years. At the age of 82, she shared it with her family and was persuaded to show it to the Polish authorities, leading to the diary’s publication in 2006 as Rutka’s Notebook.
One of the most poignant entries, dated 20 February 1943, reads:
‘I have a feeling I am writing for the last time. There is an Aktion [a Nazi arrest operation] in town. I’m not allowed to go out and I’m going crazy, imprisoned in my own house. For a few days, something’s in the air. The town is breathlessly waiting in anticipation, and this anticipation is the worst of all. I wish it would end already! This torment; this is hell. I try to escape these thoughts, of the next day, but they keep haunting me like nagging flies. If only I could say, it’s over, you only die once. Despite these atrocities I want to live, and wait for the following day. That means waiting for Auschwitz or labour camp.’
On 5 February, she wrote:
‘I simply can’t believe that one day I will be allowed to leave this house without the yellow star. Or even that this war will end one day. If this happens I will probably lose my mind from joy. The little faith I used to have has been completely shattered. If God existed, he would have certainly not permitted that human beings be thrown alive into furnaces, and the heads of little toddlers be smashed with the butt of guns or be shoved into sacks and gassed to death.’
Parallels are often drawn between Rutka Laskier and Anne Frank, another Jewish teenager who kept a diary during the Holocaust era but who ultimately perished in the Nazi concentration camps. Like Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl, Rutka’s Notebook is an important and poignant written testimony that gives a unique insight into how ordinary people endeavoured to survive in terrible, extraordinary times.