Struggle in Poland over Jewish war diaries


WARSAW, Poland - Israeli composer Ella Milch-Sheriff wants her father's diaries back. However, despite her frequent trips to Poland and her threats to turn to Polish, and even European, courts to assert her ownership of the 1,613-page document, the Polish authorities have no intention of letting it leave the country.

That's because the diaries — 62 notebooks written by Baruch Milch as he hid with other Jews from July 1943 to March 1944 in the village of Tlusty, trying to avoid dying at the hands of German troops and Ukrainian nationalists or being betrayed by his Polish neighbors — are considered a unique historical document.

Milch, who died in Israel in 1989, describes shocking scenes, such as German SS troops taking a baby from a woman, kicking it to death by playing with the child like a soccer ball and then forcing the mother to wipe the blood from their boots. He also describes how his brother-in-law smothered his 3-year-old son, who by crying was endangering the lives of five hidden Jews. The notebooks then tell how the distraught father tore his hair from his head in grief at having killed his own son.

Milch writes about the anti-Semitism he faced while growing up and studying in inter-war Poland, and the animal instincts that had taken over Poles, Jews and Ukrainians, all divided and desperately hunting to survive.

Although convinced that he, too, would die, Milch survived the war and left Poland in 1946 for Palestine, handing his diaries for safe-keeping to a Jewish historical commission in Katowice in southwestern Poland. The diaries lay forgotten until they were discovered by a university researcher in 1988. They have since become a document of value to Polish historians that describe the Holocaust. They are held in Warsaw's Jewish Historical Institute. An abridged version was published under the title “Testament” in 2001.

But Milch's daughter says that her father had never intended to hand the papers over permanently.

“He left the diary because he was afraid for his life and that of his pregnant wife, and he wasn't sure that the manuscript would survive if he took it with him,” Milch-Sheriff told Poland's Rzeczpospolita newspaper earlier this year.

Although she has a copy of the diaries, Milch-Sheriff wants to take the originals home to Israel, pointing out that her father had written many times to Poland trying to get them back, without success.

Before his death, Milch ended up re-writing his diaries from memory in Hebrew, and his second daughter, Shosh Avigal, later published a book in Israel based on both versions of the diary.

The Polish authorities are fighting hard to keep the diaries.

“The diary of Baruch Milch is a unique description of social life, showing the tragic fate of Polish citizens of Jewish origin,” said Slawomir Radon, the director of Poland's state archives, in a statement.

Milch-Sheriff stresses that for her, the diaries are a personal memento of her father, but even if she wins her bid to have the papers declared her property, Polish law (as with the law in many other countries) forbids valuable historical documents from leaving the country. Although she is threatening to take her case to the European Human Rights Tribunal in Strasbourg, Poland is unlikely to budge.

The issue of who rightfully owns documents considered of historical value has arisen before.

The memoirs of 14-year-old Rutka Laskier – dubbed Poland's Anne Frank – a Jewish girl who kept a hidden diary before being captured and killed in Auschwitz, are now with Israel's Yad Vashem Institute after being taken out of Poland, but the issue is being investigated by Polish prosecutors.

The diary was kept for 63 years by Stanislawa Sapinska, who had been Rutka's friend during the war. She finally told relatives about it in 2006, and excerpts were published in a local newspaper.

It was discovered that Rutka still had a sister living in Israel and Sapinska traveled there in 2007 to hand the diaries over. Radon, the archivist, feels that those diaries also should not have left the country.

Last year, Dina Gottlieb-Babbitt, a former Auschwitz inmate who had painted seven portraits of imprisoned Gypsies for Josef Mengele, the sadistic death camp doctor, was told that she would not be able to take the pictures because of their historical importance.

Poland, which has been ravaged by wars and occupations for centuries, is particularly stringent about preventing antiquities and historically important documents from leaving the country. Any painting dated from before the war needs special permission to be exported.

Those types of restrictions are particularly galling for Jews, who made up about 10 percent of Poland's population before the war but now number only a few thousand. The bulk of Jews with Polish roots now live out of the country and feel few ties with the country that was once home to their ancestors.

“This is a personal memoir for me, not a Polish cultural artifact,” Milch-Sheriff said.