"The Diary of My Brother" - a child's testimony that life can go on, even amid the horrors of the Holocaust

Petr Ginz

In this week's Talking Point, we reflect on the life of a young boy who perished at Auschwitz and whose recently found diary has just been published in Prague. This edition is part of a special Holocaust series on Radio Prague this week, in honour of this Thursday marking Holocaust Memorial Day, on the sixtieth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.

The story of Petr Ginz is a tragic one. Petr Ginz was born to a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother in Prague in 1928. He had one sister, Eva, who was two years younger. At the age of fourteen, he was torn out of his family and sent to the Jewish ghetto in Terezin; two years later to Auschwitz, where he perished in the gas chamber at the age of only sixteen.

Excerpt from "My Brother's Diary":

28. November 1941 (Friday)

At school in the morning. The Mautners, who live on our floor, have to go to Terezin with thousands of others. Reach, Ervin Mautner, and many others. Mr Mautner went to the Jewish community, to ask whether it isn't a mistake (he is already fifty years old and sick).

In the late afternoon, we went for a walk in the city across Charles Bridge, Klarov, and Belcredi street (Letna street today).

29. November 1941 (Saturday)

With Popper by the slaughterhouse in the morning; at grandmothers in the afternoon.

Mr Mautner has been to the community, apparently it was no mistake. So, he has to go to Vystaviste as soon as Monday December 1. In a month, the entire Mautner family will have to follow him.

Leo Pavlat, Director of the Jewish Museum in Prague:

"Petr Ginz was one of about 135,000 Jews, who were gradually sent to annihilation camps in the East. Since he was so multi-talented and very active, he led many youth activities among his fellow prisoners in Terezin. These included publishing an underground magazine, and he started to write novels and romances. Everybody knew that he was an exceptional boy and an exceptional talent and his drawings and diaries, which are preserved, actually testify to the fact of how exceptional he was."

All of Petr Ginz' relatives from his Jewish father's side of the family were sent to concentration camps. Only three survived - his father, sister, and one cousin. After the war, his sister Eva moved to Israel, where she still lives. Not one day goes by without her remembering the short but very special life of her older brother:

"My brother, who was two years older than me, was always an example to follow. He was an example mostly in the spiritual field. I think that the most characteristic trait of his personality was his big curiosity about almost everything. He was interested in the natural sciences, in geography, in ancient and modern languages, and habits of people from far away countries like Africa, and India.

"I remember very well that his eyes were often focused on the ground, when we were walking, and he was observing insects and plants. He would often find different 'treasures' like glass pearls or coins and when we came back home he drew them. He was drawing and painting constantly. He also did his linocuts, which are the same as woodcuts but cut into linoleum. He also printed his cuts. He also wrote a lot. He wrote novels and articles for his school magazine.

"He wrote about eight novels and one of them is fully preserved and is in my possession. It is an allegory on Hitler. At the beginning of the novel, he writes that he found it in the attic of an old house in which Jules Verne lived. He says it was a book that was written by Jules Verne but was never published and that he, Petr, had translated it into Czech and presents it to the public for the first time to read. I think that in his child's soul he already imagined himself to be a journalist, writer, or scientist. When the occupation began and there were restrictions against Jews, it was impossible for us to go into a shop and buy some paper or something to write on and so he book-bound his own works on old paper. I have several examples of them still with me."

The memory of Petr Ginz has been kept alive by Jewish centres and museums, which have preserved some of his numerous writings and drawings. But Petr's name became known to much of the world after the space shuttle Columbia exploded on February 1, 2003, the exact day Petr would have turned 75. None of the crew survived... including Israeli Astronaut Ilan Ramon, who chose to take a copy of Petr's drawing "Moon Landscape" on his journey into space to remind him of the Jewish people's fate ...

In Prague, media reports on the tragic Columbia explosion and Petr Ginz's drawing came to the attention of a man, who had just bought a house that had similar drawings stashed away in the attic. He e-mailed scanned samples to the Yad Vashem Museum in Israel, which in turn, showed them to Petr's sister Eva:

"First of all, I was very excited...very, very excited. It was a joy for me to see them because I never knew about their existence and immediately recognised his handwriting and I remembered some of the events he was writing about. The diaries, which are written day by day for almost two years, before he was taken to Theresienstadt [Terezin] is a true testimony that the life of a child continues even under very hard conditions because he writes about everything he did every day and not only about the terrible things that happened but also about trivial things and jokes he did with his friends. I was never ill before but afterwards I got high blood pressure, which I never had."

Excerpt from "My Brother's Diary":

23. December 1941 (Tuesday)

We have just received a notice from the Jewish community to bring in, by December 31, all harmonicas and other musical instruments that are easy to carry, as well as thermometers, cameras and things like that. Besides that, we have to register all larger, non-portable musical instruments.

At grandmother's in the afternoon.

24. December 1941 (Wednesday)

My father, Uncle Milos, and Slava received a notice, to be ready when it snows to clear it away. At grandmother's in the morning; took a walk with Popper and Eva in the afternoon.

25. December 1941 (Thursday)

At grandmother's in the morning, in Maniny with the entire family in the afternoon.

It is very windy, so we had to turn back.

In the evening, Lianka from the Kohner's came to invite us to dinner, they are lighting the Christmas tree. They have become totally Arian. Mr Hula was there, the Kohners, the Fiskus' (newly-weds), and Mila Weisbach. It is snowing and we all fear that it will stay on the ground and father will have to clear it. Once, last year, he also had to do such work but this time at Kbely airport. There were several decimetres of water and father (he was there about 5x) caught a cold.

The Jews will most likely have to give away their sweaters again.

The diaries were written between 1941-1942 before Petr Ginz was sent to Terezin, as he was living in Prague with his parents and younger sister, attending a Jewish school. Zuzana Zadrobilkova, from the publishing house Trigon, put the contents of the diary into electronic form:

"When he wrote the diaries, he was thirteen or fourteen years old and he just wrote down the text without judging, without evaluating situations. He just wrote, for example, that they threw him out of a tram because he was a Jew and had the star but it was written without emotions. And, what was most important for me was that he knew that after his fourteenth birthday, he would have to go to a concentration camp and he just waited. You could notice it from his handwriting. When the diary starts, it is in very nice handwriting and when the situation worsens, he starts to become nervous because he knows that the date is coming."

The last entry that Petr Ginz made into his diary was one month before the anticipated date. It read:

"9. August, 1942: Stayed home in the morning."

Eva Ginz (today, Chava Pressburger):

"There was a German law from Nuremberg that stated that children from mixed marriages were obliged to follow all the restrictions like all the Jews. There was only one exception - they were taken to concentration camps when they were fourteen years old. So, when Petr was fourteen years old in 1942, our parents were obliged to let him go, to give him to the Germans.

"I remember very well the time when he left. It was very sad for all of us. They took a child and took him out of his family. My parents then waited two years in fear in hopes that the war would end...but it didn't end. In 1944, they were obliged to send me to the concentration camp alone. When I saw him in Terezin, I was very, very surprised how tall he became in the two years but also how thin and very pale."

Eva and Petr hardly saw each other as there were separated living quarters for girls and boys. Chava fell ill and spent six weeks in hospital with scarlet fever and diphtheria. She was released from hospital in the summer - the last summer she spent close to her brother. On September 28 1944, Petr was taken to Auschwitz ... never to be seen by his family again.