At the end of World War II, Ewa Nusenowicz, a 20-year-old Holocaust survivor from Poland, sat and wrote about her life.
She was still in Europe. She had lost her mother and sister and was waiting to immigrate to Palestine. “We Jews here on foreign soil, soil that is soaked with the blood of our brethren, sit and look forward with yearning for the moment when we shall be torn away from here to go to our homeland, to the land we don’t yet know but which is already dear to our hearts,” she wrote.
“My thoughts flew far, far away, thousands of kilometers from here, to Palestine, to a land flowing with milk and honey,” she continued, and described scenes from Eretz Israel that she pictured in her mind. “I am strolling in the mountains, gazing around in awe, and a minute later I saw myself above the waters of the Jordan River, and suddenly I was wandering the romantic narrow alleyways of the Old City in Jerusalem, and now I’ve come to the Western Wall, and it seemed to me that I lived a thousand years ago,” she wrote.
Ewa Nusenowicz, who would change her name to Eva Livne, began writing the diary in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Germany in July 1945. She finished writing in Kibbutz Degania in 1947. In all the diary consists of 90 handwritten pages in Polish.
For 73 years, she showed it to nobody. Then a year ago, shortly before her death, her family read it for the first time.
With her consent, it was deposited in the Ghetto Fighters’ House archive, where it was also translated from Polish into Hebrew.
“The diary gave me hope and enabled me to see the hardest moments of loneliness as more tolerable and part of life,” says her granddaughter, Lilach Pnina Livne. “The honest writing enabled me to touch her delicate soul, to find myself in my grandmother, and gave me a feeling of not being alone,” she adds.
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Ewa was born in 1926 in the ancient Polish city of Piotrków Trybunalski. Her father Aryeh imported fruit and her mother Pessia was a shopkeeper. Her sister Renia was born three years later.
‘I survived. I went through hell’
But the family was forced to leave their home and move to the ghetto on November 1, 1939, two months after the Nazi occupation of Poland. “We were ripped from that life. Most of my girlfriends were gassed to death. I survived. I went through hell. People were shot before my eyes. Children were burned before my eyes,” she wrote in her diary.
At first Ewa, then a young teen, kept studying, attending clandestine lessons taught by Jewish teachers to small groups, and also by one Polish professor who opened his home outside the ghetto to Ewa and her Jewish friends. To get to the lessons, they had to remove the yellow band from their arms and sneak out of the ghetto. “The philosophy and poetry lessons with the Polish professor saved her soul,” says her granddaughter Lilach.
The Nusenowicz family survived the “aktions” that sent 22,000 Jews from the area to Treblinka. The family spent a year in forced labor, sorting stolen Jewish property. Ewa remembered how one of the other workers was shot to death for stealing a pair of socks.
At one stage, Ewa was taken to work cleaning houses for Germans. One of them would play classical music for her, because he knew she played the piano. This same German participated in executing 60 Jews in a synagogue.
“I stood face to face with the horrific, barbaric, cannibalistic war. Exposed to death at every moment. I ceased to be myself. Only very seldom did a little hope, a little faith, brighten my soul,” she wrote in the diary.
When the ghetto was liquidated, her father was sent to work in Czestochowa; from there he was sent to Buchenwald, along with the future chief rabbi of Israel, Yisrael Meir Lau. In October 1944, Ewa and her sister and mother were sent to the Ravensbruck concentration camp for women.
“In the train car, it is crowded and stifling. Children cry. Tears choke my throat. What is going to happen? In my head is chaos. Should I leap out of the car, escape? Leave my mother and sister behind, all alone, broken in spirit and body, and flee? No! Better to die,” she wrote about the journey to the camp.
But the suffering in the cattle car was just a prelude to what awaited in the camp. “Long, brutal, awful days, filled with horrors. Days of hard physical labor. From three in the morning until seven we stood for inspection without noticing the weather. Our feet and hands turned to stone, frozen. At each inspection I cried. It was beyond what I could endure,” she wrote. “I couldn’t get used to this life. When I saw how my mother and sister were fading and withering, I just wanted to lie down and never get up again.”
In January 1945, prisoners were transported to Bergen-Belsen. “They put us into barracks without bunks. They told us to lie on the floor. 400 people in one barrack. We lay on top of each other. The people feel and died like flies. The sick and the dead lay in their clothes on the dirty floor,” she described.
Her mother was one of the dead. Before she died, she told her daughter, “Hang on.” Her sister died not long afterward. “The sun shined, the birds chirped… and Renia, a beautiful girl, was gone. She was too good, too sensitive for this cruel life,” Ewa wrote in the diary.
On April 15, the British liberated the camp.
“We are standing for the inspection count, without moving, without thinking, hungry, sleepy, frozen down to our bones. We are waiting for the SS woman… Seconds go by, minutes, hours. Silence. No one comes,” she wrote. “Suddenly, from afar we hear a rumbling, noise, a tumult. We listen. What is it? We are frightened. Maybe they’re going to finish us off? … We keep on standing and waiting. And suddenly – We can’t believe our eyes! Instead of standing still, people are starting to run, kissing each other and shouting. What is it? What’s happened? I hear snatches of sentences: ‘No inspection. The SS ran away. The English are just a few kilometers away.’”
At first, she almost passed out. “I couldn’t believe it. Then I got caught up in the excitement and started to go crazy. I danced, I laughed, I cried. People didn’t know what to do with themselves. It was like we were saved at the last moment from the lion’s jaws, from drowning.”
In the DP camp, once she recovered from the typhus she had contracted, she began thinking about the future. “A new idea came to me. Palestine. The Palestine they once said was a land flowing with milk and honey. The Palestine that belonged to us from days immemorial.”
Yet the excitement of preparing for aliya shadowed by the memories. “In my thoughts I return to the terrible, frightening times in the camp and my whole being fills with horror. I feel like soon I’ll wake up from a wonderful dream and again I’ll hear the piercing wail of the siren waking us up for the head count. That again I’ll have to rise at three in the morning – in the frost or hail or rain or wind and stand frozen outside for three, four or five hours. That again I will see the detested face of the overseer.”
In 1947, she made aliya with a group from the United Pioneer Youth movement. Yona Livne, her future husband, was in that group too. “I left the place I thought I would live for my whole life. I left without sorrow, without pain,” she wrote about her aliya. “I couldn’t think only of myself when our land needed help, when it was calling to me. I didn’t want to think about my personal happiness, about my own comfort, when one thought illuminated my path: my homeland, my land – to work there, to build it,” she wrote.
She also wrote about her first morning in her new land. “After the first night that I slept on the soil of Palestine, I thought it was a dream, a mirage. Herzl said: ‘If you will it, it is no dream.’ That is how it was for me. There was a dream, there was a desire and then it all became reality. Now when I started breathing the air of Palestine, I felt a strange connection to this soil, a blood connection a historic connection that went back a few thousand years. And I was happy,” she wrote.
Once here, she also gave vent to her anger at other nations that didn’t immediately offer a home to the remnant of the Jewish people. “hasn’t the time come to solve the Jewish problem? Why do they hate us so in all the world? Where is our place? They won’t let us live anywhere and also don’t want to give us a piece of land. Isn’t there someone courageous and honest in the entire world who will say, ‘No, this cannot go on’?” she wrote.
She struggled to understand how the world’s leaders could be determining the fate of the Jewish Holocaust survivors without having experienced the war’s horrors themselves. “When I read in the paper how they’re debating the Jewish problem in the English or American government, discussing and discussing and reaching no conclusion and postponing the solution more and more, it puts me in a state where I can no longer feel or think,” she wrote.
“And then all I see are the scenes from Bergen-Belsen: The barracks where people-skeletons lay one on top of the other on the filthy floors. The moaning, the wailing, the hallucinations, the ‘I don’t want to live anymore. Give me poison.’ And the chimneys of the crematoria from which the smoke of the bodies of the dead rose day and night.”
Addressing the politicians, she wrote in her diary: “And therefore you are right. Because you did not experience a single day in Bergen-Belsen without water, without bread. You who didn’t stand for hours outside in the cold day and night. Whose pillows were not the dead bodies of your mothers, your daughters, your sisters. Who weren’t devoured by lice and other bugs. So it’s okay for you to sit around tables and quibble and split hairs and debate whether to let the people who miraculously survived hell into the land they want to go to with all their body and soul.”
After Kibbutz Degania, she and her husband moved to Tel Aviv. She later accompanied him on diplomatic missions to Warsaw, Moscow and Prague, and worked as a secretary in the Prime Minister’s Office. They had two children, Ahuva, who died young from cancer, and Motti.
They also had grandchildren and great-grandchildren. In recent years, Eva’s daughter-in-law (her son Motti’s wife), the writer Hana Livne, and her granddaughter, Lilach Pnina Livne, met with her to record her stories. She told them about In her diary, but didn’t want it translated until after her death, Lilach says.
The meetings led to the Hebrew-language children’s book “My Lucky Bird,” written by her daughter-in-law based on Eva’s stories. Her granddaughter, a choreographer and dancer, created a show that interweaves episodes from Eva’s life and was presented in Poland and Israel.
Shortly before her death, Eva agreed to let her diary be publicized. The Hebrew translation was completed a week after she died in November 2020, at age 94.
“You were cruel to us and stronger than us. You held the power in your hand and we were helpless. You won. We lost. But on the ruins of the inferno the remnants slowly began to gather. Remnants of our lives, of our property, of our families,” she wrote on one page of the diary addressed to “the past.” “You will always haunt us. You will appear when we feel happy, when we laugh, you’ll pop up for just a fraction of a second just to trouble us, to kill our laugh and the moment of joy. You are stronger than us. But despite all, we will not give in. Life is calling to us.”