From to time to time, a Dutch publisher will ask me to write a preface or an afterword to a book he plans to publish. I have written prefaces for authors as different as Machiavelli, Stendhal and Boris Vian.
Last November I received a letter from a publisher, asking if I was interested in writing a preface to Rutka Laskier’s diary. I had no clue who exactly Rutka Laskier was, but since I knew the translator of the diary personally, I didn’t want to say no right away.
Time passed and I forgot about Rutka Laskier. A few days ago, I found a message in my mailbox with the question: íDid you have time to read the diary of the Polish Anne Frank?ë
The Polish Anne Frank—did I miss something? Then I remembered Rutka Laskier’s diary. Apparently she was the Polish Anne Frank, a detail that had completely escaped me.
íI’ll start reading it tonight,ë I wrote back.
Rutka Laskier’s notebook, including an introduction by a family member, contains no more than than one thousand words. The comparison with Anne Frank seemed to me slightly unfair to Anne Frank. Besides the fact that Anne Frank has become a cliché—sometimes an unpleasant cliché: I’m not sure what to think about Anne Frank, the Musical, which will open in Spain in the near future—Anne’s diary is not only powerful from a historical point of view, but also from a literary point of view.
Rutka Laskier wrote her diary in the ghetto of the Polish city of Bedzin. It ends with two fragments that are attempts to write a story about life in the ghetto. The last sentence of the diary, dated April 24, 1943, reads: íThe entire day I’m walking around the room. I have nothing to do.ë Rutka was killed shortly afterwards in Auschwitz.
It’s unfair and probably impossible to judge the literary skills of a fourteen-year-old girl. Two things struck me about this diary: Rutka’s knowledge of and about the destruction that is waiting for both her and her family. It is suggested that Rutka was in contact the (Polish) resistance, and that might be an explanation how she had become so well informed.
But despite her awareness of gas chambers and Auschwitz (these words are used in her diary) she fills an important part of her notebook with musings about boys and kisses.
I wanted to inform the publisher that I didn’t feel like writing a preface to this notebook, but while putting away the manuscript that was sent to me, my eye fell on this sentence: íI’ll give you a detailed description of my body. Well, I’m tall, thin, with pretty nice legs, very thin at the waist. I’ve got elongated hands but ugly, or more accurately, uncared-for fingernails.ë
I changed my mind. I informed the publisher that I would write the preface.
The mundanity of Rutka’s uncared-for fingernails needed an answer.