Alex Zapruder

Alexandra Zapruder

Alexandra Zapruder has always been interested in the lives of kids. She has been a camp counselor and a teacher, and now she has written a book about kids — kids who lived through the Holocaust.

Her idea for this book started after college when she went to work at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. She worked on an exhibit for young people called Remember the Children, Daniel's Story, which tells the story of a boy who lived through the Holocaust. One day, in the museum's library, she came across a group of diaries written by teenagers during the Holocaust. She was amazed to find that other young people beside Anne Frank had written diaries, and even more amazed to find out how interesting they were. She decided to see if she could find any more like them. Over the next 10 years, she found more than 60 diaries in museums, archives, libraries, and in the homes of people who had survived the Holocaust. From these diaries, she wrote a book called Salvaged Pages: Young Writers' Diaries of the Holocaust.

This is an entry from one of the diaries included in the book. It was written by a boy named Yitskhok Rudashevski (pronounced Yitz-hak Roo-da-shev-skee). He was 15 years old when he wrote his diary in the Vilna Ghetto in Lithuania. Yitskhok was a very good writer, with a special gift for describing scenes of daily life in the ghetto. In this entry, he wrote about the sad sight of children who had to sell food on the street to try to bring home some money for their families.

Tuesday the 10th [November 1942]
[] Like flies around a little lamp, poor ghetto vendors, mostly children, cling to the light. The bluish, dull light illuminates the rags of the children or women, illuminates the little hands red from cold which are counting money and giving change. Frozen, carrying the little stands on their backs, they push toward the tiny corner that is lit up.

[] Next day you see them again at the sad light, how they knock one foot against the other and breathe into their frozen hands. I run through the cold, sad little ghetto street and run home straight to bed, to fall asleep as soon as possible, because in sleep you dream and have sweeter hopes than when awake.

Yitskhok Rudashevski and his family were killed by the Nazis in October 1943. His cousin found his diary after the war and gave it to a famous poet who had also lived in the Vilna ghetto during the Holocaust. The poet gave it to the archives of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York City, where the diary is in safekeeping today.

Alexandra Zapruder joined us for a live interview on May 14, 2002. Below is a transcript of that interview.

Q: How did you get started on this book?
A: In 1991, I was working at the Holocaust Museum in Washington on an exhibit called "Remember the Children: Daniel's Story." I started reading diaries that were kept by teenagers as part of the research. I found about five or six of them when I first started and these were diaries that had been published, but were out of print so it wasn't easy to find them. I thought they were so interesting that they should be published again. I started looking for more of them, and that is how I got started.

They were so interesting and colorful; I thought people should read them. At first I just imagined publishing the few that I found that had already been published and went out of print. When I started looking into it, I found more and more, ones that had never been published before. I realized it was a much bigger project.

Q: How did you find the first journal?
A: The very first one that I came across, the published version, was in the library at the Holocaust Museum in D.C., but when I read the diary, I found out that the original diary was in an archive in New York City. I eventually went to look at in this archive.

A number of the diaries that I found had already been published and went out of print, but a lot of them were diaries that had never been published, and a lot of them were in archives and nobody even really knew that they were there. Nobody really paid much attention to them. Other ones were with holocaust survivors or with relatives of children who had died during the Holocaust. Some of them were in people's attics in trunks, desk drawers, and paper bags. One lady kept her diary in her sofa cushions in her living room!

Whereas with the archives the challenge was finding the diary, but once I found it I could ask for a copy of it, but with Holocaust survivors there was the challenge of finding the diary and gaining the trust of the person who had the diary and letting me see it, or make a copy of it. It was a long process to win people's trust and share their diaries with me. In order to win people's trust, I corresponded through letters. It is important to remember these people are the same age as your grandparents and great-grandparents. It was important to give them time to think about whether they wanted to let me see the diary. They are not used to making decisions immediately like we are, and they don't come from a generation that is used to e-mail or the telephone. I would write a letter, and a month or two later the person would write back, and then I would write again. It was very slow. It was about getting to know these survivors and letting them get to know and trust me — and usually asking for one thing at a time. First would they be willing to make a copy of the diary and let me see it? Second, would they let me raise money for a translation? Then they let me make a translation. Finally, would they let me publish the translation? It was very incremental. One thing had to happen at a time.

Q: Have you met with any of the authors of these diaries?
A: Yes, I've met a lot of the diarists. Some of them have become very good friends of mine, almost like grandparents to me. The ones who I'm closest to, we created a real bond because they trusted me to tell their stories. I had to live up to that responsibility. While I was writing the book, I had millions of questions so over the years; I've gotten to know them really well. I had to ask them questions about their childhood or diaries. They live all over the United States and also in Europe and Israel. They are like grandparents. They call me and ask me when I'm getting married and if I am taking care of myself. They send me articles. It's really a blessing, a wonderful thing in my life. To have all these older people who are so interesting, have had such interesting lives who are now part of my life, and wouldn't have been if it weren't for the project.

I think it's also really special for them, I think they are grateful now that somebody cared enough about what happened to them to write about it. And now that the book is published, I've made their stories known to a wider world. They gave me something, and I gave them something in return.

Q: Was it a difficult thing for these older people to remember and talk about their wartime experiences?
A: Yes, sometimes. It's important to remember that there are a lot of diarists, so it is hard to generalize. Some of the diarists didn't want to remember the past, and didn't want to talk about it. But most people, even if it was painful for them, they were able to answer my questions. Sometimes survivors don't remember things and then I would have to go and do research and try and find the answers to my questions somewhere else. For the most part, the survivors I worked with were very open. Very willing to answer my questions and talk about their past.

Q: How did you feel when you read some parts of the diaries?
A: I felt a lot of different things, sometimes I felt sad because these young writers were so talented and smart and their lives were so terrible. A lot of the time, I felt impressed by how thoughtful and interesting these young people were. And sometimes their diaries are funny or odd or quirky.

Q: Did you find any recurring themes that run through the diaries from different young people?
A: Yes, definitely. Some themes are related to daily life during the Holocaust, like hunger or deprivation or loneliness or death. And some themes are more abstract like the passing of time or faith in God or love. There is a lot of overlap in terms of topics and themes, but each writer says it a little bit differently depending on their style or personality.

Q: How long did it take you to find the journals, and how many did you collect in the end?
A: The whole project took ten years. I was looking for diaries, actively looking for about five or six years. When I started the project there were about six or seven or eight diaries that I knew of and now I know of about sixty. I think that there are a lot of diaries still out there that I wasn't able to find — with Holocaust survivors or in archives. I think this might change with the publication of my book. But I think people don't always realize how powerful or insightful young people's writing can be. I think even though these diaries were around for a long time, people didn't know to pay attention to them, and I think that is still true.

Q: Did you use all of the journals that you found?
A: No, unfortunately. In the book, I took excerpts from 15 diaries, there are more than 60 all together that I know of, and deciding which ones to use were very difficult. But in a book, the author always has to make choices. And sometimes you have to decide what is the most interesting or important, depending on what it is you want to say in your book. It's a hard thing to do, especially because so many of these diaries are wonderful; I hated to have to leave them out.

Q: How many of those kids survived?
A: Of the 60 diarists that I know of, about half of them survived. Diaries of young people who wrote diaries and survived were more likely to keep their diaries with them. Young writers who died left their diaries behind somewhere along the way and those diaries were less likely to make it because they had to be found by somebody, taken care, given to an archive. There were more things that could happen to a diary that wasn't held on to by its writer. Diaries were found by strangers. Children who wrote and died or disappeared, their diaries were found by people in extraordinary situations. One was found in an abandoned apartment building, several were found in abandoned apartment buildings of children that were sent away, like Anne Frank. One was found in a pile of paper trash in a factory in Poland. One was found in a ditch outside. Some were given by the writer of the diary to a friend or to a loved one when they were being sent away, and those people then took care of the diary until after the war. Some diaries were lost forever. Some were abandoned by their writers and were somehow lost and never found. I once wrote to a lady because I heard she had a diary, and she wrote back and told me that she did have a diary, but that when she was deported to the concentration camp at Auschwitz all of her belongings were taken, including her diary, which she never saw again.

Q: Did kids write about everyday things in their journals or did they talk about bigger issues like the war?
A: Kids wrote about everything in their diaries. From tiny details to what they ate during the day, fights with their brothers and sisters, their clothes, how they were feeling, what they were reading, the weather, to big questions about life and death, about God, about why they were being persecuted, about the meaning of life. I think in such a big body of material, thousands of pages of diaries, you can find almost everything. It depends on the personality of the writer, people were interested in different things. Some diarists wrote only about daily problems, and never expressed their feelings or asked a big philosophical question, and other diarists only dealt with the big issues and never said anything about what was happening in their daily life. But most were somewhere in between.

Q: How did kids get the paper and the pens to write during the war?
A: Great question. It wasn't easy to get paper and pencil at all and kids often wrote really small or on scraps of paper when their notebooks ran out. Sometimes they could get notebooks or paper because someone was able to trade or buy something for them. There are diaries written in all kinds of makeshift notebooks. One diary was written in the margins and end pages of a French novel. Some were written in calendars or ledgers (account book). And one was written on scraps of paper, backs of notices, and paper bags of all shapes and sizes. That's why I called the book Salvaged Pages.

One writer's last entry is about getting a new notebook, and he writes: "January 23, 1943. My final concern at the moment of writing these lines is where do I find a new notebook, a new diary? Hmmm?? Tell me, maybe you know where to get it? I will be most grateful to you for it.... Basta (enough)" He did not survive; his name was Iyla Gerber. This notebook was his third notebook, the first two were lost and that was the last entry, and we don't know exactly what happened to him, but he probably died about a year and a half later at the age of 18 or 19.

Q: Did you find any diaries of young people who were not victims, but just bystanders to the events of the Holocaust? If so, what sense did you get of how they perceived events?
A: I did come across a few diaries written by non-Jewish teenagers in Europe during the war. Even if they weren't victims of the Holocaust, they were victims of the war and of German aggression. There's almost nothing in those diaries about what was happening to the Jews, but there is a lot about what those non-Jewish writers were dealing with in terms of the war, food rationing, violence. I think it's worth noticing that there's almost nothing about the Jews, and I don't know why that is.

Q: Once you found all the journals, how did you put them together?
A: Good question. First I read them all, or read as many as I could over and over and over again. I tried to understand how the material fit together. At first I chose 25 diaries, so I had to narrow it down to about half that were both diverse or different from each other, but also somehow connected. I continued to read them and tried to think about the whole shape of the book, until I narrowed it down. I also did a lot of research so that I could write the introductions. I needed to know as much biographical information as possible about each writer, and I needed to understand the history of the place in which they lived. For example, a particular ghetto or country in which a person was hiding. There was a lot of research involved.

When I felt ready to begin writing, I would write a draft of the introduction, I usually ended up with 25 or 30 drafts of each introduction - both to perfect the writing, but also to get the biographical and historical information correct. I used the library mostly, I read A LOT of books about the Holocaust. If a diarist lived in Poland, and was deported to a ghetto, and then to a concentration camp and died. I would find articles about all the places the person lived and the times they were there. I would read as much as I could to get a full picture of the historical context in which that person lived. Because the writers came from all over Europe, I learned about the Holocaust in many different countries. I also did use the Internet, but I relied mostly on books and articles from the library.

Q: What do you hope young readers today will learn by reading these diaries?
A: I think these diaries can be like opening a window into the past. I hope that young people will understand how difficult daily life was during the Holocaust. I also hope that young people will realize that these young writers contributed to the way all of us understand the past. I hope that young people will be inspired to write.

Q: What will you do now that this project that took so many years and so much effort is completed?
A: I'm busy giving readings and talking about the book, which makes me very happy. Because I love these diaries, I hope to continue doing that for a long time. I am also working on some related projects, possibly a version of the book for young kids — adapting it for young audiences and a documentary film. I hope to have another writing project soon, but I don't have one yet.

Q: What advice do you have to kids who want to write?
A: My advice to kids is to write as much as you can. Sit quietly with your own ideas, and not to listen to anybody, but to write what you think. And to keep writing until you know that what you've written says what you mean for it to say. Another piece of advice for kids who want to write is to read, read great literature; read everything you can read because that's the best way to become a great writer.

Q: Were you always interested about the past and how it was?
A: Yes. I wasn't always interested in the Holocaust, but I always was curious about how people lived. Especially how people lived in ancient times because there's a lot of room for imagination. It's like a mystery or a puzzle.

Q: How old were the kids who wrote the journals in your book?
A: They were between the ages of 12 and 22. Most were 14, 15, and 16.

Q: What impressed you about "Daniel's Story"?
A: Since I worked on "Daniel's Story," it's hard to say what impressed me; it's like complimenting myself. But what I like about it is that it gives kids a way to understand a very large and complicated story. It tells the story of one person.

Q: While you were writing this story, did you feel like you were actually inside Yitskhok 's life?
A: That's my favorite diarist! When I was writing the book, I tried to identify with the writers and have compassion for them, but I didn't feel like I was them or like I was living their lives. I think in order to be a good writer, you have to both feel deeply about your subject, but also maintain some distance from it. It's very hard to do.

Q: Is this the first book you have written? How did you persuade someone that it was important to publish this collection?
A: Yes, it's my first book. It was hard to find a publisher. In 1995, I tried to find a publisher and my proposal was rejected by 25 publishers. But the reason was because I wasn't ready to write the book yet. Several years later when I had done more research, gathered more diaries, and had figured out what I wanted the book to be, then the first publisher I approached bought the book. So I think that it wasn't because the subject matter was uninteresting, but because I hadn't fully developed my idea. That's why I said to keep writing until you know what you want to say. Because when you are clear about what you want to say, then you can say it well and then people can understand you.