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Classics Reissued: Salvaged Pages

By (August 25, 2015) No Comment

Salvaged Pages:salvaged pages

Young Writers’ Diaries of the Holocaust

by Alexandra Zapruder

Yale University Press, 2015

New from Yale University Press is an updated paperback edition of Alexandra Zapruder’s 2002’s Salvaged Pages: Young Writers’ Diaries of the Holocaust, which collects fourteen first-hand diaries and journals written, often furtively and fearfully, by young people aged 12 to 22, some of whom were in hiding in the cellars and bolt-holes of citizen houses, others of whom were trapped in ghettos throughout Nazi-occupied Europe. The book, as Zapruder relates, struck a chord in a wide variety of readers, provoking all kinds of reactions and eventually prompting this new edition:

Now, thirteen years after the first edition’s publication, I have traveled across the United States, teaching the book in a dizzying number of cities. My memories of these places exist as a study in contrasts. One week, I am standing at a podium in a posh, hushed auditorium in a wealthy private school in California with students quietly typing into laptops; the next, I am in a cavernous auditorium with eight hundred rowdy middle schoolers in Tuscon, Arizona, when a student stands up to ask me, “Do you speak Jew?” I am speaking to a group of young Orthodox women students from Yeshiva University, all with their heads covered, in long sleeves and skirts, and I am in an inner-city classroom with water stains and peeling plaster, where fights break out in the halls and students look at me with suspicion, doubting my ability to say anything of interest or meaning to them.

The reaction from readers is understandable; Salvaged Pages is somberly fascinating from start to finish, not just for the diaries themselves but for the vast amount of research and context Zapruder adds to the diaries, making this an indispensable addition to the enormous library of Holocaust literature. And as compassionate a guide as Zapruder is, she doesn’t allow her readers any easy consolation, however small:

Although many diaries can give the tempting illusion that the reader is in the presence of the writer – because they are written in the first person, and are often intimate in tone and spontaneous in form – it is unfortunately not so. Whether personal or not, private or public, spontaneous or crafted, the content of the diary does not allow us to come to know the writer, its survival dos not permit a deceased diarist to “live on,” nor does its existence confer literary immortality upon the person who penned it.

The diaries themselves are the center of the book, of course, and it’s heartbreaking to read the grim similarities running underneath the varying nature of the daily events each young writer records. The young writers of these accounts are unfailingly smart and articulate, and their personalities come through even when we know next to nothing about the details of their lives, as in the case of the anonymous boy from the Lodz Ghetto, who wrestles in December of 1944 with the conflicting claims of his own multilingual abilities:

I suffer terribly but still I dream of a better future, of a more beautiful life, free and humane. I dream also of being able to tell the world of my suffering, at least as much as possible. In fact I should call it our suffering. For never before has suffering been felt so collectively as it is by us in the ghetto. After fantasizing of writing in various languages I return to my own language, to Yiddish, our charming mother tongue, because only in Yiddish can I hope to express my true inner self, directly and without contriving.

But despair is common tongue of all these accounts, sometimes lurking far in the distance, visible mainly through the whetted desperation it lends to the mundane events of the day, other times, as in the case of Moshe Flinker, writing in November of 1942 (he would die at Bergen-Belsen three years later), right up at the forefront of every thought, choking off hope like hunger:

We are in a very bad situation. Our sufferings have by far exceeded our wrongdoings. What other purpose could the Lord have in allowing such things to befall us? I feel certain that further troubles will not bring any Jew back to the paths of righteousness; on the contrary, I think upon experiencing such great anguish they will think that there is no God at all in the universe, because had there been a God He would not have let such things to happen to His people.

Salvaged Pages was by far the saddest book to appear in 2002, and this new edition easily takes that dubious distinction in 2015. There’s no denying the importance of the work Zapruder has done here, but reading the book drains all light and air from the world, for a time.