All month I’ve had a certain person on my mind: Rywka Lipszyc. I read her diary over the first few days of this month. Just published last year in an exquisite glossy, coffee-table like edition, it looks like the book is already out of print. I count myself lucky to have snapped up a good condition used copy at the reasonable price of $30.
Rywka (pronounced “Riv-ka”) was a Polish-Jewish girl in the Lodz Ghetto and kept a diary there for a six-month period from the fall of 1943 to the spring of 1944. She was sixteen, I believe. After liberation, a Red Army doctor found the diary in the ruins of the crematoria at Auschwitz. The doctor’s family kept the book for 60 years before one of them moved to San Francisco and donated it to the Holocaust Center of Northern California. It is that organization that published the book.
It is a valuable historical document and very well researched and annotated and so on. But what interests me most about the diary is not Rywka’s writing or the life she was leading in the ghetto but rather, what happened to her later.
The diary’s researchers were able to track down two of Rywka’s cousins. The three of them had been in Bergen-Belsen when that camp was liberated. All of the camp’s inmates were starving and very ill, and the cousins were evacuated to Sweden for medical treatment. However, Rywka was too sick to be moved and doctors told her cousins she would probably not live for more than another couple of days. Gradually the two girls recovered and got on with their lives. They assumed Rywka had died and one of them made a page of testimony for her.
Except she didn’t die. Further research found Rywka staying at a German hospital several months after her cousins left Bergen-Belsen. And that’s when her story ends. All the records stop: no discharge certificate, no death certificate, nothing. Rywka was just gone. She disappeared. I’ve read over 50 Holocaust diaries and this is the first I’ve come across where the author’s fate is unknown.
I have lately found myself mulling over her potential fate in my mind. Now, when a Jewish person goes through the Holocaust and their fate is unknown, you generally have to assume they were killed. But we know for a fact that Rywka survived, for a little while at least. I think it’s entirely possible that she recovered from her ordeal, cut her ties with the past and changed her name. She was very young, I think around seventeen. Everyone in her immediate family had been killed and so had everyone in her extended family, except those two cousins. And in the chaos of postwar Europe, it would have been easy to change your identity and vanish.
If the theory of a voluntary disappearance is correct, Rywka could have gone virtually anywhere. America. Canada. Israel. Australia. Brazil. Etc. She could have married, perhaps to another survivor, and started a family of her own, and had kids and grandkids. I know that many if not most Holocaust survivors chose to throw themselves into their postwar lives and never talk about the past. Rywka could, conceivably, be alive today. She’d be in her late eighties by now, but plenty of people live to be that age.
Oh, I know that the balance of probabilities is that Rywka is dead and has been dead for decades. But there’s still that sliver of possibility there, and it’s been poking at my mind all week.