Author: Petr Ginz
Review: Chris Gilbert
About the book
Petr Ginz’s diary covers the period from September 1941 until October 1942, two months before his transportation to the Theresienstadt concentration camp. Through his diary entries you come to learn of Petr’s life and interests, as well as the times through which he lived – it was clear that this sensitive and talented teenage boy had a clear understanding of the dangers around him, and of the specific risks faced by the Jewish population of wartime Prague.
Petr’s diary affords both a personal insight into how he felt about the situation he found himself in and stands as an important record of the events that occurred in occupied Prague – the Jewish citizens forced to hand in their jumpers or forced to clear the snow from the streets; the murder of civilians; the ever increasing restrictions on the lives of Jewish citizens of Prague. The tone of this private diary is calm and measured but it is clear that Petr was very much aware of the extreme actions of the Nazi occupiers. On the 1 October 1941 Petr notes –
‘Lots of people were executed for preparing the sabotage, illegal possession of weapons, and so on.’
Petr had just turned 13 when he wrote this entry and, throughout the diary, he is embracing art, literature and moving towards adulthood whilst also very much aware of the death around him. The Nazi occupiers were brutal in their suppression of any form of dissent, with Petr’s Jewish friends and family facing mounting restrictions, repressions and increasing transportations to the concentration camps. Petr wrote in December of 1941 that he had ‘heard Jews didn’t just get slapped, but terribly beaten up’. An entry several days later, proclaiming the success of an exploding pencil given to a school friend, reminds you that these beatings and executions are being recorded in the diary of a boy who was still in his childhood.
The diary must not be seen as simply witness evidence, as a record of Nazi brutality and war crimes – this is also a record of an enthusiastic child, a keen writer and artist. The English translation includes stories, drawing and engravings produced by Petr. His sister, Chava Pressburger, one of very few of Petr’s family to survive the war, writes that ‘my brother wanted to see; not just to glimpse but to really immerse himself in the things he thought about and investigated’. As his sister goes on to say in her introduction to the diary, Petr ‘believed he would return to the world from which he had been torn’…‘He believed that the world was waiting for his contribution’.
As the diary progresses into 1942, there is increasing mention of transportations to Poland and to concentration camps within the Czechoslovakia, with Petr noting reports of executions. It is worth emphasising that these forced movements of people are not here noted by a historian – Petr writes about the transportation of friends and schoolmates, family, school teachers, neighbours. This personal record brings into focus some realities about the Holocaust that are sometimes hard to grasp in more academic history – all of Petr’s world is facing destruction with communities, schools, networks of families and friends making up the personal, individuals victims of the Nazi genocide.
Petr’s diary is a personal piece of history and remains a powerful set of memories that give intimate access to a lost world. This is a tragic but vibrant set of writings – Petr’s talented authorship certainly deserves a wide audience and has a lot to give to adult readers or modern children of Petr’s own age-group.
- The impact of the war on civilian populations
- Transportation to the concentration camps
- The destruction of communities
Suggested further reading
The Diary of a Young Girl, Anne Frank
Anne Frank is perhaps the most famous victim of the Holocaust – she began her diary on her 13th birthday. Anne wrote the diary for her eyes only but in 1944 she heard a radio broadcast from London which said that it would be important to collect eyewitness accounts of the suffering under Nazi occupation. Anne decided that when the war ended she would publish a book based on her diary and she started to rewrite and edit it.
Journal, Helene Berr
Helene Berr wrote her diary while living in Paris and covering 1942 to 1944. In her early twenties and so older than Petr, Helen shared his love of literature and shared his ability to still engage with life despite the increasing dangers. In common with Petr, she notes the humiliation of having to wear the Star of David.
Night, Elie Wiesel
Night is the memoir of Elie Wiesel, a Holocaust survivor born just six months after Petr Ginz. Night tells the story of his life before Nazism, life in the ghettos and survival in the concentration camps. Night is one of the most famous and moving survivor accounts of the Holocaust.
The Tiger in the Attic, Edith Milton
Edith Milton left Germany with her sister in 1939 just before the outbreak of the World War Two – she was one of 10,000 children to escape the oncoming war through the Kindertransport programme. She went to live in England with a family until she and her sister were reunited with their mother, by this point a virtual stranger, in America after the end of the war.