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(photo credit: Lydia Aisenberg)
A leather-bound journal recording the birth and short life journey of a Czech-born Jewish girl in the l930s awaits restoration in the archives of Moreshet, the Mordechai Anielewicz Holocaust Study and Research Center at Givat Haviva.
The Czech child's mother kept the journal, intending to present it to her daughter at some milestone in her life. That was not to be as Helena Paltin, her mother, father and sister were murdered in Auschwitz just months after she would have celebrated her Batmitzvah - had she not been incarcerated in the Terezin concentration camp, her childhood cruelly snatched away.
As was the custom in those days, Helena's mother Anna was presented by the private nursing home with a leather-bound journal intended to record the development of her daughter, born July 11, 1931.
Anna, who was born in Prague, had married Ernst Paltin from an established family immersed in Czech culture. Another daughter Hannaleh was born two years later, but no journal was found for the second Paltin child. There are a number of black-and-white photographs of the girls in Helena's journal, and on one page two locks of hair and ribbons. "At birth your eyes were dark blue. At age 15 months the color changed to green-brown and at the age of three became a golden brown," reads one of Anna Paltin's entries in bold, clear, neat handwriting.
"Hair coloring: blonde. On forehead and just above the nose, a small patch of red which I am told will disappear in time," she writes, having already recorded that Helena weighed 3,650 kilograms at birth and upon leaving the nursing home on July 19, 3,580 kilograms. By July 22 the Paltin's firstborn was tipping the scales at almost four kilos.
During her first week at home a children's nurse bathed her, while Anna watched and recorded in the journal: "Helena didn't make a sound during the bath - just kept glancing around trying to understand what was happening. The jaundice has almost passed. The skin on body, hands and head is flaking and after the bath we put Nivea cream all over her, and on top, scented talcâ€¦ After a few baths, Helenka no longer closes her eyes and is smiling all the time!"
"Who would have believed that at the age of two-and-a-half she would refuse to bathe, absolutely refuse to go in the water and hates to have her hair washed? How embarrassing," Anna later added.
On Friday July 27, 1931, under the heading "First Walk," the young mother writes: "before noon and after bathing we went out for a walk in the Stromoboska Park, and in the afternoon strolled in the park near the Pisitska gate."
The child's first smile is registered. "On August 3 she even laughed out loud," and a few months later Helena's mother notes that her daughter has begun to suck her lower lip and sometimes her fingers. "At age 18 weeks she is roaring like a lion, already sits and on April 28, stands up," writes the proud young mother.
Advice about food for her toddler daughter is recorded: when she began to receive vitamin A & D drops and when she ate her first orange. On January 1, 1932, Helena Paltin said "pappa" for the first time, and a few months later, "mamma" was added to her developing vocabulary. On March 30 she says "tik tak" while pointing to a clock on the wall, and six months later mimics a conductor when she hears music. When out for walks, she points to tall buildings and repeats "tik tak," "knowing there are clocks in the towers," writes Anna.
A bank account is opened in the child's name and 1,000 korunas deposited. "She now has a real bank book in her name," Anna writes with amusement. By the time Helena Paltin reached her first birthday, another 6,000 korunas were added to her bank account.
In 1938 the mood of the journal changes.
Having taken Helenka and sister Hannaleh on holiday to a mountain resort where they had rented an apartment, Anna Paltin begins to register events leading up to the Second World War. "An announcement has been made about general conscription of the Czechoslovakian army and notices are posted all over town," she writes, ominously.
On October 13, 1938 the family returns to Prague and she writes of the German entry into the city. Toward the end of May 1939, the family moves apartments. An aunt visits for Pessah. "Helenka has written a letter in Czech with spelling and grammar mistakes, and peppered with words in German," writes Anna, and underneath comments that the school year finished on June 25, 1939.
"This has been a very sad year indeed. During the year Helenka had seven different teachers and changed schools five times," states Anna, a few days before the family take a holiday on a farm and she describes how her eldest daughter manages to milk a cow. "She wasn't at all scared," she writes.
In August 1939 the Paltins try to register their daughter at a local school, but are refused. They are told that Jewish children who transfer must have the permission of the Ministry of Education. "War has broken out between Germany and Poland, and France and England have also entered the war. Because of the situation we didn't send the girls to school," writes Anna with obvious sadness.
"The Germans are behaving abominably. They have plundered nearly all the Jewish property. Jewish men are forced to sign a declaration that they give their belongings up freely and volunteer for courses in vocational trainingâ€¦ In the meantime they have been sent to forced labor in Poland and it would seem this will be the fate of the women," she writes.
She notes that German is being taught in schools, and Helena has done well in that language and is now also studying French. "She has a good accent," comments Anna. In June l940 Helena received "excellent" grades in all subjects, except in her handwriting where she is graded "good."
"The war is developing and moving forward - Norway, Holland, Belgium, France and Poland are under the Germans. Italy fights alongside the Reich. Because of the war this year we will not go on holiday."
In a single sentence set aside, Anna Paltin writes starkly, "The headmaster of the school has begun to speak German with the children."
In October 1940 the Paltins receive visas for America and Helena is being taught English. She is no longer going to school, and is instead taught by a private tutor at home.
Anna Paltin also writes about the high cost of food, and compares prices before the war. She also states "the Jews do not receive coupons for clothing or shoes."
The school year draws to a close. "We had the girls tested at the Jewish school. They passed everything with excellence. I was surprised with regard to Helenka, because she was a little lazy during the year. She rebelled and I found myself having to sit with her to do her homeworkâ€¦ We didn't go anywhere for a holiday this year, obviously. Jews are not allowed to leave their place of residence."
From September 19, 1941, "all Jews have to wear a yellow star and inside is written the word 'Jude.'"
Once more she makes comparisons between pre-war prices of foodstuffs and the black market prices at the time of writing. "What will things look like in another year?" she asks.
The journal then jumps to 1943 with Anna Paltin lamenting that her last entry was to do with the price of food. "So many events - the transporting of Jews from October 15, the wearing of the yellow star and more I didn't write in this journalâ€¦ Jews no longer receive meat. The Ayrim [a Czeck word meaning 'non-Jews'] get 200 grams a week. Also synthetic honey is no longer given to us. Only children up to the age of six receive milk. We don't get any jam, candies, wheat, preserves and more. Flour costs 100 korunas, but you cannot get any," and she continues with a list of the prices of various food items.
In May 1943, Anna Paltin registers anger at Helena, writing: "Your words and actions of yesterday were so shocking that I feel compelled to write in your life's journal. You have learned from the simple people expressions that only street girls such as prostitutes would use. I don't want you to be like that," writes Anna, listing a number of the words she had heard her daughter utter. "A girl from a good family does not use those words and when I told you this you answered, 'What, we are a good family? After all, we are only Jews.' Only Jews! Have you forgotten Helenka that the Jews were the Chosen People? That from among the Jews came exalted sages and also Jesus Christ! Have you ever heard of a Jew being a murderer? Look at your extended family, at our forefathers and so on. Look at our relations, friends - not one of them, not a single one of them took something from somebody else that wasn't his. And you say 'Only Jews!' The opposite - because we are Jews it is forbidden we should be anything but honest, we must stand out because of these characteristics. We need to support each other, be honest, not to lie and not to behave in a provocative way. In a few years' time when you will read these lines, take them to heart and remember them well."
The final entry states: "3.7.1943 Travel to Terezin."
A small sticker has been applied underneath the underlined last words of Anna Paltin. Written by a researcher of Moreshet, the inscription informs the reader that on 6.9.1943 the Paltin family was transported from Terezpn to Auschwitz, where they were murdered.
Educating for the future at the Moreshet archives
The Moreshet archives at Givat Haviva contain thousands of testimonies and primary source materials, along with a depository of unique materials obtained in recent years from archives in Eastern Europe. Thousands of original documents - of unparalleled importance to documentation and historical research - are stored in an expansive archive in urgent need of restoration and preservation.
"Three years ago it was decided to undertake a comprehensive restoration and scanning operation which will include all the important documents," explains Yonat Rotbein, educational director of Moreshet and the daughter of Jewish Holocaust resistance fighter Ruzhka Korczak.
The journal of Anna Paltin was among items shown to Barbara Prammer, the President of the Austrian National Council and Hannah M. Lessing, Secretary-General of the National Fund of the Austrian Republic for Victims of National Socialism, during a recent visit to Givat Haviva. "As the president of the National Fund for the Victims of the Holocaust, I see it as my personal duty to ensure that the young generation is educated in the spirit of tolerance and democracy, and to learn from the mistakes of the past so that we can achieve a better future," said Prammer.
"Having been instrumental in sanctioning funds for some of the restoration work carried out here by Moreshet, actually seeing the journals, paintings and manuscripts for myself has given me a tremendous sense of achievement, and we will continue to extend our support wherever possible," she added with deep emotion, as she looked through Anna Paltin's journal and the restored painting of a Polish kapo rescued from the Lodz Ghetto and recently restored with funds from Austria.