Yad Vashem's unrivalled archives house a host of documents created on paper materials whose original purpose was strikingly different: personal diaries written on office forms; prayer arrangements on delivery certificates; poems and pieces of prose on medical prescriptions; a Klezmer satire on the back of an SS office form. The desperate need to write and express oneself during the Holocaust produced interesting and even surprising combinations between the basic materials employed and the texts added on top of them.
Leopold Bauer, a wealthy textile manufacturer from Vienna, was deported to Theresienstadt in 1942. Already in his seventies, he arrived at the camp alone: He was widowed before WWII and his children had all emigrated and were scattered around the world. During his three years in Theresienstadt, he documented life in the camp – a fascinating testimony from the perspective of the elderly – in a tabular notebook normally used for accounting.
His makeshift diary became an outlet for his loneliness, and described his daily battle for survival:
"God help me – because the doctors are unable to... One thing here is good: [Death] comes quickly, because the body is unable to resist it." Despite his suffering, Bauer managed to reach liberation, and was reunited with his family. His diary was donated to Yad Vashem in 2018 by his grandson, Dan Bar-On.
In 2011, Aharon Raich donated to Yad Vashem the diary of his aunt, Dora (Debora) Beinis (née Helfer) from Chrzanow, Poland, in which she recorded her imprisonment in the Peterswaldau labor camp, a subsidiary camp of the Gross-Rosen network, during 1944-1945. Dora wrote the diary on manpower cards from the Karl Diehl armament factory, used to record the output and working hours of forced laborers from the camps. Later, apparently, after the war, when writing materials were again within her reach, Dora organized her writings in a more orderly manner. Thus, under the title "Farewell," Dora said goodbye to camp life upon liberation: "Goodbye, ancient palace, through which many generations have passed; Goodbye, piece of our painful life; Goodbye, republic of women; Goodbye, Golgotha. The time has come for revenge... I am returning to my old sense of dignity. Welcome, lovely freedom and second youth." Tragically, in 1947, Dora ended her life in Paris, in her brother's apartment.
Artistic needs also found their home on reused materials. A lilac branch, apple trees, birds and bees – these are just a few of the images created by Dr. Rachela Szuchman to express her yearning for life during her battle for survival throughout the German occupation. Dr. Szuchman, an established dentist from Rowno, Ukraine (located in prewar Poland), was in her fifties at the time of the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941. She used a network of contacts to obtain work permits and hiding places for herself and her daughter, Lusia (Eugenia), also a dentist by profession.
For two and a half years, Rachela documented her dramatic experiences – her observations regarding life during the occupation and human nature as a whole – in five improvised notebooks, which she compiled and produced from a variety of materials, including medical prescriptions, debt notifications, calculation tables, pages from linguistic guides, and more. Sometimes the gap between the beauty of nature and the horrors of war was too much to bear:
"How is there music on such a quiet night, when the blood of women and children spills like a raging river?... A Ukrainian night, a Polish night… Nature is at rest… A pensive moon hovers above the city, while souls drown in a pool of blood..." Rachel and Lusia were among the few dozen Jews from Rowno still alive at the liberation of the city in February 1944. The notebooks were donated to Yad Vashem in 2016 by Lusia's daughter, Rita Gefen.
In 2021, Denise Israel bestowed to Yad Vashem a collection of materials from the Annaberg labor camp, where her mother, Lydia Stieglitz (née Kolnik), and her grandmother, Rosalia Kolnik (née Haber), from Chrzanow, Poland, were prisoners during 1943-1944. The collection contained a local bulletin, Annaberskiej gazetki, typed by the female prisoners in the camp. These self-made publications consisted of greeting albums for the inmates’ birthdays and plays in a variety of languages (Polish, German and Yiddish). One of the plays was a collection of cabaret pieces that told of the whereabouts and the arrival at the camp of an Aryan-looking Jewish woman from Dresden. A page of the play was typed on the back of a payment request by the SS for employing Jewish forced laborers. Notably, the text at the back of the SS form included Klezmer-styled satire in Yiddish (in Latin letters): "Ten years later, neboch [poor me], that's just my luck, straight in the camp, this is where I'm stuck. There's pernuse [a living], there's what to aim for, much ado, I keep on singing, what can one do…" The tension between the two sides of the page is striking: The female prisoners used a document designed to enforce the racial hierarchy at their camp in order to present their side of the story, and speak for the traditional world of the Jewish shtetl, both clear targets of Nazi racial ideology.
Did the reuse of the form stem from the need for paper, or was this an act of resistance, an intentional subversive statement? This question remains unanswered.
Some reused materials served specific practical purposes in the context of camp life and were sometimes even used to document it. In the Wertheimer family home in Bnei Brak (central Israel), improvised prayer books from the Holocaust were kept in the attic space for many decades. The notebooks, which eventually became an integral part of the holidays and family life among the Wertheimers, were produced by the mother of the family, Hannah Wertheimer (née Rezimüves) as a young prisoner at the Gelsenberg labor camp, a subsidiary of Buchenwald. During morning inspections, as she would later tell her daughters, Hannah would hide a notebook under her arm. Originally part of a large, pious family from Medgyes (Medias) in Transylvania, Hannah arrived at Gelsenberg from Auschwitz in the summer of 1944, after the accelerated wave of deportations of Hungarian Jews. She was put to work with some 2,000 other female inmates clearing rubble, the remains of a local distillery that was destroyed during the bombings. She produced the notebooks from paper materials and office forms she was able to obtain in the camp – among them, shipping certificates. One of her friends engraved the letters of her name on the cover of the notebook for her.
She copied the ancient prayers at night from a siddur that was smuggled into the camp. Since she could not write in Hebrew, the prayers were recorded in Latin letters, according to the Hasidic tradition. A copy of the notebooks was donated to Yad Vashem in 2016 by Hana's daughter, Miriam Katz, and Miriam's son-in-law, Israel Eichler.
In Auschwitz, Trude Levin (née Kassowitz) from Fiume in Croatia (formerly in Austria-Hungary) was assigned, among other duties, to the "Canada" commando, which was responsible for sorting the deportees' belongings. While in the camp, she was also placed in charge of office equipment. One way or another, either in Auschwitz or at one of the camps to which she was later deported, Trude managed to obtain a pocket diary imprinted with landmarks associated with the Nazi party. Trude used the diary to record her path as a camp inmate, her relatives’ addresses – and recipes. Opposite the date 30 January, noting Hitler’s rise to power, Trude wrote down a recipe for a chocolate cake: six blocks of chocolate (between 50 and 100 grams), 10 dkg (100 grams) of butter, and six eggs. She later related that this was how the prisoners coped with the excruciating conditions of hunger: Each one 'honored" her friends by recalling a delicacy, and thus imagination became a substitute for food. A few months before her death, Trude passed the diary to her relative, Marta Flatto. "Keep it safe," entreated Trude. "This booklet is my life." On her way to Israel, Marta buried the tiny diary in her sock. She donated it to Vashem in 2018.
"'Recycled' items from the Holocaust era are like a riddle, an encoded text that embodies the conditions of the writer's life, the material reality in which he or she operated, and the circumstances of in which the item itself was produced," says Masha Pollak-Rozenberg, Director of Yad Vashem's Archives Division. "It is up to the reader to decipher this text."
"As a porthole to everyday life during the Holocaust, such items bridge the breach between the scarcity in which the writer lived, and their burning need for personal expression and meaning. Above all, they are evidence of the resourcefulness and creativity of the writers, who were determined to make use of anything at hand in order to overcome this painful breach."