Newly Published Diary of Warsaw Ghetto Resident Reveals Pain of Love Torn Asunder by War

Journal offers heartbreaking insight into lives of 50,000 Jews living in the ghetto in the years before the 1943 revolt

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The Okonowski family (Sewek is in the center) pictured before the outbreak of World War II.
The Okonowski family (Sewek is in the center) pictured in the years before the outbreak of World War II.
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

Until his final moments, Sewek Okonowski, 23, hoped he would see his wife Hadassah again. On the last page of his diary, he wrote to her: “My one and only! Wherever you are, I believe from the bottom of my heart your wish is to find me. And perhaps this hope will help get you through the worst of all. Keep yourself from collapsing, and the day will come when we will be reunited.”

The words were written on October 20, 1943, five months after he saw “Dasenka” for the last time, in the apartment in which they were hiding in the Warsaw ghetto.

“I have no strength to describe to you the turmoil in my heart when I lie alone in bed for the evening, curled up in the blanket,” he wrote on the last page. “I see you before my eyes, shaking somewhere on a cold, hard bench in a concentration camp. If you were with me, it couldn’t be that way. I would warm your cool body with my lips in the cold air of our room that has not yet been heated, like before,” he added.

All traces of Sewek Okonowski have since disappeared. Nothing is known about the fate of his wife, either. The history of the diary is no less heroic than its contents. It has been published in Hebrew on the occasion of Holocaust Remembrance Day under the name “Appointment in Samara: The Diary of a Jew in Hiding in Warsaw” (Ghetto Fighters' House and Moreshet).

The diary emerged from the rubble of Warsaw after World War II. A Polish construction worker – who came across the 118-page diary, composed in Polish in beautiful handwriting – gave it to a Jewish acquaintance. In 1967, shortly before the Six-Day War that led to a break in diplomatic relations between Poland and Israel, the acquaintance gave the diary to his brother in Bat Yam, south of Tel Aviv.

The latter saw the diary author’s name and thought of the pharmacist next door who had the same surname. He asked Franka Okonowski if she was connected to the author – Sewek Okonowski from the city of Slonim (now part of Belarus). She fainted.

Street scene in the Warsaw ghetto, early 1940s.
Street scene in the Warsaw ghetto, early 1940s.Credit: The Weiner Library/REX/Shutterstock

It turned out the pharmacist was Sewek’s sister-in-law, the wife of his elder brother, Zvi, who survived the war. After the family received the diary, they spent a week at home. After that, they didn’t discuss it with anyone for a long time.

“The diary probably revived the family’s sense of loss, and they probably suffered from questions raised by the entries of the lost brother,” says Prof. Havi Dreifuss, a Holocaust historian from Tel Aviv University and Yad Vashem, who wrote an enlightening forward to the diary.

Sewek’s brother kept the diary at home for decades, during which time the family refused to part from it or reveal it to the public. Five years ago, though, it was sent to the Ghetto Fighters' House Museum in the Western Galilee.

The diary has since been translated into Hebrew, edited and researched and is finally being published, 50 years after first arriving in Israel. Dreifuss, an expert on the Warsaw Ghetto Revolt, says the diary is very important for Holocaust research. Despite dozens of publications on the uprising, she says very little is known about the Jewish residents who didn’t participate in the fighting, in the 50,000-strong ghetto.

Beyond its importance as a historical resource for learning about Jewish life in the ghetto, the diary is an extraordinary and heartrending experience because of the personal story that unfolds within its pages.

Sewek Okonowski. His journal has finally been published, as "Appointment in Samara: The Diary of a Jew in Hiding in Warsaw."
Sewek Okonowski. His journal has finally been published, as "Appointment in Samara: The Diary of a Jew in Hiding in Warsaw."

Planning to go to Palestine

Sewek and Hadassah met in Slonim in 1939, before the war. Nineteen-year-old Sewek, from Kalisz, was there for training at the Jewish youth movement Hashomer Hatzair, before moving to Palestine; Hadassah, a Slonim native, was 18. They married in 1940. They went to Warsaw in 1941 and hid in the ghetto, in order to reunite with Sewek’s family.

Their lives changed irrevocably when the revolt erupted on April 19, 1943, after which the Germans burned down the ghetto. “I look at you, Dasenka, your dear face, your big beautiful eyes that are rounded from fear, as if amazed by the world, and the pale mouth tightly closed in silence,” he wrote in his diary. “And my heart just aches, aches, aches! My Daska, almost a child. How can I make it easier for you, Dasenka, at this tragic moment?” he asked.

The family initially moved to a hiding place in the ghetto, where they lived together for three weeks.

“We stayed in our hovel like prey, without making a noise save for a soft whisper,” he wrote. Even during the most terrifying moments, when the Germans moved from house to house with the voice of the detonator deafening our ears for several seconds,” he found a “last comfort,” he wrote. “We are together, Dasenka,” he added. “We were again saved.”

He briefly left the hiding place on May 9, looking to find an escape to the so-called Aryan side of the city. Nothing prepared him for the fact he would never see his family or love again.

“I left our hiding place in the morning without saying goodbye to anyone I was supposed to return immediately,” he wrote. “My dear Daska! The holiest of all my heart. My anguish will bear witness that from the first moment I never thought about myself and my fate for even a moment, but rather I always, always thought and think about you, our pain, and about your worry because of my disappearance. I know how much you love me.”

The Okonowski family before World War II.
The Okonowski family before World War II.

Temporary escape

However, he then saw the house where he and his family were hiding go up in flames, while he was caught and led to the deportation square. “Suddenly, horror! Flames as red as blood flames licking at the front windows on our house’s first floor,” he wrote. “There, deep in the courtyard, is our hideout. You, my dear ones, are all there.”

Walking to the train that was supposed to lead him to his death, he thought of Hadassah. “I go and you, Daska, stay. You’ll know in the end that I fell into the executioners’ hands,” he wrote later. “You will suffer. Cry in your loving heart and in your beautiful eyes, wide open like the eyes of a frightened child. Try to see my image in every shadow, and recognize the sound of my steps in every rustle. Call me with the power of your unrelenting despair, with all your might and without restraint. But in vain, Daska, in vain! The bloody route of Umschlagplatz is before me, the monstrous vision of Treblinka.”

Driven by his love, Sewek managed to do the inconceivable – he successfully jumped from the train heading toward the death camp. He also survived the guards’ shots and returned to the ghetto, hoping to find Hadassah and his family.

"Why did fate leave you alone, Dasik? Life dealt me a cruel blow. They took you, everything dear to me. I am left alone, consumed with pangs of conscience. Who could have expected the ungodly Germans to burn down the entire ghetto – upon the ones hiding there?” he wondered.

“Darkness slowly descends, and with it my deep grief strengthens over the cruel separation from you and my longings for you, Dasenka, and for my family left in indescribable danger,” he wrote.

The Okonowski family before World War II.
The Okonowski family before World War II.

He found a hiding place in the Aryan part of Warsaw, where he found time to make diary entries. He wrote on June 13, 1943, their third anniversary: “How can I describe my feelings this morning? Today is three years after tying our young lives together forever. You became mine three years ago, my wonderful flower.”

Later, he wrote, “The world was beautiful and smiling and today I am alone, a terrible orphan. Without you, the one and only, without you my friend, the essence of my life, without you! Nowhere can I shout my unfettered despair. I can’t put my head in your beloved embrace anymore to cry my bitter fate.”

He continued: “Will I ever see your shining face again? Will you ever wrap your arms around my neck at the passion of meeting? No, I cannot write anymore. I cannot poke at the bloody wound. I am too weak, too unhappy, too broken.”

His hope faded as time passed. He wrote on October 6: “I dare not register my black thoughts and gnawing speculations. From where will I draw the faith and hope that I will see you again? How do I appease a burning conscience? How do I overcome despair? Oh, how I would like to believe in God, to fervently pray and breathe a sigh of relief. And if you are no more, I’d believe you are expecting me in the eternal world that is all good, and to surrender myself to the hands of the good death. But I am still not allowed to die, I must believe that you are alive.”