Zahava Scherz: A sister I never knew delivers an eternal Holocaust message

Roundup: Talking About History

As the child of Polish Jews who had survived the terrors of World War II, I was always aware of the Holocaust — but at a distance.

Then, when I was 14 years old, I came across a red photo album, hidden in my parents' home outside Tel Aviv. The photographs in the album were from that dark time. They showed my father Yaacov Laskier's family, all of whom had been exterminated in the Holocaust. All I had known previously was that before the war, my father and his four brothers and four sisters belonged to a well-to-do, respected Jewish family.

In the album, there was a photo of a girl embracing a little boy. She was about 8 years old, with beautiful black, smooth hair. With a heavy heart, I turned to my father and asked him who those children were, and who was the girl who resembled me. And then, for the first time, my father told me about Rutka and Joachim-Henius, his children with his first wife, Dvorah Hampel. All three of them had perished in Auschwitz. Rutka was 14 when she died, exactly my age when I found out about her existence. Henius was 7 years old.

When I met Rutka

That is how I found out about my father's deceased children, and about his first life in Bedzin, a city in southwestern Poland where Jews had lived for centuries in peace until German troops arrived in September 1939. Four days after they occupied Bedzin, the Germans burned the town's historic synagogue to the ground, after locking some 200 Jews inside.

Six decades later, in 2006, my life was changed by an even more startling revelation, when the world and I learned that my half-sister Rutka had kept a diary during the war that had recently been made public. In these pages, I met Rutka for the first time: a very talented and beautiful girl, who, while being aware that she would not survive, wanted to document those days, in hopes future readers could follow her life and understand her death. When the diary was published, first in Poland and then in Israel, it was hailed for opening an illuminating new window into Jewish life during the Holocaust.
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