The Diary of Petr Ginz is a gift from history, a gift from the heavens—a fragment of a life extinguished by the Holocaust. Ginz was almost 14, Jewish, a resident of Prague, when he began his diary in two small exercise books, “the equivalent of a captain’s log on a sinking ship,” according to the translator, Elena Lappin.
A budding artist and author, a voracious reader, Ginz records the slow ebbing away of everyday life for Prague’s Jews. The writing is spare, without emotion, as Ginz notes signposts on the long trail of death for Europe’s Jews, draws the yellow star he is forced to wear, counts the 69 “sheriffs” he sees on his way to school.
An introduction and concluding story by Petr’s sister, Chava Pressburger, add context. So do family photos, and Petr’s later essays.
But Petr’s flat prose is powerful. On Jan. 1, 1942, he writes: “What is quite ordinary now would certainly cause upset in a normal time. For example, Jews don’t have fruit, geese, and any poultry, cheese, onions, garlic and many other things. Tobacco ration cards are forbidden to prisoners, madmen, and Jews.”
In hundreds and then thousands, Prague’s Jews are transported away. To Petr, the numbers are people, the Levituses, the Poppers, until, finally, in August 1942, a final diary entry: “In the morning at home.” Petr is sent to Theresienstadt. The Germans claimed it was a spa town; in reality, it was a Jewish ghetto and transit camp where Petr continued to grow, reading, drawing and painting and writing for a secret newspaper.
In 1944, he died at Auschwitz.
There, the story might have ended. But some of Petr’s artwork and writings survived. In 2003, Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon took a piece of the Holocaust into space—a copy of Petr’s drawing of a moonscape. Ramon and the other members of the space shuttle Columbia crew died when the ship broke up in the sky on Feb. 1, 2003—Petr’s 75th birthday.
From tragedy came a remarkable discovery in Prague: Petr’s long-lost war diary was found.