Standing in the middle of her living room in a Boston suburb in February, a stunned Miriam Ornstein tried to comprehend the news she has just been told by phone: A diary written in Nazi-occupied Budapest by her late aunt, Judit Ornstein, had been located in an Israel archive. It had been translated into Hebrew and a persistent researcher had traced it back to the surviving Ornstein family in the United States.
Judit was barely 18 when she was killed in an Allied bombing in September 1944, and her surviving relatives knew little about her. It is a mystery how the diary survived and found its way to Israel.
It contains descriptions of Judit’s wartime existence over several months in 1944, her longing to be reunited with her much-missed family back in the countryside, intermixed with missives on rivalries between friends and crushes on boys. In one passage, she rails against the Nazis: “Anyone who denies the possibility of life from others so that he can live a little bit better is not a ‘human being.’ I insist, I do have a right to live and I want to live!!!”
Upon hearing about the diary, Miriam says she felt “overwhelmed with emotions I could not name, and was sobbing.” She knew nothing about her aunt’s story, her only reference point being an old black-and-white photograph of Judit as a young girl. In it, with dark eyes, a bob haircut and wearing a sailor dress, she sits with her older brother, Paul (Miriam’s father), and two of their three younger brothers. That image sits nestled on a shelf of family photos in Miriam Ornstein’s Belmont home.
Along with his wife Anna, Paul Ornstein was a prominent figure in the psychoanalytic movement known as self-psychology. He was the only one of the five Ornstein siblings to survive the Holocaust, eventually dying at age 92 in January 2017. His children say it pained him to speak about his murdered brothers and sisters, so they knew very little about them.
Paul and Anna Ornstein had met and fallen in love before the war. He fled a forced labor battalion during the Holocaust, while she survived Auschwitz with her mother (but lost her father and two brothers), and after the war they were reunited and married. They studied medicine at Heidelberg University in Germany, alongside former Nazis, and immigrated to the United States.
Miriam caught her breath after the phone call, then called her brother and sister with the news, and gently updated Anna — who is now 92 and recovering from a recent stroke (she was the only surviving family member who had met Judit). A fever pitch of calls, text messages and emails between Miriam, her siblings and the archivist in Israel followed. At first, the family turned to Google Translate to help them understand Judit’s Hungarian diary entries, as they worked to unravel this unexpected gift from the aunt they had never known. They then quickly found someone to translate it into English.
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“There was great excitement,” recalls Rafael Ornstein, Miriam’s brother. “How often do you get to hear a voice from behind the veil of life and death?”
The voice they found was a lively, literary teenager, born in 1926, writing with great openness about her inner thoughts, her fears for the fate of family and friends. She offered a window on the world she grew up in through detailed descriptions of the life she longed for back home with her close-knit, loving family.
Often, she wrote from the cellar of the building where she lived with a group of other young Jewish women, huddling for protection as bombs exploded on the streets and buildings around them.
Judit opens her diary with a stanza from a Robert Burns poem comparing life’s pleasures to snow that falls in the river, “a moment white, then melts forever.”
“We were so struck how that prefigures everything, it captures her life and her predicament — how she was a snowflake on a river,” says Rafael.
Judit first writes on March 29, 1944 — the same month as the German occupation of Hungary began. And she opens with this sentence: “I have been preparing to write for quite some time, but I could not be honest enough even with myself. I want to write only the truth.”
In this entry, like others to come, she addresses the ongoing bombings: “The air raids have led me to ponder the prospect of death more and more … I am starting to make friends with it.’’
No one knows how or when Judit’s diary was recovered. On August 15, 1944, just a month and a day before her death, she writes in large letters, in black ink across a blank page “To bury it?!” — which suggests she at least contemplated hiding her diary.
Treasure in the archives
The diary is housed in the Moreshet Archive in central Israel, part of the Mordechai Anielevich Memorial Holocaust Study and Research Center founded by survivors in 1961. The journal was donated by a man named Ephraim Gross but the records list only his name, with no address or date of the donation.
“If we knew who Ephraim Gross was and how it got here, that could solve a lot of questions,” says Nir Itzik, an archivist at Moreshet.
Last October, Itzik started searching the archive’s collection for diaries written by young people — as part of a project to translate documents so they would be more accessible to the public. Judit’s diary was among five he located and had translated into Hebrew (the originals were in Yiddish, Polish and Hungarian). Hers was the longest, and is so far the only one to have been traced back to living relatives, thanks to a Hungarian-Israeli writer and translator named David Tarbay.
“It was so moving,” he tells Haaretz. “I have translated lots of personal things, but she was clearly extremely talented and had beautiful ways of describing her life and her situation. And the story itself was very dramatic: To be there alone, without her family, always missing them, and all the intrigues between the girls — and that those [intrigues] happened even during wartime,” Tarbay says.
He saw that the diary ended abruptly, which aroused his curiosity. “I thought, ‘what?’ There were not deportations at that time. I knew there had to be a reason the diary stopped so suddenly.” So Tarbay cross-referenced the address listed in the diary, 54 Damjanich Street, on a website for so-called Yellow Star houses. These were the Budapest buildings Jews were forced to move into during the summer of 1944 after they were expelled from their homes in other parts of the city. The Germans concentrated Jews in these buildings — and later in the ghetto — in preparation for planned deportations. Historians also say the Hungarians thought the Allies might not bomb if they knew Jews were spread out throughout the city.
The website revealed that the building at that address had been hit during an Allied bombing raid on September 16, 1944. Judit’s last diary entry was September 13.
Tarbay then searched online for Judit’s name and found a reference to both her and her parents and brothers — including Paul and their father Lajos, who also survived the war — on the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum website and a memoir Paul wrote. Lajos Ornstein immigrated to Israel after the war, and after his death Paul found a diary in a drawer by his bed. This diary documented his father’s journey on a death march while performing forced labor in the final months of the war, and is considered a rarity since few prisoners kept such a record in real time. The Ornstein family donated it to the Washington museum.
Judit’s mother, Frida, and her three younger brothers — Zoltán (Zoli), 16, Tibor (Tibi), 13, and Lászlo (Laci), 8, all of whom she writes about in the diary — were deported from their hometown of Hajdúnánás, northeastern Hungary, to Auschwitz and murdered.
Their fate was similar to the majority of Hungarian Jews living outside of Budapest. In May 1944, the mass deportation of Hungary’s Jews to Auschwitz began, most of them from towns and cities in the countryside. Within eight weeks, 424,000 Jews had been deported and by the time the war ended less than a year later, 565,000 Hungarian Jews had been murdered.
Inside Judit’s diary, taped on the page after her final entry — it is unclear by whom — is a photo of Judit and three girls she lived with in Budapest. The back of the photo lists two of these girls’ names as Jutka (Judit) Greenbaum and Rosi Eichler.
According to a woman who survived the September 1944 bombing, 24 young women were killed in the bombing, including Judit and their housemother — a woman identified only by her first name, Klari, in Judit’s diary.
Judit’s diary is a black-and-white, checkered, 8-by-6 inch (20-by-15 centimeter) notebook. Maroon threading is embroidered in horizontal stripes across its now yellowing, transparent cover. Inside, her words are packed in small neat letters, in remarkably straight lines.
She recounts her love and attachment to her parents and younger brothers, and of her much-savored occasional meetings with her older brother, Paul. He was also living in Budapest part of the time she was there, studying at a rabbinical seminary that was seized by the Nazis and became Adolf Eichmann’s headquarters (from which he directed the Hungarian deportations).
“In the midst of the big city I have been left alone with my thoughts. I went through many, many trials. As my darling Daddy has written, ‘All beginnings are difficult … but persevere, my little daughter, and think of us. God will help you,’” she writes on April 5. “Well, after such letters, could I give myself over to despair? No, I could not, could I, little buddy,” she writes, referring to the name she has given her diary. “And if, at times, weakness came over me, I would think that at home they still love me.”
In early September 1944, shortly before she was killed and quite possibly after her mother and brother had already been gassed at Auschwitz, she writes up a brief reverie addressed to her mother: “The autumn breeze is blowing the scarf that you are waving to me as I imagine your train, my dear mother! It was summer, and the sun beat down like a madman, but you were only granted a tiny bit of it, only a few rays penetrated into the ghetto. You were locked in, surrounded by a fence. … It didn’t ask you whether you wanted to be there or not. Do you want to go see the world? They just put you into wagons with your three little boys and took you where it pleased them. My dear Mother, I cannot possibly imagine what was going on in your mind. I only feel the weight of its unspeakable pain. And this is still with me. I don’t know if you are still with your children, or whether fate has cut your paths from each other. But I believe, and I know, that you will return home together.”
She veers from passages devoted to nostalgia for home and conversations she wishes she could have with her mother and others, to rivalries between friends and books she is reading — like the popular Jewish novelist Stefan Zweig’s “Impatience of the Heart.”
Judit occasionally lashes out at the new, worsening reality for Jews in Budapest. In one entry, she mentions being “marked” by wearing the Jewish star and lamenting a friend taken away. She writes on April 23: “It feels as if life were a movie and we people, the actors. I am not even sure if I can use the word ‘people’ for the masses living in this degenerate world of ours.”
And then there are the air raids. She writes on August 20: “The airplanes are buzzing around making a great racket and soon a house here and there will turn into a blood bath. Why? Because the world is cursedly unfair and barbaric!” And a few days later, on August 26, she writes: “Yes, it looks like we will finish our passing lives here!?”
She also provides a ground-level view of the impact the anti-Jewish laws had: Her father losing his job as an accountant and the family sinking into poverty; how the family broke apart – her father and brother being called up for forced labor, Judit being sent to Budapest.
Judit embraces Zionism and socialism in her writing. She even pens a poem imagining herself and a friend rowing a boat to British Mandatory Palestine.
“Palestine is my home.
Tel-Aviv is my city
Though I have never seen
Your blue, free sky.
But if I were there with you,
I feel that I would very much
In a cream-colored room filled with framed paintings and Persian carpets, and windows offering a view of Boston, members of the Ornstein family gathered around Anna’s dining room table in March to read the first 10 pages of Judit’s translated diary.
Miriam and Rafael and their spouses were there, as was translator George Deak and his wife. Following on Skype were Anna and Paul’s oldest daughter, Sharone Ornstein (and her husband), in New Jersey, and grandchildren sprinkled across the country.
“We wanted to honor her [Judit], honor the moment and the whole fact of it, which is so unbelievable,” says Sharone — who, like her parents, siblings, husband and sister-in-law, is also a psychiatrist.
Rafael adds: “We created something that, if not sacred, was some sort of space to honor these words that are so precious to us.”
Each family member took turns to read a page aloud. There were tears and, as befits a family of psychiatrists, analysis of what they were reading.
For Anna Ornstein, who Judit mentions several times — also describing a budding love interest to one of Anna’s brothers, which the family had never heard about — the diary had a heavy emotional weight: “I thought ‘Oh my God!’ It’s as if she had come back.”
Anna, who has written and researched extensively on mourning and mass trauma, says she felt profound grief at feeling the intense connection of past and future that the diary brought up. “I was just full of tears,” she says.
The family said they were struck by Judit’s sensitivity and self-awareness, and thankful for the many details she provided about their family.
“I have this incredible feeling that this lost person who we cared about so much but did not know was miraculously speaking to us in so many ways,” says Rafael’s wife, Susannah Sherry.
In another remarkable story, the Ornstein family only has photos of Judit because Paul Ornstein carried them in his jacket pocket while he was performing forced labor. In September 1944, the same month Judit was killed, he was on the Eastern Front when he and other prisoners tried to flee by foot as the Soviet troops advanced. But when he realized he had fled without the photographs, he and a friend crawled back 200 meters (656 feet) to the front line, under rocket fire, and successfully retrieved the jacket with the photos still safely inside.
‘Adolescent in tragic circumstances’
Prof. Amos Goldberg, a history professor at Hebrew University and who authored “Trauma in First Person: Diary Writing During the Holocaust,” explains that diaries are “kind of an intersection of the personal, historical and cultural.” He compares Judit Ornstein to Anne Frank, noting that she also wrote about love and jealousy. They are both asking, he suggests: “Does someone see me? Need me?”
After reading Judit’s diary, Goldberg says he “had the feeling that, as time passes, this historical drama comes more to the forefront — the bombings, the understanding she might not see her mother again. What’s fascinating for me to think about is: What does she understand about what is happening? The issue of knowledge is very interesting. What kind of knowledge of the events of the war does she have?
“What we have in this text is more the picture of an adolescent in very tragic circumstances amid war and separation from her family than a ‘Holocaust diary,’” Goldberg adds, noting that Judit was not enduring a ghetto or a concentration camp where she would have witnessed more extreme levels of violence.
It was shortly after she was killed that Budapest’s Jews were rounded up and forced into a ghetto. Some were deported and others killed in a chaotic, brutal period where members of the Nazi-aligned Arrow Cross Party went on murderous rampages, including shooting rounds of automatic fire on patients in hospitals and carrying out mass shootings along the Danube.
Goldberg believes many diaries were probably written during the Holocaust, explaining that “there is also a lot of evidence that many were destroyed — or lost. Whatever we have is just a fraction of what was really written.”
He adds that many diarists in the Holocaust era tended to shift their focus away from the more personal texts they were writing before the war and chose to bear witness to the Nazi killing machine.
The question remains of how Judit Ornstein’s diary found its way into the hands of Ephraim Gross and ended up in Israel. The family, translators and researchers who have now become part of its story all hope it will become part of the public record for future generations to remember Judit and the universal tragedy of the Holocaust. The family is discussing publishing Judit’s diary together with her father’s wartime diary.
“When you read a diary like this, you are touched by the aliveness and uniqueness of each person’s life, the richness of it. And when you see pictures of bodies stacked up, it is so graphic and too horrid to bear,” says Rafael Ornstein, Judit’s nephew. “The hope is that [the diary] makes all of us more compassionate when dealing with each other, with refugees, and the displacement we are numb to.”
Judit wrote the final lines in her diary on September 13, 1944, addressed to an apparent love interest named Joszi: “The siren has gone off! Live happily, we (and I) will think of you with love.”
The rest of the notebook follows, full of empty pages.