Israel Unger was just 5 years old when he, his parents, his older brother, and five other Jews went into hiding from the Nazis, in 1943.
Nine people spent two years of the Holocaust in a tiny attic crawl space above a flour mill in Tarnow, Poland. They were liberated on 17 January 1945 by the Soviets – but the end of the war was not the end of the survivors’ struggles, or their triumphs.
An Unwritten Diary
It’s impossible not to think of Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl when we read of the Jewish men, women and children who went into hiding to evade the Nazis in World War II – but The Unwritten Diary of Israel Unger is quite a different kind of Holocaust memoir.
Anne was a thirteen-year-old girl when her family began their two years of hiding. Israel (nicknamed “Srulik”) Unger was just five years old. The Amsterdam refuge of the Frank group was a “secret annex” with several rooms spread over three floors, complete with a bathroom and toilet. The group of nine people that included the Unger family hid for two years in an unfinished attic space of just 10 square meters, about fifteen feet by six. The most profound difference, however, is that Anne Frank did not survive – but Israel Unger lived.
Remarkably, in fact, all nine people who spent two years in that rough attic above Dagnan’s flour mill, on Lwowska Street in the district of Grabowka, were still alive when the Soviet Red Army liberated the city of Tarnow.
A Life in Three Parts
The Unwritten Diary of Israel Unger, written at the urging of and with the very active participation of Canadian-born co-author Carolyn Gammon, is striking for the clarity of voice. As we read, we can almost hear Unger speak aloud, telling his story with great care and, we sense, with considerable long-suppressed emotion.
This is the life writing of a Holocaust survivor.
But the fact of survival – the fact that Unger went on to adulthood, to earn a distinguished career as a Canadian academic, to raise a family, and to tell his own story, firsthand – means that the wartime years in hiding are ultimately just one small piece of the whole.
The book is divided into six parts, in the table of contents, but it feels more as if there are three sections here, each one of which will appeal most strongly to a slightly different audience.
Children of Europe
The first section deals with Unger’s family background and his experiences in Europe both during the war and in the immediate post-war period.
So what do I remember? Above all, I remember fear.Israel UngerThis is, I think, the story that most readers will expect to find when they pick up the book, and although we naturally wish for more details, it won’t disappoint.
You’ll be pleased to know the book includes photographs of the actual hiding place, taken just before the Dagnan mill was torn down several years ago – although you’ll have to wait for later in the book to see them, at the point in the chronology where we get to meet the “Righteous Gentile” in Tarnow who made them available.
Can you imagine, nine people living for two years in a space just large enough for them all to lie down close together?
Anyone who has tried to entertain a couple of kids on a stormy indoor day – quietly, so as not to disturb the neighbors – will be staggered at the prospect that Israel Unger’s mother Hinda faced, going into hiding in such a place with two young children – 5 and 9 years old when they went in behind the false wall, 7 and 11 when the Soviet Red Army liberated Tarnow, Poland. The men would sneak out of their hole at night to forage for water and the scraps of food, barley and flour to make into porridge and unleavened bread, on which the concealed Jews had to subsist…
The image of a weak and malnourished 7-year-old “Srulik” falling down the stairs from the attic to kiss the boots of a Soviet soldier is one that will stay with me for a long time.
End of war was not, however, the end of troubles for the survivors.
As the concentration camps were emptied and Jewish refugees made their way back to their homes, hoping to resettle in safety in Poland, a complex brew of antisemitism and politics made it difficult to pick up the pieces of their former lives. Israel Unger was bullied and beaten at school; his older brother was sent home from a summer camp for his own protection; throughout Europe, violence against the Jewish people was never far beneath the surface.
On July 4, 1946, the notorious Kielce Pogrom led thousands of Jews to leave Poland, and Israel Unger’s family was among those who fled the country.
Crossing the border was not easy, especially for adults or a family group, so the family was forced to separate. Young Israel and his brother were sent as “orphans” in the care of a European program called Rescue Children, to Aix-les-Bains, France. From there, they went to the United Kingdom, to live with an uncle and aunt they’d never known, an older couple who were not eager to take on the upbringing of a pair of war-damaged boys.
It was several years before the Unger brothers could be reunited with their parents in Paris. In 1951, the family was finally able to immigrate to Canada.
A New Canadian Family
There were about 40,000 Holocaust survivors who ended up in Canada. Clearly my story is one of many.Israel UngerThe second part deals with the Unger family as new Canadians. We get a sense of what life was like for poor Jewish immigrants who settled in Montreal after the Second World War, evoking the world of which Mordechai Richler wrote so memorably, but most of the material here is specific to the narrator’s individual experience.
We follow Israel Unger into adulthood on the various threads of a complex relationship with his troubled brother and hard-working parents, of his courtship of Marlene and their family life, and of his distinguished career as professor and Dean of Science at the University of New Brunswick, as well as his volunteer work in the areas of human rights and Holocaust education.
Because I have known several of the cities and a few of the people in this part of the book, I did find it quite interesting on the whole. I’m not sure, however, that this section will hold the interest of a more general reader – not if that reader picked up The Unwritten Diary expecting a Holocaust memoir more along the lines of Anne Frank’s diary, certainly. Tightening this section would have made a stronger book, on the whole, or at least a more broader accessible one.
The Mystery of the Mill
The third part of the book is almost a roadmap for others who have a long-buried story to uncover.
Has such a thing happened … in the days of your forefathers? Tell your children and let your children tell it to their children.Joel 1:2-3Because the Unger family never discussed the past, there were many missing pieces to the puzzle of Israel personal story.
(Who were the other people in the attic? How did they get food to survive? Who knew of the Jews hiding in Dagnan’s mill, and why were they not given up to the Nazis?)
Driven, too, by the need to create a proper memorial for his lost family – uncles and aunts, grandparents, cousins, all vanished – Israel first had to trace his genealogy among the fragmented records of post-war Europe, more than once stonewalled by uncooperative and even hostile bureaucrats.
Here, we travel with the authors – together and separately – on the quest for facts to fill in gaps and confirm the fragmented memories of the 5-year-old child in the attic.
Highlights of this section, for me, include the fortuitous meeting with Adam Bartosz, the “Righteous Gentile” who was for 32 years the director of the Muzeum Okregowego w Tarnowie (Tarnow Regional Museum). Above all others who helped the authors tell this story, he was not only a vital source of information and contacts, helping to uncover the details of Professor Unger’s childhood and family history, but also so enthusiastic about the need to tell the story that it almost seems it became a bit of a personal mission. A valuable ally, indeed!
Coincidentally, Bartosz had already learned part of the story of the Jews hidden in the attic of Dagnan’s flour mill during the war and had written an article about it. Reading his “Mystery of the Mill” online, in English translation by Dorota Glowacka, it’s clear to see how Unger and Bartosz each held certain pieces of the puzzle – the missing pieces could only be found when the two men came together to talk and compare notes.
It was Adam Bartosz who put Unger in touch with a surviving member of the Dagnan family whose mill was the rough sanctuary – Aleksander Dagnan, son of the mill owner, was a teenager during the war and so he was old enough to have retained strong memories of the people and events of the time, contributing his own pieces to this long-unwritten story.
And it was Bartosz who provided Israel Unger with the incredible photographs of his wartime hiding place that are reproduced in The Unwritten Diary.
Most remarkable, however, and perhaps even more moving – Israel Unger was able to track down and reunite with the two Weksler sisters who had shared the attic hiding place for those two long years. Anna and Czesia Weksler would have been about 15 and 22 years of age at the time, and I’d very much like to read their own “unwritten diaries” of the experience, too, for another perspective on the same place and time.
This is how we remember.
The Unwritten Diary of Israel Unger, by Carolyn Gammon and Israel Unger, is published by the Wilfred Laurier University Press, Waterloo, Ontario, Canada (2013), as part of its Life Writing Series. It is available in both paperback and Kindle (digital) editions at Amazon.com (US), Amazon.ca (Canada) and Amazon.co.uk (UK).
Image credits: Holocaust Memorial in Jewish Cemetery, Tarnow, Poland (top) is based on a photograph by Tajchman, used here by courtesy of the photographer via Wikimedia Commons. (This is the same memorial that appears on the cover of The Unwritten Diary, in a 1946 photograph showing Israel Unger at the far right of a group of Jewish child survivors of the Holocaust.) Town Hall in Tarnów (2008) is by Ffolas, also via Wikimedia Commons. Tarnow, Bima of the Synagogue, Poland, (2004) is slightly modified from the original photo by Emmanuel Dyan, on Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons CC BY 2.0.