'Is it possible to describe hell on a sheet of paper?'

The chilling chronicles of a teenager in the Lodz Ghetto have been collected and translated into English.

kid 88 (photo credit: )
kid 88
(photo credit: )
The notebooks are now yellow with age and illegible in some sections. Filled with heart-wrenching short stories and poems that depict a horror beyond human imagination, they serve as the last will and testament of a young Jewish boy incarcerated in the Lodz Ghetto during World War II. The stories were written in Polish by an ill and malnourished Avraham Cytryn over a four-year period (1940-1944) - from the time he was 13 until he was 17, when he was transported to Auschwitz and gassedto death. After the war, the notebooks were found scattered on the floor of the family's abandoned ghetto home by the boy's sister, Lucie Cytryn-Bialer. They were recently translated into English and made into a book, Youth Writing Behind the Walls, by Yad Vashem. "The Madness of Mankind," "Death" and "The Ghetto Freezes" [see box] are but some of the titles of the poems the prolific child scrawled in 24 notebooks, a number of which were destroyed or lost. Cytryn was born in Lodz on October 10, 1927. When he was 13 and a pupil in a local Jewish secondary school, his upper-class family, which traced its roots in Poland back 150 years, was incarcerated in the ghetto. For the following four years, Cytryn chronicled the horrors of life in the ghetto: the ever-present hunger, the cold, the detested Jewish collaborators with the Nazis who ran the ghetto; the lives cut short; the growing hopelessness; and the simultaneous fear of and hope for death. What is particularly extraordinary about his writing is its lucidity and intermingling of the public and the personal. Its intensity and almost chilling maturity belie the young age of its author - in itself a metaphor for all the vibrance and talent nipped in the bud by the Nazis. "When I lived in the hell of the ghetto and saw the flowing blood of my innocent brethren," runs one entry, "I decided to put my testimony in writing. I would have liked to extricate the soul of the accursed ghetto from the frozen jaws of imprisonment, and to reconstruct the cruel existence of the inhabitants of Litzmannstadt who were enslaved, dispossessed, and exposed to daily dangers and the shock of helplessness. I would have liked the blood to flow over the page, so that the memory of those merciless years would be passed down to the coming generations." Another example from the book is "A Mother's Terrible Crime: A True Story from the Litzmannstadt Ghetto." It is the story of a widow with two young children, a son and a sickly baby daughter. When the son dies of tuberculoses, his mother - desperate to save her daughter's life -keeps his decomposing body in their frigid, one-room lodgings, in order to continue receiving his daily bread rations. Days later, the baby girl dies, the mother is arrested and put on trial, and finally she goes mad. "In the Lodz ghetto thousands of such tragedies have taken place, some far worse," Cytryn recounts. "Is it possible to describe hell on a sheet of paper?" Yet Cytryn managed to do just that. In one poem, he refers to the ghetto as "the graveyard of humankind," in which starvation and filth bred disease and death ahead of the eventual Nazi extermination of the camp in 1944. "And just then out of the fog a blue-green face of one of those walking corpses appears... His body nothing but a skeleton...the living dead advances slowly." BEFORE THE Germans invaded Poland in 1939, Lodz was home to 233,000 Jews - a third of the city's residents - making it Poland's second-largest Jewish community, after Warsaw. During the first months of the German occupation, about 75,000 Jews fled the city. On February 8, 1940, the German police ordered the establishment of the Lodz Ghetto. On April 30 of that year, the four-sq.km. ghetto was completely sealed off, isolating more than 160,000 Jews from the rest of the city, which the Nazis renamed Litzmannstadt. In all, more than 200,000 Jews from Poland, Germany, Austria, Luxembourg and what was then Czechoslovakia were imprisoned in the ghetto, with only 5,000-12,000 of them surviving the Holocaust. In contrast to the Warsaw Ghetto, which was completely demolished after the 1943 uprising, no Jewish revolt took place in Litzmannstadt. This was partly because it was completely cut off from the rest of the city - left even without a sewer system - and partly due to the massive forced labor camp there, which led many Jews to erroneously believe their lives would be spared. Moreover, with Lodz annexed by the Third Reich - and with a 70,000-strong German minority loyal to the Nazis living nearby - the ghetto was virtually inaccessible to underground forces. A CHAPTER at the end of the book, written by Cytryn-Bialer, provides the reader with biographical details and the personal story behind the boy's writings that illuminate some of the characters and themes in her brother's prose. Cytryn's father died of starvation in the ghetto in 1942, at the age of 42. His mother - who held a relatively good ghetto job (as a kitchen worker) due to the family's past social standing - was imprisoned and severely beaten at one point. At his urging, his sister, who was 16 at the time, sold her body to the Jewish "criminal police" to attain her mother's release. Only after she had done so, did she discover that her mother had already been released. As conditions worsened in the ghetto, and even as he fell ill, Cytryn would continue his writing, using every spare minute after work. His sister, now 82, in a telephone interview from Paris where she settled with her husband after the war, recalled those mercilessly cold and hunger-filled nights when she and her mother would beg him to stop writing and get some sleep. Even when he became sick, and was treated at the ghetto hospital, his one request of his sister was for his notebook and pencils, she says. He had considered suicide, she says, but did not take his life out of compassion for his widowed mother, whom he felt duty-bound to protect. Deported to Auschwitz on one of the last transports from Lodz on August 28, 1944, he was photographed together with his mother and sister boarding the train for Auschwitz, with one last notebook in his hand. Three days after his arrival at Auschwitz, he was brought to the gas chambers, together with a group of children, promised by their Nazi captors an extra bowl of soup.