Czech Holocaust diary given a permanent home in Israel

Czech Holocaust diary given a permanent home in Israel

Temple administrator adds girl’s journal to Yad Vashem archives

One of two wartime diaries kept by Shoa victim Jarmila Steinova and donated by Alice Lutwak
One of two wartime diaries kept by Shoa victim Jarmila Steinova and donated by Alice Lutwak

JERUSALEM — For decades, Alice Lutwak’s family protected two diaries — one leather-bound, the other wrapped in patchwork cloth — written by a young girl in prewar Czechoslovakia.

Beginning on Christmas Day 1934 when she was 11, Jarmila Steinova wrote about her grades, school trips, her faith, and the growing menace from Nazi Germany, which inspired her to write a poem: “The Germans with their raised fists are screaming/ We are not worried about their threats.”

Eight years later, Jarmila and her family would be deported first to Terezin, and then to Auschwitz. After the war, the diaries were entrusted to Lutwak’s father, Rabbi Emil Davidovic, when he served as a rabbi in Prague. Nearly 70 years later, Lutwak, the executive director of Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in Short Hills, presented the diaries to officials of Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust authority.

Visiting Yad Vashem Oct. 18 along with members of a New Jersey interfaith mission to Israel featuring Jews, Muslims, and Christians, Lutwak said she chose the occasion as a reminder of the Nazis’ ruthless disregard of faith, nationality, or creed. Although Jarmila’s parents were atheists, and she herself was drawn to her nanny’s Christianity, the family would eventually be targeted because they were Jews.

“They died because they had no place to go,” Lutwak told members of the Roots of Faith mission, organized by the Newark Interfaith Coalition for Hope & Peace. “There is no gravestone bearing their names. There is nobody to say Kaddish for them and for millions of other Jews whose entire families were wiped out.

“I am leaving Jarmila’s diary here in Israel, in Jerusalem. She was not related to me by blood. But she is my sister. I brought her home.”

Accepting the diaries was Dr. Haim Gertner, director of Yad Vashem’s Archives Division. His department is engaged in a campaign, “Gathering the Fragments,” to rescue personal items from the Holocaust period. The diary will join millions of documents, photos, artifacts, and works of art entrusted to Yad Vashem for safekeeping. Contemporaneous diaries, said Gertner, are relatively rare; only a few hundred have been collected so far.

“We don’t want to talk about the six million or one-and-a-half million children who died,” said Gertner, describing Yad Vashem’s mission, “but to talk about one child, one family.”

In the diary, Jarmila describes the German occupation of Czechoslovakia, beginning in 1938, and the restrictions placed on Czech Jews. Lutwak said the girl was baffled by the new rules, since she did not feel Jewish. In 1938, the family converted to Christianity and attempted to leave the country, but could not find a haven.

During the presentation ceremony, Gertner gave Lutwak copies of documents tracing the Stein family’s fate during the war. (Steinova is the matronymic version of the family name.) In 1942 Jarmila and her family were sent to Terezin, and from there they were deported to Auschwitz. The records indicate that Jarmila was killed during a bombing raid on Aug. 4, 1944, in Hamburg-Neuengamme in Germany.

Lutwak explained that her own parents were Holocaust survivors who after the war wound up in Czechoslovakia, where her father served as a rabbi. She said her father either found the diary or was given it by a member of his congregation.

The family kept the journal after they were allowed to leave the Czech Republic in 1962. Lutwak’s father died in 1986, and the two volumes of the diary were eventually passed on to her. “As I read the diaries I realized that for my children and grandchildren who do not read Czech, the diaries have no historical meaning, perhaps just some sentimental value,” she said. Two months ago she decided to find a permanent home for the volumes, after first managing to locate and check with a Stein family cousin who survived the war and lives in Chile.

Although unrelated to the Steins, Lutwak said something more than blood unites their two families. Her own brother Tuvia was two and her sister Shaindl six months old when they were killed at Auschwitz. Lutwak was born after the war.

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