Diary of a love that perished in Auschwitz
It took Alice Lehmann decades to dare to open the journals of her first love, Bernie Sapir, who was murdered in Auschwitz. Now the 88-year-old Jerusalemite has shared their tragic tale in a heartrending book.
On November 6, 1942, Bernie Sapir wrote the last lines of his diary. Under the heading, "A letter to my darling," he wrote the following to Alice, the girl he'd met the previous winter: "In closing, I'd like to address a few words to you directly. It's been almost four months since you left me, four terrible months that have been dark and difficult for all of us. My darling, I have to be brief. I'm leaving tonight. I'm facing a period of many dangers and difficulties. Even if I don't survive, I've made sure this diary will find its way to you."
The last diary entry ends with dramatic words: "If these are the last lines I will ever write you, my Alicia, again accept my love, a love I cannot express in words, and my belief, hope and resolve that one day I will be lucky enough to have you as my wife."
Seventy years have passed since then. Bernie Sapir was murdered in Auschwitz. His love, Alice Lehmann, survived. She married someone else, immigrated to Israel, and built a family. On her wedding day, a small postal package containing Bernie's diary was delivered to her home. For decades, Alice refused to open it. Her guilt over getting on with life with another man after her beloved was gassed to death was unbearable. Finally giving in to family pressures, she opened the diary for the first time five years ago.
Last week Lehmann, author of "A Wartime Love Story: The Diaries of Bernie and Alice" (United Kibbutz Publishers), gave an emotionally fraught reading of the diary. At 88, Lehmann - who lives at the senior citizens' home of the Association of Israelis of Central European Origin in the Baka neighborhood of Jerusalem - looks fantastic and her mood is upbeat. Despite a heart attack, she is alert and articulate. She remembers her tragic love story with Bernie in exquisite detail.
They were two Dutch Jews, both 18, from Scheveningen, a suburb of The Hague. For both, it was first love, blooming in 1942, the horrible year when the fate of many European Jews was hanging in the balance. Their romance lasted all of six months: Alice was forced into hiding with her family and parting from her beloved.
"I remember our last night together," she recalls. "We sat on my bed and cried. Bernie and I had made plans for the future and we decided to keep diaries. That way, when we met again after the war, we'd both be able to read what had happened to the other." For their future meeting place, they decided on the park bench where they had shared their first kiss.
They parted on July 20, 1942, in the early morning hours. Alice sang Bernie a goodbye song, and left for a life in hiding in various apartments. "It was the end of my youth. Until that point, I'd been a young girl. Afterwards, fear was the only thing left. I so much wanted to live; I couldn't bear the thought of dying. I was so sure I'd see Bernie again," she says.
Five days later, she wrote in her diary, "My love, I won't be able to stand it! I can't stand it without you!!! I want to go back. I want to go through everything together with you, not alone, not in such desperate, hopeless loneliness! Bernie - I love you so much. Why must young people, so much in love, like us, be forced apart?"
Bernie, too, poured his heart out into his diary. On July 26 he wrote: "Today is my birthday. It's supposed to be a nice, pleasant, festive day, but instead, just like in past days, I have to fight just to get through it, fight because my Alicia isn't with me. Days I have to get through without my love are days without the sun, without joy. To experience pleasant, comfortable, festive days I don't need birthdays. No, all I need is to have Alice by my side and the opportunity to kiss her beautiful lips. No one, no one, knows - maybe she herself doesn't know - what she means to me. She is the most sublime thing I think about, like something holy."
The passage of time did not blunt the pain. On August 3, Alice wrote: "Today I am again so, so overcome with longing for you. From the moment I woke up, I've felt this bottomless despair. Oh God, I thought, what will become of me? How will I get through the day?! My love, it has to, it will happen. It has to happen soon, because I miss you so much."
Later on, with distinct literary talent, she added: "I'm nothing but an ordinary girl, nothing special, just an ordinary girl who longs for her boyfriend. Surely there are many young girls longing for their boyfriends who've gone away. Surely there are many young women longing for their husbands who've gone away. Surely there are many old women longing for their sons who've gone away. And because all of these longings are piled on top of one another, until they become a mountain as tall as the Tower of Babel, a mountain of tremendous shared suffering, and because women in all countries bear the same longing and suffering, and because suffering creates solidarity, the end must come quickly. The atmosphere cannot bear so much longing. The heavens cannot absorb so many sighs."
The love story of Alice and Bernie lives on in the diaries they wrote while apart. Their strong bond resulted in identical feelings experienced at the same time despite the physical distance separating them. For example, one day after Alice spoke openly about her despair and longing, Bernie recorded similar feelings in his own diary.
On August 4, he wrote: "Sometimes I think that I may very well be forced to fill this notebook diary up to the end, or, worse still, that one notebook won't be enough. Then my heart fills with dread and I sink into despair and deep depression. But even if I have to go on like this for a long time, I hope I manage to survive. Because the day will come when I'll be able to give her this diary. She'll read it and be convinced that I poured my heart out and confessed my distress to her. Even if I have to write my thoughts and talk about my daily doings for a year or two or more and declare my love for her without ever getting a response, even then I know that my love won't wear away. On the contrary, it can only grow. For me, she is it, the one and only, past, present and future. She'll always be everything to me."
From a distance of 70 years, Alice reads the diaries with pain and sorrow, a nostalgic smile on her face. "It was our first love. The first time I loved someone like that. I was a little childlike," she says.
Alice's and Bernie's diaries are now read not only as a heartbreaking romantic document but also as a rare historical testimony of the Holocaust of the Jews of the Netherlands. Bernie, who worked for the local Judenrat, became aware of information about the fate of Dutch Jews and shared his dilemmas in his diary. On August 10, he wondered about the right step to take - to flee or to go into hiding. "Finally, the chances are, of course, fifty-fifty. Staying here is dangerous because, it means, without a doubt, Poland. Hiding is equally dangerous, because being caught means being sent to one of the most horrible concentration camps in Germany. I don't know if it's a good or a bad move, to go or not to go. It will become clear only in the future. Again, anything I do, or plan on doing, is only for her sake and for the sake of our love. Were I to think that I had lost one - her or her love - I'd go where I'd be most certain of meeting my death. But, luckily, I know that both are mine and that they'll remain that way, and I value both. I am therefore prepared to sacrifice anything and everything for our love and for Alice."
In the end, Bernie was forced to sacrifice his life. In September 1943, someone informed the Germans of the hiding place of Bernie and his family. They were sent to Auschwitz, where he was murdered a year before the camp was liberated.
At the end of the war, Alice returned to the park bench where they had arranged to meet, "at first with a lot of hope, because I saw flowers blooming and beauty. But I finally realized he wasn't coming back." Shortly thereafter, she met Nathan, a soldier with the Jewish Brigades.
She received Bernie's diary in the mail on the day she married Nathan. It was December 12, 1945, and to this day she has no idea who sent it. "Some hours before the ceremony, my father said that a present had arrived for me. I didn't know what it was. When I saw Bernie's diary - a small green notebook - I almost fainted. The blood drained from my face, and I had to sit down on the stairs. I felt awful. But Nathan was so handsome, and had such a sweet smile."
Later on, she and Nathan immigrated to Israel and built a family: four children, 10 grandchildren, and 13 great-grandchildren. "In the meantime," she says, "we were such a good couple that I no longer missed Bernie. But I had a guilty conscience and walked around feeling I'd done something wrong. How could I have stayed true to Bernie for three years and then suddenly left everything and fallen so completely in love with someone else? I wanted to fix it, to deal with the guilt over the fact that, once upon a time, a young, intelligent man had lived - who knows what he could have become - who loved me like mad and continued to love me, and hoped to be reunited with me."
All through the years, she didn't open Bernie's diary even once. Likewise, she had no plans to publish her own. "When I saw Anne Frank's diary, I thought no one would be interested in another one like it," she said. Her husband, Nathan (who has since died) and their daughter, Shula, thought otherwise and encouraged her to share the diary.. In 2007, she finally opened the diary and went on a personal, emotional and historical journey of reliving this tragic love story from the Holocaust era. After being published in Dutch, the book is now available in Hebrew as well.