Ita Dimant; Mar­tin Dean, ed.; Tere­sa Pollin, trans.

  • Review
By – December 25, 2023

This book pro­vides a first­hand account of Ita Dimant’s har­row­ing — if some­what unique — Holo­caust expe­ri­ence. Just twen­ty-one when the Nazis invad­ed Poland in Sep­tem­ber 1939, Ita saw her qui­et life in War­saw upend­ed by the chaos of war. The mem­oir, an expand­ed ver­sion of the diary she kept dur­ing the war, describes dai­ly life for Jews in the War­saw Ghet­to, includ­ing a heart-rend­ing look at the school Ita ran for Jew­ish chil­dren with­in the ghet­to. Read­ers might be sur­prised to learn about the ways in which cul­tur­al life, despite every­thing, flour­ished in the ghet­to.” The mem­oir con­tains dozens of pre- and mid-occu­pa­tion pho­tographs, many of which depict the chil­dren Ita cared for. One pho­to in par­tic­u­lar — of smil­ing, shirt­less, still-chub­by preschool­ers — is both pre­cious and heart­break­ing, and sure to bring tears to read­ers’ eyes. Most of these chil­dren did not sur­vive the Shoah. 

Ita’s sto­ry is unique in that she was for­tu­nate enough to have fake Pol­ish iden­ti­ty papers. This gave her the oppor­tu­ni­ty to escape the War­saw ghet­to and trav­el to Częs­to­chowa, where she pre­tend­ed to be a non-Jew while also work­ing close­ly with the under­ground move­ment in the Częs­to­chowa ghet­to. Hers was dan­ger­ous work. She always had a cyanide pill with her, which she almost used dur­ing a brief stint in a Gestapo jail after she was arrest­ed on sus­pi­cion of being Jew­ish. Though her papers and back­sto­ry were far from air­tight, Gestapo offi­cials were ulti­mate­ly unable to prove that she was Jew­ish. Even­tu­al­ly, she was round­ed up and sent to per­form forced labor on a Ger­man farm with non-Jew­ish Poles. One great moment in her mem­oir takes place after lib­er­a­tion, when she is able to tell the farm own­er that she is Jew­ish. I could final­ly accom­plish my dream of telling the own­er of the farm who I real­ly was,” she writes, and that from then on, she her­self would have to do all the work and that I hoped her nation would pay to the ter­ri­ble crimes to so many nations, and espe­cial­ly to us, the Jew­ish people.”

Archiv­ing the vast, diverse expe­ri­ences of Jews dur­ing the Holo­caust is an impor­tant his­tor­i­cal task — and Sur­vival is a wel­come addi­tion to the canon. While a more in-depth intro­duc­tion would have been wel­come, the memoir’s com­bi­na­tion of eye­wit­ness tes­ti­mo­ny and trea­sure-trove pho­tographs makes Ita’s sto­ry come to life. Those who are inter­est­ed in Jew­ish-led resis­tance move­ments, as well as women’s roles with­in them, will find this book par­tic­u­lar­ly compelling. 

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