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The International School for Holocaust Studies

“Dear diary, I don’t want to die” – The Diary of Éva Heyman

Teaching the Story of the Holocaust in Hungary Through One Diary

By Franziska Reiniger

The Diary of Éva Heyman

by Éva Heyman, Agnes Zsolt (Editor), Moshe M. Kohn (Translator)
Published 1988 by Shapolsky Publishers
124 pages

“Dear diary, […] you’re my best friend and I mustn’t keep any secret from you.”[1]

These are the words that describe the relationship between the teenager Éva Heyman and her diary. Her diary was her best friend to whom she could reveal her deepest secrets. Éva locked her diary so that “no one will ever know my secrets.” [2]

This is the reason why diaries are so extraordinary. As opposed to other testimonies, memoirs or novels, diaries reveal the immediate thoughts, fears and wishes of the person writing them and represent therefore the most personal and intimate accounts of someone’s life.

What makes Éva's diary so valuable is that it gives us a portrait of a 13-year old, middle-class Jewish girl growing up in Hungary in 1944, when the Jews of Hungary stand on the edge of the abyss of the Holocaust. Because Éva wrote her innermost secrets, her diary allows us a glimpse into that prewar world. Éva divulges what her life was like before it was turned upside-down, as well as what it was like to live in the mounting chaos of the Holocaust of Hungarian Jewry. The diary presents one face, one life – something much more understandable to us than the almost 440,000 Hungarian Jews who were deported to Auschwitz, or the six million Jewish lives cut short by the Holocaust.

Prewar Jewish Life in Nagyvárad, Hungary

Éva Heyman, aged 13, in Hungary a few months before she was murdered in a gas chamber, 1944Éva Heyman, aged 13, in Hungary a few months before she was murdered in a gas chamber, 1944

The young diarist Éva Heyman grew up in a secular middle-class family in the town of Nagyvárad, which belonged to Hungary at the time Éva wrote. Before World War I, Nagyvárad was the biggest city in eastern Hungary. For centuries, Jews played a significant role in the economic, social, and intellectual life of the city. The city had famous Jewish doctors, writers, lawyers and businessmen. Between 1919 and 1940, the city belonged to Rumania, and afterwards once again to Hungary. In the 1940s the city’s Jewish population was more than 21,000 people out of a total population of about 100,000. The majority of the them spoke Hungarian and were assimilated into Hungarian culture and way of life.[3]
The Hungarian Enlightenment of the second half of the 19th century influenced the Jews of Nagyvárad. There were Orthodox as well as Neolog[4] Jews. Éva and her family belonged to the progressive Jewish community and her great-grandfather – Dr. Sándor Rosenberg – was the first Neolog Chief Rabbi of Nagyvárad.[5]

Éva was 13 years old when she started writing her diary on February 13, 1944, and she continued writing until May 30, 1944 – three days before she was deported to Auschwitz.[6]

Éva was murdered in Auschwitz on October 17, 1944. Éva’s mother Agnes Zsolt, who survived the Holocaust, found the diary in Nagyvárad in 1945.

Éva’s Relationships Before the Occupation

Éva was an only child and she grew up with her maternal grandparents after her parents’ divorce. Her diary begins with an introduction into her family situation and continues with the following listing of the presents she got for her birthday.

"February 13, 1944.
I've turned thirteen, I was born on Friday the thirteenth. [...] From Grandma Racz, I got a light tan spring coat and a navy blue knit dress. From my father, a pair of high-heeled shoes. Until now I have always worn only flat-heeled shoes [...] From Grandma Lujza, three pairs of pajamas, a dozen colored handkerchiefs and candy [...] From Grandpa, phonograph records of the kind I like. My grandfather bought them so that I should learn French lyrics, which will make Ági [Éva’s mother] happy, because she isn't happy about my school record cards except when I get a good mark in French, because a news photographer has to be good in languages. I know Hungarian and German well, I've forgotten Rumanian, and I'm beginning to be good in French. I do a lot of athletics, swimming, skating, bicycle riding, and exercise. [...] I've written enough today. You're probably tired, dear diary."[7]

The reader can see that Éva is a normal middle-class teenager from a rich cultural background, surrounded by a loving, supporting and encouraging family. She has many different hobbies and a dream – to become a news photographer when she is older.

Although Éva seems to be concerned about what is happening in other countries, her own daily life concerns her more, at least, at first.
However, despite her age and her relatively safe situation, Éva seems to have a sense of the unfolding danger even before the Germans invade her hometown, at least, as it applies to her own family.
She describes the impact of the anti-Jewish legislation on her stepfather – to whom she refers as Uncle Béla – and grandfather:

“Uncle Béla can’t work anyway, on account of the Jewish law. The law also applies to pharmacists, but thank God it doesn’t include Grandpa, because Jews are allowed to keep pharmacies if they actually own them; only pharmacy managers cannot be Jews. That is why Bácskay is now in the pharmacy, too, as manager, but Grandpa does the actual work, even though Bácskay is a young man.”[8]

Her family members deal with these restrictions as best they can and try to convince each other that these restrictions are temporary, and that life will return to normal as soon as the war is over:

“Grandma says that our income has gone down because of Bácskay, but what can we do about it? We should only come out of the war in one piece, and then Grandpa will be manager again. Grandpa was the President of the pharmacists in our town, but he was thrown out because he is a Jew.”[9]

Márta Münzer is one of the central characters in Éva’s diary and one of her best friends, even though, as the reader learns, she is no longer alive when Éva begins writing the diary. Márta and her family, as well as about 19,000 other Jews who were living in Hungary, and had originally come from different countries, were deported to German-occupied Poland as early as 1941.[10]

“[…] the government was preparing to do something terrible, and Jews who weren’t born in Hungary would be taken to Poland where a horrible fate was in store for them […] I didn’t understand this right away […]
Then Ági [Éva’s mother] rushed into town to the journalists, and they told her that tens of thousands of people like Márta and her family had been taken away to Poland in a train, without luggage and without food. They said that if Aunt Münzer [Márta’s mother] hurried up and got a divorce, she and Márta might be allowed to stay. But they didn’t want to get a divorce. And Márta didn’t want to stay here without her father.”[11]

These events keep haunting Éva and she refers to them time and again in her diary. She fears that she and her family will have the same fate as her friend.

Occupation of Hungary by the Nazis

When her worst fears come true, and the Germans invade her hometown on March 19, 1944, Éva writes a heart-breaking diary entry.

“March 19, 1944
Dear diary, you are the luckiest one in the world, because you cannot feel, you cannot know what a terrible thing has happened to us. The Germans have come!”[12]

Éva tries to soothe these fears with logical arguments that her family members and other adults express, which she records precisely. But she doesn’t succeed in shaking off her fears concerning the future.

March 26, 1944
[…] Dear diary, until now I didn’t want to write about this in you because I tried to put it out of my mind, but ever since the Germans are here, all I think about is Márta. She was also just a girl, and still the Germans killed her. But I don’t want them to kill me! I want to be a newspaper photographer, and when I’m twenty-four I’ll marry an Aryan Englishman, or maybe even Pista Vadas. I haven’t seen Pista since the Germans came, but I don’t even think about him, because ever since March 19 life has been so terrifying. I wish I thought about Pista instead of Márta.”[13]

And as the situation for the Jews in Hungary worsens, Éva describes the effect the changes have on the different family members and discusses the political options with her diary.

“March 25, 1944
I was on my way home when the German soldiers came marching in, with cannons and tanks, the kind I’ve seen in the newsreels. In Budapest there are constant air raid alarms, and all day the radio keeps issuing air raid warnings, always opening with the code words for places in danger of bombing […] Ági says that this is the end of everything; we won’t see the end of the war. But I want to, and I want to hide away; […] Grandma gets drugs all the time, and then she doesn’t talk to a soul, just keeps staring straight ahead, and she sits that way for hours in her easy chair. […] Dear diary, I’m so miserable. Why did those German cadavers have to come here! Uncle Béla says that the Russians are already in Rumania, and the British and American invasion is only a matter of days. The Englishmen and the Americans should have invaded a long time ago, and I don’t understand how they’re going to do it. No matter how hard I think about it, I can’t imagine it! And Grandma always says that the invasion won’t succeed anyway, because the Germans are still very strong. Still, I think that the Russians are much, much stronger, because they are already inside Rumania, and Rumania is much nearer than any beach on which it is possible to plant a flag.” [14]

Every day the Jews of Hungary were exposed to more restrictions – their movement was restricted, they had to wear the Yellow Star, and their belongings were taken away. Two policemen even came to confiscate Éva’s bike.

"April 7, 1944
Today they came for my bicycle. I almost caused a big drama. You know, dear diary, I was awfully afraid just by the fact that the policemen came into the house. I know that policemen bring only trouble with them, wherever they go [...] So, dear diary, I threw myself on the ground, held on to the back wheel of my bicycle, and shouted all sorts of things at the policemen: 'Shame on you for taking away a bicycle from a girl! That's robbery!' We had saved up for a year and a half to buy the bicycle [...] One of the policemen was very annoyed and said: 'All we need is for a Jewgirl to put on such a comedy when her bicycle is being taken away. No Jewkid is entitled to keep a bicycle anymore. The Jews aren't entitled to bread, either; they shouldn't guzzle everything, but leave the food for the soldiers.' You can imagine, dear diary, how I felt when they were saying this to my face."[15]

On May 1, 1944 the Jews of Nagyvárad entered the next stage of anti-Jewish persecution – the closure into ghettos. They were forced out of their homes, leaving most of their belongings behind, and into ghettos in extremely cramped, inhuman conditions.

“May 1, 1944 In the morning Mariska [the family’s house worker] burst into the house and said: ‘Have you seen the notices?’ No, we hadn’t, we are not allowed to go outside, except between nine and ten! [...] because we’re being taken to the ghetto. Mariska started packing [...] Mariska read in the notice that we are allowed to take along one change of underwear, the clothes on our bodies and the shoes on our feet [...]
Dear diary, from now on I’m imagining everything as if it really is a dream. […] I know it isn’t a dream, but I can’t believe a thing. […] Nobody says a word. Dear diary, I’ve never been so afraid.”[16]

Éva is terrified and tries to cope with the constant worsening of the reality by escaping into a dream world. She keeps writing her diary even in the harsh conditions of the ghetto.

“May 10, 1944
Dear diary, we’re here five days, but, word of honor, it seems like five years. I don’t even know where to begin writing, because so many awful things have happened since I last wrote you. First, the fence was finished, and nobody can go out or come in. The Aryans who used to live in the area of the Ghetto all left during these few days to make place for the Jews. From today on, dear diary, we’re not in a ghetto but in a ghetto-camp, and on every house they’ve pasted a notice which tells exactly what we’re not allowed to do [...] Actually, everything is forbidden, but the most awful thing of all is that the punishment for everything is death. There is no difference between things; no standing in the corner, no spankings, no taking away food, no writing down the declension of irregular verbs one hundred times the way it used to be in school. Not at all: the lightest and heaviest punishment – death. It doesn’t actually say that this punishment also applies to children, but I think it does apply to us, too.”[17]

Éva focuses her descriptions of the ghetto on the laws and regulations of ghetto life and the disproportionate punishment, which is death. Éva is still trying to cope with the new reality but it is hard for her to understand what is happening.

The diary ends on May 30, 1944, a few days before her deportation, with the words:

“[…] dear diary, I don’t want to die; I want to live even if it means that I’ll be the only person here allowed to stay. I would wait for the end of the war in some cellar, or on the roof, or in some secret cranny. I would even let the cross-eyed gendarme, the one who took our flour away from us, kiss me, just as long as they didn’t kill me, only that they should let me live.
[…] I can’t write anymore, dear diary, the tears run from my eyes, I’m hurrying over to Mariska …”[18]

Epilogue

One and a half million Jewish children were murdered during the Holocaust. The Nazis tried to deprive them of their identity and turn them into faceless numbers. To delve into the story of one of these children by teaching their story through a diary like the one presented here, educators can deal with the lives of the children prior to and during the Holocaust, and in this way remember their identities and bring the tragedy of the Holocaust closer to the students studying it. Éva’s diary is a powerful testament that gives the reader a glimpse into the prewar Jewish life that existed in Nagyvárad until 1944, and the plight of Hungarian Jews during the Holocaust, while focusing on one individual trying to cope with reality and survive.
However, the diary captures not only her private reactions to major events and life-changing incidents in the shadow of Nazi persecution, but also her everyday tasks such as playing with friends, caring for family members, having a birthday party.

The readers are confronted with a lively and intelligent 13-year-old girl, observant of the world around her. Though the diary only covers a few months, the entries are very detailed, and the readers can learn about Éva’s life before the Holocaust. They can further witness how Éva's life - and the lives of all the Jews in Hungary - crumbles into pieces, how her security is removed step by step after the German invasion of Hungary, leading to poverty of her family, being stripped of their rights, forced to live in a ghetto and finally being deported to Auschwitz.

Students may better understand the concepts of "choiceless choices" and the will to live through reading and discussing the diary. It may broaden their knowledge of what it was like to be a teenager during the Holocaust by focusing on the individual experience of one teenager. It can further show them how young people like Éva managed to cling to their humanity despite the tragedy that was brought upon her and her family.

The diary is thus an important historical document, which can be used as a teaching tool that brings to life the tragedy of Hungarian Jewry and the tragedy of Jewish children, as well as more general themes while examining the tragic story of one little girl who had dreams for her future life and who was full of energy and had a strong desire to live.

As Éva writes time and time again: “I want to live at all costs” and “I don't want to die because I've hardly lived.”


[1] The diary of Éva Heyman, Yad Vashem, Jerusalem, 1974, p. 30.
[2] Ibid., p. 28.
[3] Dr. Judah Marton, Introduction, The diary of Éva Heyman, Yad Vashem, Jerusalem, 1974, p. 7-11.
[4] Reform Movement within Judaism.
[5] Dr. Judah Marton, Introduction, The diary of Éva Heyman, Yad Vashem, Jerusalem, 1974, p. 10.
[6] Ibid., p. 7.
[7] The diary of Éva Heyman, Yad Vashem, Jerusalem, 1974, p. 23-28.
[8] Ibid., p. 30.
[9] Ibid., p. 30.
[10] Dr. Judah Marton, Introduction, The diary of Éva Heyman, Yad Vashem, Jerusalem, 1974, p. 14.
[11] The diary of Éva Heyman, Yad Vashem, Jerusalem, 1974, p. 31-32.
[12] Ibid., p. 58.
[13] Ibid., p. 63.
[14] Ibid., p. 62-63.
[15] Ibid., p. 71-73.
[16] Ibid., p. 82-83.
[17] Ibid., p. 89.
[18] Ibid., p. 104.