Children’s Diaries from WWII

SARAH WALLIS & SVETLANA PALMER

Sarah Wallis and Svetlana Palmer are currently editing their forthcoming book–a collection of diary entries drawn from children who grew up, loved, fought and, in some cases, died during the second world war. Their project offers the chance to bring together–in one volume and in English–the beautifully written and evocative, though largely unknown day-by-day accounts of growing up on different sides of the conflict. Wallis and Palmer’s previous book of letters and diaries from the First World War, A War in Words, included two children’s diaries and it was the strength of their stories, which inspired them to create a uniquely original book on the Second World War as experienced exclusively by the young. The authors selected seventeen accounts in all, interweaving in one chapter the diaries of a Japanese student turned Kamikaze pilot, a New York schoolboy and a young US naval recruit; in another the diaries of a besieged Leningrad schoolboy and an underage German soldier. As the narrative of the book and the war progresses, seven of the young diarists die while nine live to see the war’s end. Whether at home, imprisoned, evacuated or fighting as soldiers and partisans, all desperately hope to survive. The entries focus less on dying and more on living, on family, friends, school, love, a first kiss, fear and hope.

The following extracts are from a chapter, currently in progress, from the second part of the book, which follows Germany’s demise. Three teenagers, one French and another a Polish schoolgirl and then a Jewish Pole and young man, wait in the summer of 1944 for their eagerly anticipated liberation–the Poles for the Soviet Troops, the French girl for the Allies–with tragically different consequences.

“Dear God do not shatter our enormous hopes”
Paris and Warsaw waiting for liberation summer 1944

From the diary of 17-year-old Parisian, Micheline Singer, which she had kept throughout her four years living under German occupation.

11th April 1944
What a day. I will never forget it. I don’t know how to begin to write about what happened to me in the evening. Before going to bed I wanted to walk [my dog] Darak, like I do every evening, but just as I shut the gate behind me, Karl arrived. He wasn’t drunk but you could see that he’d been drinking.

He took my hand and I did not like it. However, I didn’t say anything. Then, suddenly, he wanted to take me in his arms. I defended myself and he said he wanted just one kiss, he said that I didn’t understand, he’d spent two years in Russia and hadn’t talked to a woman. We kept repeating ourselves, him saying “just one kiss”, me saying that I couldn’t because I didn’t love him. When I tried to shut the gate on him, he kissed my hands through the slats and it felt strange. He said he hadn’t slept since he met me and thought of nothing but me. I said he was drunk, he said not drunk enough, I tried to get drunk but failed. Then suddenly he changed his mind and said he would go, as he didn’t want me to go round saying the Germans behave like pigs. Unfortunately, I didn’t hold my tongue and let him go but shrugged my shoulders and asked him why I would be so stupid as to make all Germans responsible for the behaviour of one. I don’t know why but this made him furious. He pushed open the gate, got out his little revolver and said it’s simple, either kiss me or I’ll kill your dog. So I let him kiss me. Then I ran inside wiping my mouth with the whole length of my arm. I think he just stood there. I was terrified when I got to my room because my shutters don’t close properly. I undressed somehow, tried to read Les Fleurs du Mal but couldn’t concentrate, I kept thinking he was going to come back and attack me. I heard the clock strike every hour all night long. I can’t believe how afraid I was.

Six weeks later…

Tuesday 6th June
I went down early with Darak to queue up for milk. And in the queue what should I hear: the English and the Americans have arrived in Normandy. I ran upstairs as fast as I could and announced the news to Mummy. All excited we ran to wake up Nicole who was still asleep. But I have been waiting so long for the landing, have dreamt of it so often that it almost seemed normal. Let them hold on this time! My God do not shatter our enormous hopes.

Monday 10th July
Caen has been taken and we have rediscovered hope. We spent the weekend tanning ourselves in the sun. My dream is to be really sun-tanned when the English arrive. Victory is so near and yet so far. But this time, I am sure it is only a matter of days.
My dear notebook, you are finished! I really thought it would be you who would see Victory, which is at once so near and yet so far. But now I really am convinced it is only a matter of days and I am only sorry it will not light up these pages because in the future I am sure you will be my favourite notebook.

RESOLUTIONS FOR THE FUTURE:

I will be hard, so no one can make me suffer.
I will be depraved so men will love me.
I will be strong and cruel.

From the diary of 14-year-old Wanda Przybylska written in a small village outside Warsaw, as Poles prepared to fight, anticipating the arrival of Soviet troops after nearly five years living under German occupation.

Saturday 28th July 1944
No, it’s really bad now – a whole week of being bombed! And everyone says it’s going to get worse, that they’re going to start bombing during the day as well. The hour of bloodshed is near. The war is very close now. Today, a friend of my sister’s came to say good-bye. She’s been called to her post. One of our cousins has gone too. Oh God! All these young lives, is it worth it? It’s all for our country and you have no right to hesitate. “Everything we have, we give to our country!” You cannot ask the price. The hour of combat is coming closer. But will it be the hour of victory? Yes there will be victory, we just have to believe in it, defend our country and drive the enemy out. It is not us who invaded. As soon as we join in the fighting we must not ask the cost! We must have faith and hope. For our country.

It is 9.30 in the evening. I am not going to bed. It’s not worth it. According to our sources there will be an attack in the next half hour. I am dressed and ready to go down to the cellar. I will go down but I don’t know whether I will ever come up again. We just don’t know. Anything could happen tonight. It’s possible that within a few hours, this house where I am sitting will no longer exist, that this notebook I am writing in will not be there and it is even possible that I will be gone….Oh dear! What pessimistic thoughts!

From the diary of an Anonymous Boy written on the same day in the Lodz ghetto, where he and his sister had been incarcerated for four years.

28th July 1944
My excitement and terrible impatience grow with every moment – I would like to find myself on the other side of the barrier. I want this so badly I can hardly breathe. Can anyone imagine a condemned man in his awful dungeon-when he can clearly hear the hammering on the other side of the walls of his prison? We can also hear the hammering-every night we have several alarms.

29th July
l am in a state of terrible excitement mixed with disbelief and fear. Who of us who are subject to such sufferings could believe it that we should get out, that we should be among those who survive! Oh! If I should be a poet, I should say that my heart is like the stormy ocean, my brains a bursting volcano, my soul like… forgiveness, l am no poet. And the greatest of poets is too poor a fellow in word even to hint, only to allude at what we passed, and are presently passing by. Never has any human being been put into such a state of “the profündis” as we have been. Imagine a Jew of Lodz Ghetto not wholly deprived of imagination when he is being told the few magic words of the 0KW [Supreme Army Command], which run as follows: “Bitter fighting has reached the outskirts of Warsaw”. At last it is not in Asia, it is not in Africa… but in Europe, in Poland, in Warsaw … . If we lived up to this time perhaps shall we live up to the moment of our dreams, to the moment of our deliverance. I am walking along as a lunatic, fevered with impatient expectation, full of hope and fear, I should like to become a few weeks older and still be alive!!

Less than a week later, the remaining inhabitants of the Lodz Ghetto were told they were to be deported.

3rd August
When I look on my little sister, my heart is melting. Hasn’t the child suffered its [her] part? She, who fought so heroically the last five years? When I look on our cosy little room, tidied up by the young, intelligent, poor being, I am getting saddened by the thought that soon she and I will have to leave our last particle of home! When I come across trifling objects which had a narrow escape all the time- I am sad on the thought on parting with them-for they, the companions of, our misery, became endeared to me. Now we have to leave our home. What will they do with our sick? With our old? With our young? Oh, God in heaven, why didst thou create Germans to destroy humanity? I don’t even know if I shall be allowed to be together with my sister! I cannot write more, I am terribly resigned and black spirited!

This is the Anonymous boy’s last entry; he is presumed to have been deported from Lodz to Auschwitz where he and his sister died shortly afterwards.

From the diary of Wanda Przybyska, written in Warsaw during the Polish uprising, while Soviet troops halted their advance, waiting across the river.

Friday 4th August 1944
Today, I don’t even feel like writing. There is no good news. Our young are holding out, they have even taken up new positions, but they can’t hold out much longer, they are running out of arms. There is no help from the Bolsheviks or from the English. And the Germans are taking action.

The beautiful weather returned today. And with it came the bombing and the shooting. What can we do – we are powerless. We have no anti-aircraft guns. And so those swine just make the most of it and fly so low that they can shoot us with a machine gun. We keep hoping to see English or Soviet planes but see nothing but those black German crows circling over our heads. Today, we had to go down into the cellar many times.

Three weeks later…

28th August 1944
In the evening, when I emerged from the shelter, I was greeted by a horrible sight. Everything was in ruins, not a single house was standing, including our own which had gone. The courtyard was completely covered in ash and rubble. It was terrible, an awful sight. The night was calmer, so we went to sleep, in the cellar, of course. For me the night was a real nightmare. We had to sleep on the ground. I felt really dirty and was exhausted after our terrible day. My hand was wounded and hurt badly. I was almost killed out in the yard when I was surprised by a “bellowing bull”. I can hardly describe what I lived through. My coat was on fire. Luckily I had enough presence of mind to throw it off me before I fainted. It’s amazing that I survived.

The next day, the “bulls” left us in peace. We all left the cellar and set to work like ants, whose anthill has been destroyed, and gather together in the same spot to build a new one. We moved the rubble to the side to make a path through to the road and cleared out the air-raid shelter and then began to live again after a day in which we were barely alive.

That’s what we are like we fight for our lives right up to the end.

On 4th September as the family attempted to move to a more secure location, Wanda was killed in crossfire. Germans forces drove out Warsaw’s remaining inhabitants and then demolished the city. Wanda’s family returned to bury her in January 1945 when Soviet troops finally took Warsaw from the German army.

From the diary of Micheline Singer, written in Paris as she waited for the imminent arrival of Allied troops.

Wednesday 16th August 1944
So much has happened. I went to the dentist on foot, as the metro isn’t working and I passed a garage full of German railway workers, completely drunk, very friendly. They had been handing out coal all night, as they are leaving.

The dentist’s receptionist, who comes from the suburbs, says the Germans are fleeing from everywhere, in horse drawn carts, on stolen bicycles, taking everything they can which I hope will be taken back off them. In all the hotels, all you see is luggage, cars, lorries. I look insolently at the defeated enemy.

We have been waiting for this moment for four years! If we had realised it would take four years, would we have had the courage to live and wait. We are all exhausted.

All the Germans from the hotel opposite have left; they looked dead tired. In the evening a neighbour told us the Americans are at Neauphle. Rumours are going round. The Germans are meant to leave Paris by 11 in the morning.

Friday 25th August 1944
I just went to see the first three American tanks arrive with French soldiers on them, they are the victors of the “battle for the Champs-Elysees.”, covered in red and white gladioli. The Allies let the French, the Leclerc division, enter liberated Paris first! First I had to fight with Mummy to be allowed out, because the fighting isn’t completely over and they are still shooting from the roofs. It’s a complete frenzy; all the little girls, the young boys and girls are on top of the tanks, even dogs, all wearing the tricolour. The French soldiers are covered in lipstick; they look fantastic, baked in the sun. I didn’t kiss the French soldiers because I thought they’d had enough kisses.

I hurried over to the American press car and shook hands with a fantastic guy with a little black moustache. A little further on I found one of Nicole’s friends in tears, her father had slapped her while she was kissing a soldier. All of Paris is comforting her, a soldier gives her some chocolate. A little American goes by, chewing gum. Sadly, I have to go home, so Mummy doesn’t get worried.

Evening. I felt the most alive today when they burnt the German flags. They took all their champagne with them but left their flags. It looked fantastic from the balcony. The flames went up and all the young girls danced around the fire, singing the Marseilleise. I will never, not even if I live to be 100 forget that. It was as if Hitler was burning there too.

  • About

    Svetlana Palmer was born in Moscow in 1969. She studied in Moscow, Berlin and London and has lived in Britain since 1990. She has worked as a researcher and producer on major historical documentary series including Bafta-nominated BBC/CNN series The Cold War; ITV’s award-winning The Second World War In Colour and Channel 4’s critically acclaimed The First World War. Sarah and Svetlana’s previous book is A War In Words - Diaries and Letters from the First World War. This is their second book.

    Sarah Wallis was born in America and moved to Britain as a child. She finished her degree in Russian and German the year the Berlin Wall came down and put her linguistic skills to use working as a researcher and producer on documentary films in a Europe without the iron curtain. Sarah has worked on several major historical documentaries including the BBC series People’s Century, for which the episode Master Race won an international Emmy; the RTS award-winning Homecoming, a film following the return of Alexander Solzhenitsyn to Russia, and the Channel Four series The First World War.


    Their paper 'Children's Diaries from WWII' appears in Bedeutung Magazine Issue 3/ Life & Death, available here for purchase.