Find­ing Her Voice

THE DIS­COV­ERY OF A YOUNG JEWISH POET AND HER HOLO­CAUST DIARY PRO­VOKES SOUL-SEARCH­ING IN LITHUA­NIA

Smithsonian Magazine - - Prologue - by Matthew Shaer pho­tographs by JOAKIM ESKILDSEN

“I don’ t know why, but my fu­ture some­times flashes be­fore me and it is so sad and so painful that with­out even re­al­iz­ing it I crum­ple up in pain .... That is the fate of rest­less souls like me: We wan der from one place to an­other, hop­ing to find some peace.” —from the diary of Matilda Olkin

Chap­ter One

In June of 1940, as war swept across Europe, thou­sands of Red Army troops ar­rived at the east­ern bor­der of Lithua­nia, mak­ing good on a se­cret pact with Ger­many to divvy up the con­ti­nent. Lo­cal lead­ers were given an ul­ti­ma­tum: Agree to im­me­di­ate an­nex­a­tion by the Soviet Union, or face a long and bloody in­va­sion. Over­matched, the gov­ern­ment ca­pit­u­lated, and within days the Sovi­ets had seized con­trol of the coun­try. In Kau­nas, the home of the for­mer pres­i­dent, Red Army tanks clogged the streets; in Vil­nius, dis­senters were hunted down and ar­rested or killed.

In Au­gust, in a wood-framed house in north­east­ern Lithua­nia, a young Jewish writer named Matilda Olkin un­locked her diary and be­gan to write:

I see—crowds falling to their knees, I hear—nights filled with cry­ing. I travel through the world

And I dream this strange dream.

The poem, de­scrib­ing the pil­grim­age of an “ex­hausted” peo­ple across a hellscape of “burn­ing sands,” was a depar­ture for Olkin, then just 18. Slight and brown-haired, with opa­line skin and wide-set brown eyes, Olkin had grown up in the farm­ing vil­lage of Pane­mu­nelis, in cir­cum­stances she re­called as idyl­lic. Her father, Noah Olkin, ran the town phar­macy; her mother, Asna, stayed home with Matilda and her three sib­lings—an older brother named Ilya, and two lit­tle sis­ters, Mika and Gru­nia.

Like much of the coun­try, Pane­mu­nelis and the nearby city of Rokiskis were home to siz­able pop­u­la­tions of Jews, who wor­shiped freely and held im­por­tant civic po­si­tions. Every Sun­day, Noah Olkin dropped in on Juoza­pas Mate­lio­nis, the vil­lage priest, to dis­cuss lit­er­a­ture and the­ol­ogy over tea. Matilda and her two younger sis­ters fre­quently ate meals with the Catholic girls next door. To­gether the girls wan­dered the birch forests and un­du­lat­ing pas­tures that sur­rounded Pane­mu­nelis.

Matilda’s early sur­viv­ing work pays homage to that pas­toral beauty. The writ­ing is vivid and sweet, full of en­comi­ums to “re­joic­ing” flow­ers, “leap­ing” suns and “sil­ver stars.” A poem called “Good Morn­ing” prac­ti­cally over­flows with ex­u­ber­ance:

But the Sun shines most

In the eyes of the lit­tle girl.

Her eyes are bright, full of light.

They greet her joy­ful world,

A world burst­ing to life and filled with sun­shine. “Good morn­ing! Good morn­ing!”

Soon Matilda was pub­lish­ing verse in literary jour­nals, and ed­i­tors hounded her with so­lic­i­ta­tions. (“We are wait­ing and wait­ing for the fruits of your cheer­ful pen,” one wrote.)

But in time Matilda’s po­etry dark­ened, and she be­came “dis­tant”: “She would stand and gaze out the class­room win­dow with her hands tucked un­der her apron,” a friend later said. “What she was think­ing, I don’t know.”

“Matilda had a spe­cial voice. To me, it was a voice that needed sav­ing. . .”

A diary Matilda started keep­ing in Au­gust 1940 of­fers some clues. “Times are aw­ful,” she wrote in one en­try. “The world has spilled out into the streets.” In an­other, she wrote, “There are more and al­ways more wor­ries. Good al­ways fol­lows bad. And so where is the good?”

The roots of her anx­i­ety were both per­sonal and po­lit­i­cal. Although her brother had thrown his sup­port to the new Soviet regime—“Ilya,” Matilda noted acidly, “is one of those en­light­ened peo­ple who be­lieves in com­mu­nism”—Matilda was more mis­trust­ful. And pre­sciently so: Her father’s phar­macy was na­tion­al­ized, and his in­come all but erased. He and Matilda’s mother were thrown into pro­found de­spair. “They are both ill and un­happy peo­ple,” Matilda wrote. “And I am their daugh­ter, but I can’t do any­thing to help them. I can’t help Papa, who com­plains of a bad pain in his stom­ach, or Mama, who re­cently be­gan blow­ing through her lips in this strange man­ner.”

In the ma­jor cities, a far-right Lithua­nian group called Iron Wolf was urg­ing a boy­cott of Jewish busi­nesses; anti-Semitic leaflets were dis­trib­uted in the streets; and at least one lead­ing news­pa­per railed against the “dirty habits of the Jews.” It must have felt that chaos was in­evitably com­ing for Matilda and her fam­ily, too.

Still, that Oc­to­ber, Matilda left for Vil­nius to study lit­er­a­ture. She did not do so lightly. “I am con­stantly say­ing good­bye, good­bye,” she wrote in her diary. But the uni­ver­sity was of­fer­ing a stipend, enough to help sup­port her fam­ily, and she felt she had no choice.

Be­sides, cos­mopoli­tan Vil­nius suited her. She went to the opera, lis­tened to “ner­vous screech­ing mu­sic” at a bar, danced at clubs, and got a perm. And she pined af­ter an on-again, off-again boyfriend. In her diary, she scolded her­self for fix­at­ing on rel­a­tively tri­fling ro­man­tic con­cerns: “Peo­ple are starv­ing. The war is mov­ing closer to­ward us. I may not re­ceive my stipend—noth­ing is cer­tain, ev­ery­thing is in a fog. And I am stand­ing on the edge of a precipice, pick­ing at the petals of a daisy, ask­ing: ‘Loves me? Loves me not.’ ”

In what may be her last poem, dated Novem­ber 14, 1940, the set­ting is a fu­neral. The nar­ra­tor peers back at the throngs of mourn­ers:

Oh, how many have gath­ered And no one will see love.

I hold an in­fant in my arms— And my in­fant—is Death.

Seven months later, Hitler in­vaded Lithua­nia. Vi­o­lat­ing the pact with the Sovi­ets, the Ger­mans chased out the Red Army in days. On June 26, they reached Kupiskis, miles from Pane­mu­nelis.

If la­tent anti-Semitism in Lithua­nia was the tin­der, the Nazis were the spark. The Ger­mans were quick to point to Jews as the cause of Lithua­nian “hu­mil­i­a­tion and suf­fer­ing un­der Soviet rule,” as the Holo­caust his­to­rian Ti­mothy Sny­der has writ­ten, and the Nazis in­structed their lo­cal col­lab­o­ra­tors to round up Jewish fam­i­lies into walled ghet­tos for “pro­cess­ing.” Soon word reached Matilda in Vil­nius: Her par­ents and sis­ters had been ar­rested.

We have no record of Matilda’s thoughts on her jour­ney home, be­cause by the end of Fe­bru­ary 1941 she had stopped writ­ing in her diary. Why she did so is un­known: Per­haps she switched to a dif­fer­ent jour­nal, although there were plenty of pages left in the orig­i­nal. More likely, cir­cum­stances pre­vented it. The once-far­away war the young poet had tracked through news­pa­per head­lines was now on her doorstep, and ev­ery­thing she held dear was about to be de­stroyed.

Chap­ter Two

Eleven years ago, in the sum­mer of 2007, a Lithua­nian his­to­rian and mu­seum cu­ra­tor named Vi­o­leta Alekniene re­ceived an email from an edi­tor at Vers-

mes, a pub­lish­ing house. Versmes was work­ing on a se­ries of mono­graphs about the Lithua­nian prov­inces, from the Mid­dle Ages to the present, and the edi­tor hoped Alekniene would write about Pane­mu­nelis dur­ing the Sec­ond World War.

Alekniene, then in her early 50s, im­me­di­ately agreed. She had grown up in Pane­mu­nelis, as had her par­ents and grandparents. She’d lived through the sti­fling post­war Soviet oc­cu­pa­tion, when the coun­try was part of the USSR, and the heady early years of in­de­pen­dence, in the 1990s. She knew the place in­ti­mately, and, more­over, she had long wanted to write about a grim part of Lithua­nia’s his­tory: the ex­ter­mi­na­tion, by the Nazis and their Lithua­nian col­lab­o­ra­tors, of more than 200,000 Lithua­nian Jews— some 95 per­cent of the coun­try’s Jewish pop­u­la­tion.

As Alekniene ex­plained to me this past sum­mer, she knew from pre­vi­ous re­search the broad out­lines of what had hap­pened to the Jews of her home district: Shortly af­ter the Nazis ap­peared, the en­tire Jewish pop­u­la­tion was cor­ralled into the vil­lage’s train sta­tion and sent to the nearby town of Rokiskis. There, in Au­gust 1941, more than 3,200 men, women and chil­dren were lined up in front of hastily dug pits and shot.

But not all the Jews of Pane­mu­nelis had per­ished in those pits: Three fam­i­lies—mer­chant fam­i­lies who were thought to have hid­den wealth—were moved to a sta­ble not far from Father Mate­lio­nis’ church. The Olkins, who had once lived a few miles from the house where Alekniene grew up, were among them. Alekniene de­cided it would be part of her mission to track down the de­tails of their fate.

“Out­side of rais­ing my fam­ily, my en­tire life has been ded­i­cat-

“Some­how, I think it is fate that the books came to me.”

ed to his­tor­i­cal re­search,” Alekniene told me. “To not write about this tragedy now that Lithua­nia was in­de­pen­dent, now that we had free­dom of speech, would have been”—she paused. “I had to do it.”

Alekniene threw her­self into the re­search. She dug through pre- and post­war Soviet ar­chives, and in­ter­viewed dozens of sub­jects from the re­gion. And she de­voured Matilda’s diary, which was pub­lished around that time in the jour­nal of a lo­cal his­tor­i­cal so­ci­ety. From these sources she learned about the Olkins and their per­sonal lives, and she traced Matilda’s grow­ing fame as a young poet. Matilda’s writ­ing made a per­ma­ment im­pres­sion. Even­tu­ally, she came to view Matilda as a sym­bol of the good­ness and beauty that had been lost in the Holo­caust. From this tragedy, she hoped to tell the story of the near-era­sure of Lithua­nia’s Jewish com­mu­nity. “Matilda had a spe­cial voice,” Alekniene told me. “To me, it was a voice that needed sav­ing.”

In 2008, Alekniene tracked down a child­hood friend of Matilda’s named Juozas Vaicio­nis. He told her that af­ter the rest of the Jews had been de­ported, the Nazis and their Lithua­nian col­lab­o­ra­tors—known as “white arm­ban­ders” for the sashes they tied un­der their shoul­ders—ordered Matilda to clean the now-empty train sta­tion. Vaicio­nis sneaked into the sta­tion to see Matilda and of­fered to hide her or find her safe pas­sage out of Pane­mu­nelis. “Matilda would not even an­swer me,” Vaicio­nis re­called. “She kept on scrub­bing the floors. I could not get her to an­swer me when I in­sisted, ‘Why don’t you want to run away from here?’” But Matilda was adamant: She would not aban­don her fam­ily.

Alekniene could find only one sur­viv­ing wit­ness, now liv­ing in Vil­nius, to de­scribe the bru­tal end of the Olkins’ or­deal. Her name was Al­dona Dran­seikiene. One July morn­ing in 1941, she told Alekniene, she was with her father when they spot­ted a horse-drawn cart ham­mer­ing down the dirt road that led north out of Pane­mu­nelis. Up front sat men in white arm­bands; es­corts car­ry­ing ri­fles ped­aled on bi­cy­cles along­side them. The pro­ces­sion drew to a halt in a pas­ture. Dran­seikiene, then 8-years-old, took cover be­hind a haystack, while her father craned his neck over the stack to watch.

“They shoved their guns into the backs of the men and the women who had been blind­folded and forced them out of the wagon,” Dran­seikiene told Alekniene. (Dran­seikiene, like all the eye­wit­nesses, has since died.) “They made them walk up to the top of the hill,” she went on. “We heard screams and cries. That went on for a very long time. Who knows what went on there? Only much later, in the af­ter­noon, we heard their fi­nal death cries and gun­shots.”

In the evening, the killers showed up drunk at nearby farms, de­mand­ing vodka. “For a long time,” Dran­seikiene re­called, “those men hung around and sang.”

The next day, lo­cal farm­ers made their way across the pas­ture, where they found five twisted corpses— Noah, Asna, Matilda, Gru­nia and Mika Olkin—ly­ing be­side four oth­ers, mem­bers of an­other Jewish fam­ily, the Jaffes. (The fate of the third fam­ily re­mains un­known.) The farm­ers cov­ered the shal­low grave with dirt and sprin­kled it with lime, to aid de­com­po­si­tion and pre­vent for­est animals from des­e­crat­ing the corpses. (Matilda’s brother, Ilya Olkin, who had been liv­ing in the city of Kau­nas, would join the re­sis­tance, but was killed not long af­ter­ward.)

I asked Alekniene if she knew what hap­pened to the Olkins’ Lithua­nian killers. One, she said, was tried and ex­e­cuted in the Soviet era; an­other went mad. But the other two re­mained in the vil­lage. “No one could def­i­nitely prove it was them, but nat­u­rally there were whis­pers,” Alekniene told me. “I was raised with their chil­dren, in fact.”

I won­dered if the chil­dren had been os­tra­cized. Alekniene shook her head. “They are very good peo­ple,” she told me. She was ea­ger to move on.

Chap­ter Three

In piec­ing to­gether the Olkin fam­ily’s last days, Vi­o­leta Alekniene was, in essence, con­tin­u­ing the nar­ra­tive that Matilda Olkin had be­gun in her diary.

This sum­mer, an el­derly scholar named Irena Vei­saite in­vited me to see the doc­u­ment my­self.

Her apart­ment in Vil­nius was high-ceilinged and bright, the walls cov­ered with books, wa­ter­col­ors and fam­ily por­traits. Open­ing the door, Vei­saite com­plained of the per­sis­tent headaches and fa­tigue that of­ten kept her in­side. “But that’s all right,” she smiled, her eyes mag­ni­fied be­hind wire-framed glasses. “It means the young peo­ple have to come to me.”

I fol­lowed her to an of­fice and waited as she rum­maged through the bot­tom shelf of a large ar­moire. She re­turned with two books. The thicker one was bound in hand-tooled leather: Matilda’s diary. The other, which had an ink-stained card­board cover and ap­peared to be a re­pur­posed ledger, held Matilda’s po­ems. I ran my fin­ger over the hand­writ­ten script. M. Olk­i­naite, it read—a for­mal Lithua­nian lan­guage ren­der­ing of Matilda’s fam­ily name.

In the 1970s, Vei­saite ex­plained, she was work­ing as a tu­tor at the Uni­ver­sity of Vil­nius when one day a grad­u­ate stu­dent stopped by with a pair of tat­tered books. The stu­dent—his name was Al­fredas An­dri­jauskas—came from Pane­mu­nelis, where as an or­gan­ist at the church he’d known Father Mate­lio­nis, the priest who had been close to the Olkins.

He told a poignant story: Father Mate­lio­nis had of­fered to hide Noah Olkin and his fam­ily, but Olkin had re­fused, fear­ing that any­body caught har­bor­ing Jews would be shot. In­stead, he passed along Matilda’s note­books, which Father Mate­lio­nis then stashed in­side a hid­den com­part­ment in the al­tar of his church. In the 1950s, the Sovi­ets de­ported Father Mate­lio­nis to Siberia, part of a cam­paign of re­li­gious per­se­cu­tion across the USSR. But just be­fore he was sent away, he gave the doc­u­ments to An­dri­jauskas. Now An­dri­jauskas was bring­ing them to Vei­saite.

Vei­saite, a rare Jewish Lithua­nian Holo­caust sur­vivor who chose to re­main in the coun­try of her birth af­ter the war, read the po­ems first, in a sin­gle sit­ting. “I was cry­ing,” she told me. “I thought, ‘Why am I alive and Matilda is dead?’ ”

Vei­saite im­me­di­ately grasped the im­por­tance of Matilda’s writ­ing, which gave voice to the dead in a way that foren­sic ac­count­ings of the Holo­caust could

not. Soon af­ter­ward, Vei­saite pub­lished an es­say about Matilda’s po­etry in a literary jour­nal. She longed to dig deeper into Matilda’s life and the cir­cum­stances of her death, but she could only say so much: The killing of Jews had never fit com­fort­ably with the Soviet nar­ra­tive of the war, which framed it in Manichaean terms—fas­cists on one side, re­sisters on the other. Nor did it mesh with the post-Soviet Lithua­nian nar­ra­tive that res­o­lutely turned its gaze from lo­cal com­plic­ity in the mur­der of the coun­try’s Jews.

And so Vei­saite stuffed the books into the ar­moire and waited for more than three decades. “Some­how,” Vei­saite smiled, “I think it is fate that the books came to me.”

I un­der­stood what she meant—the note­books, the ir­re­place­able in­sight they gave into a life, at once or­di­nary and tragic, and the story of those who had cared for them, had the im­prob­a­ble arc of a leg­end. It sounded fan­tas­ti­cal that they sur­vived, but it was true. The ev­i­dence was in front of me.

Chap­ter Four

From Vil­nius, it’s a three-hour drive to Pane­mu­nelis, end­ing on two-lane roads no more than 15 feet across. The morn­ing I made the drive, storks gath­ered on the road­side in perches con­structed from truck tires and dis­carded lum­ber. In Lithua­nia, the birds are con­sid­ered to be a sign of har­mony and pros­per­ity, and lo­cals do what they can to get them to stick around.

I ar­rived in Pane­mu­nelis around mid­day. The skies were cloud­less, and the tem­per­a­ture close to 90, but a breeze was blow­ing across the fields, bring­ing with it the scent of rye­grass and of the heavy rains fore­cast for later that af­ter­noon. I re­called Matilda’s de­scrip­tion of a vi­o­lent storm in the late sum­mer of 1940:

Sud­denly it be­came so dark that it seemed as though some­one had drawn the cur­tains closed across the win­dows. . . . I ran out­side and the wind was so strong that it al­most knocked me down onto the ground. I adore storms. I push my chest out into the wind and set my eyes on the fields. And then I feel that I am alive and that I am walk­ing for­ward.

To­day Pane­mu­nelis is still a farm­ing vil­lage, home to no more than a few hun­dred peo­ple. There is a gen­eral store, a town square and a dozen tan­gled streets, un­spool­ing through the sur­round­ing farm­land like a rib­bon. In a gazebo near the post of­fice, three old men had gath­ered to drink brandy; in front of a ware­house, a Ger­man shep­herd strained at the end of a chain.

The town’s train sta­tion is still stand­ing, but it was dark, its win­dows bricked over. I found the Olkins’ ad­dress eas­ily enough—the fam­ily lived di­rectly across from the lo­cal mill—but their home had re­port­edly burned down years ago. I knocked at the near­est house. The cur­tains parted; no one an­swered.

“I know their story—we all know their story,” Father Ei­man­tas Novikas told me that af­ter­noon, stand­ing in the nave of the vil­lage church. Novikas, who was trans­ferred to Pane­mu­nelis three years ago, is im­mense, more than six and a half feet tall, with a for­mi­da­ble belly—in his black cas­sock, he re­sem­bled a bell. I fol­lowed him out to the church­yard. Through the fo­liage, we could see the sta­ble that had housed the Olkins and other fam­i­lies in their fi­nal days. “What hap­pened was a tragedy,” Novikas said. “What I hope is that we can con­tinue to learn about the”—he looked at me point­edly—“events, so they can never hap­pen here again.”

And yet a full reck­on­ing with Lithua­nia’s role in

“We have to ask ques­tions—we owe it to the vic­tims of the Holo­caust.”

the Holo­caust has been a de­cid­edly long time com­ing, not least be­cause of the Soviet oc­cu­pa­tion, which made the self-ex­am­i­na­tion un­der­taken else­where in Europe—the schol­ar­ship, the gov­ern­ment-ap­pointed com­mis­sions, the mu­se­ums and memo­ri­als—more dif­fi­cult. Even af­ter in­de­pen­dence, lo­cal his­to­ri­ans ac­knowl­edged the atroc­i­ties but placed the blame mainly on the Nazi oc­cu­piers. Lithua­nian col­lab­o­ra­tors were writ­ten off as drunks and crim­i­nals. This was some­thing I heard of­ten. The killers may have been our coun­try­men, but they were noth­ing like us.

As a cop­ing mech­a­nism, the rhetoric isn’t dif­fi­cult to un­der­stand. But it doesn’t stand up to scru­tiny. “Geno­cide can­not be ac­com­plished by lowlifes and so­cial re­jects,” the Lithua­nian scholar Saulius Suziedelis said in an in­ter­view last year. “It re­quires an ad­min­is­tra­tive struc­ture. Who ordered the towns in the coun­try­side to set up small ghet­tos? Lo­cal of­fi­cials. So I would say the num­ber of par­tic­i­pants is much larger than we’d like to ad­mit.”

When Vi­o­leta Alekniene fi­nally pub­lished her es­say about the Olkins, in 2011, the coun­try was just be­gin­ning to re­visit the in­her­ited Soviet nar­ra­tives with a mea­sure of crit­i­cal dis­tance. By 2015, the cli­mate was ripe for a more force­ful in­ter­ven­tion. That year, the best-sell­ing

What did the ghetto street look like at night? What was the mood of the ghetto from one day to the next? What were the daily hard­ships and the oc­ca­sional re­prieves? These in­sights are rarely found in any other source. In ad­di­tion, some writ­ers had literary am­bi­tions be­yond just doc­u­ment­ing their days: They chal­lenged, raged, lamented, grieved, re­proached, hoped and de­spaired, grap­pling with the big­gest ques­tions of what it means to be hu­man in a cruel world.

While adults’ diaries have con­trib­uted enor­mously to our un­der­stand­ing of life dur­ing the Holo­caust, young di­arists of­fer us some­thing very dif­fer­ent but equally valu­able. Ado­les­cents are in tran­si­tion, es­tab­lish­ing iden­tity, ex­plor­ing re­la­tion­ships, dis­cov­er­ing what they have in­her­ited and what they will em­brace or re­ject. Teen di­arists dur­ing the Holo­caust faced that de­vel­op­men­tal chal­lenge against an im­pos­si­ble back­drop, one in which their iden­ti­ties were re­duced to their Jewish­ness, which in turn de­ter­mined their fate. Young writ­ers in par­tic­u­lar strug­gle with the in­jus­tice of this, and with many other things be­sides: the vul­ner­a­bil­ity of youth and the loss of par­ents, the ab­sence of school­ing and nor­mal life, the theft of time—the bru­tal in­ter­rup­tion of all that is con­sid­ered the birthright of the young.

For 25 years, I’ve stud­ied the diaries of Jewish teens in the Holo­caust. Re­cently, as guest cu­ra­tor for an up­com­ing ex­hi­bi­tion at Holo­caust Mu­seum Hous­ton, ti­tled “And Still I Write: Young Di­arists on War and Geno­cide,” I’ve read a wider range of young peo­ple’s diaries in search of com­mon themes. Af­ter the Holo­caust, there were solemn prom­ises that the world would “never again” stand by while innocent civil­ians were mur­dered en masse. But in the years since, there have been wars and geno­cides in Cambodia, Bos­nia, Rwanda, Dar­fur, Iraq and Syria, among other places. Diaries writ­ten by young peo­ple have sur­vived some of these con­flicts, too. These writ­ers re­port on the events of war; they re­flect on the way mas­sive forces shape their per­sonal lives; they ask why they must suf­fer and strug­gle to sur­vive; and they af­firm their hu­man­ity while they protest the in­jus­tice all around them.

A num­ber of diaries pose fresh chal­lenges for Amer­i­can read­ers, maybe even cause dis­com­fort and shame. Dur­ing the Holo­caust, Jewish teen di­arists of­ten viewed the Al­lied forces, in­clud­ing the Amer­i­can Army, as their lib­er­a­tors, the source of their de­liv­er­ance and hope­fully their sur­vival. It’s easy to see our­selves as the heroes of those sto­ries. But not every writer saw events from that van­tage point.

At the height of U.S. in­volve­ment in World War II, young Ja­panese-Amer­i­cans were writ­ing diaries from in­side gov­ern­ment-run in­tern­ment camps. A teenager named Stan­ley Hayami was im­pris­oned at Heart Moun­tain Camp in Wy­oming when he voiced his frus­tra­tion and de­spair at the im­pos­si­ble bind he faced. “I don’t see why innocent and good guys have to pay for stuff that the Ja­panese do,” he wrote in his diary. “Darn it any­how us loyal Jap. [sic] Amer­i­cans have no chance. When we’re out­side, peo­ple look at us sus­pi­ciously and think we’re spies. Now that we’re in camp, the Japs look at us and say we’re bad be­cause we still love Amer­ica. And now the peo­ple out­side want to take our cit­i­zen­ship away from us as if we’re the bad ones.” Hayami en­dured the hu­mil­i­a­tion and de­pri­va­tion of in­tern­ment for more than two years be­fore he en­tered the Army in 1944, sent off to fight for the very coun­try that had un­justly im­pris­oned him. On May 9, 1945—one day af­ter V-E Day— Hayami’s fam­ily learned that he had been killed in ac­tion in Italy while aid­ing two wounded sol­diers. He was 19 years old. Hayami was posthu­mously awarded the Bronze Star and Pur­ple Heart.

In more re­cent diaries, writ­ers see Amer­ica in equally com­plex roles: as by­stander, in­vader and even op­pres­sor. It is not al­ways com­fort­able, but it is deeply re­ward­ing to read these diaries and shift our per­spec­tive. Dur­ing the Ser­bian ag­gres­sion against Bos­ni­ans in Bos­nia and Herze­gov­ina, Amer­ica was among the na­tions that took years to ef­fec­tively in­ter­vene as geno­cide un­folded. Nadja Halil­be­govich, age 13, was keep­ing a diary in Sara­jevo when she was in­jured by a bomb on Oc­to­ber 18, 1992. More than a

year later, she wrote in de­spair: “Some­times I think that there is no hope and that we are all dy­ing slowly while the whole world watches silently. They send us crumbs of food yet never con­demn those who kill us. . . . The ag­gres­sors kill chil­dren and rape women. The world looks on and per­haps gives us a thought while sit­ting in their com­fort­able homes and palaces. Are they un­able to see? . . . WORLD, PLEASE WAKE UP AND HELP US!!!” (In 1995, Amer­ica fi­nally in­ter­vened mil­i­tar­ily, along with other NATO forces, and helped co­or­di­nate the ne­go­ti­a­tion of a peace agree­ment.) Nadja pub­lished her diary at 14 and, two years later, es­caped to the United States. She now lives in Canada and ad­vo­cates for chil­dren of war.

An­other Bos­nian di­arist, Zlata Filipovic, was only 10 in 1991, when she be­gan her diary with en­tries on pi­ano lessons and birth­day par­ties. Soon she was cat­a­loging food short­ages and the deaths of friends dur­ing the siege of Sara­jevo. By her fi­nal en­try in Oc­to­ber of 1993, she tal­lied the lethal im­pact of one day’s bomb­ing: 590 shells, six dead, 56 wounded. “I keep think­ing that we’re alone in this hell,” Zlata wrote. She even­tu­ally es­caped with her fam­ily and now works as a doc­u­men­tary film­maker in Dublin.

In Syria, a young man us­ing the pseu­do­nym Samer be­gan a diary in Raqqa in 2013 at the sug­ges­tion of jour­nal­ists from the BBC. As ISIS took over and car­ried out bar­baric acts against civil­ians, he chron­i­cled the airstrike by the Syr­ian regime that killed his father as well as his own ar­rest and pun­ish­ment of 40 lashes for curs­ing in the street af­ter a neigh­bor’s be­head­ing by ISIS. Re­flect­ing in his diary, he lamented: “We didn’t be­lieve the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity would stand with its arms be­hind its back, watch­ing crimes be­ing com­mit­ted against un­armed peo­ple. . . . Even though [it] could clearly see what was go­ing on, it didn’t act.” Samer worked with the BBC to send his en­crypted notes out of Syria; later his diary was trans­lated into English and pub­lished as a book in Bri­tain and Amer­ica in 2017. Samer ul­ti­mately es­caped Raqqa but re­mains trapped in Syria, a coun­try, like so many oth­ers, in the vise of a civil war.

Tra­di­tional hand­writ­ten, bound note­books have given way to “diaries” writ­ten as blogs, on­line jour­nals and as en­tries on Face­book and Twit­ter. While past di­arists of­ten hoped their work might one day be read, to­day’s writ­ers, steeped in so­cial me­dia, have skipped that step en­tirely, post­ing their thoughts for con­sump­tion in real time. We may re­gret that many of these writ­ings aren’t pre­served as tan­gi­ble ar­ti­facts with yel­lowed pages or inky pen­man­ship that bear wit­ness to the au­thors and the pas­sage of time. Yet how many of those hand­writ­ten diaries have been lost for­ever? For those who write un­der con­di­tions of un­cer­tainty and dan­ger, tech­nol­ogy pro­vides a far greater chance of reach­ing the au­di­ence that will hear and even help them.

Dur­ing the Iraq War, 15-year-old “Hadiya” wrote from the city of Mo­sul be­gin­ning in 2004. In her IraqiGirl blog, she ex­pressed a fond­ness for Harry Pot­ter and wor­ried about her grades while doc­u­ment­ing the grow­ing con­flict. “Last night . . . I couldn’t sleep be­cause the Amer­i­cans were bom­bard­ing our neigh­bor­hood,” she wrote. “What should I say? I have so many things I want to write. But I can’t. Un­til when must we fol­low what Amer­ica says? Un­til when should we fol­low their or­ders? Who is Amer­ica? Ha! We have the old­est civ­i­liza­tion. We have oil. And we have the ca­pa­bil­ity to rule our­selves.” Ex­cerpts from her blog were pub­lished as a book in 2009, but she con­tin­ues to post on IraqiGirl even to­day. Af­ter she es­caped Mo­sul, Hadiya be­came a refugee in Jor­dan and moved to Aus­tralia when she was granted a hu­man­i­tar­ian visa last year.

Tech­nol­ogy changes not just the phys­i­cal form, but also the po­ten­tial, even the pur­pose, of a diary. Tra­di­tion­ally, we read the words of those who suf­fered in past atroc­i­ties, know­ing— per­haps with some se­cret re­lief—that we could em­pathize but not act. To­day’s on­line war diaries, de­scrib­ing un­fold­ing hor­rors, are fun­da­men­tally shift­ing the bur­den of moral re­spon­si­bil­ity to the reader. Hadiya en­gaged in di­rect con­ver­sa­tion with her au­di­ence. “I re­ceived many com­ments and let­ters say­ing that I am not Iraqi,” she wrote af­ter read­ing some pub­lic re­sponses to her diary. “An­other one said I don’t de­serve the free­dom that the Amer­i­cans are bring­ing to the Iraqi peo­ple. That my view of the war is wrong and I should change it. I’ll tell you what—no one in this world can know what I’m feel­ing. I re­spect your view of the Amer­i­can sol­diers but it is not you who is pre­vented from sleep­ing by the sound of bul­lets. It is not you who every day is wo­ken up by the sound of bombs. It is not you who hears the rocket falling and doesn’t know if it will be on his house or his aunt’s house or his grand­fa­ther’s.”

These dig­i­tal mis­sives also raise new ques­tions about cred­i­bil­ity and au­then­tic­ity. In 2016, seven-year-old Bana al-Abed tweeted about her or­deal in the sealed-off city of Aleppo, Syria. “I need peace,” read one tweet on Septem­ber 24. “I can’t go out be­cause of the bomb­ing please stop bomb­ing us,” pleaded an­other. The fam­ily even­tu­ally es­caped to Turkey, where Bana’s diary was pub­lished last fall. Though Bana amassed more than 350,000 fol­low­ers on Twit­ter, some ques­tioned whether it was she or her mother, Fatemah, who was the true author. (Bana’s Twit­ter bio ac­knowl­edges that the ac­count is “man­aged by mom”; Fatemah main­tains that the girl is deeply in­volved in its writ­ing.) There is, of course, no way to know for sure—it is eas­ier than ever to blur the lines of au­thor­ship on the in­ter­net.

Yet even in to­day’s jaded world, these young di­arists still have the power to jolt us out of our com­pla­cency. In dire cir­cum­stances, they be­come their own his­to­ri­ans, doc­u­ment­ing the op­pres­sion and vi­o­lence that threat­ens to si­lence them for­ever. The sur­vival of their diaries en­sures that, what­ever else might have been lost, their voices of ou­trage and protest en­dure.

“I need peace. I can’t go out be­cause of the bomb­ing please stop bomb­ing us.”

Matilda Olkin’s leather-bound diary, hid­den for decades, be­came the ba­sis for a hit play. The diary will soon be pub­lished in English and Lithua­nian.Open­ing pages: Matilda’s school por­trait, from 1939. Larger photo: The roadto Matilda’s home­town. The sta­ble where she was held is on the left, the church on the right. Vi­o­leta Alekniene heard about the Olkins as a child, but she didn’t be­gin to un­cover their story un­til 2007. “That’s when my eyes were opened,” she says.”

Matilda (bot­tomrow, far left) cel­e­brat­ing New Year’s Eve 1934 with lo­cal chil­dren. The area was then nearlyhalf Jewish; vir­tu­ally no Jewsre­main.

The train sta­tion where Matilda was last seen alive is still stand­ing, although too few peo­ple visit Pane­mu­nelis to keep the re­gion’srail line open.

The totem to Matil­ida was carved from a sin­gle oak— just one of a grow­ing num­ber of memo­ri­als to Lithua­nia’s van­ished Jewish com­mu­nity.

The artist Vid­man­tas Zakarka, who sculpted the totem to Matil­ida, at his stu­dio in Pane­mu­nelis. “I wanted this child to be re­mem­bered,” he told Laima Vince.

At age 10, Zlata Filipovic be­gan a diary, which she called “Mimmy.” Af­ter Zlata chron­i­cled the siege of Sara­jevo, her diary was pub­lished in 36 lan­guages.Locked away in a U.S. in­tern­mentcamp, Stan­ley Hayami doo­dled and dreamed ofbe­com­ing “the best artist in the world.” He kept draw­ing as a soldier in Europe.

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