Thursday, October 7, 2010

A sampling of diaries

I love reading eyewitness history and am currently (unhurriedly) tackling the Diary of Samuel Pepys. Some of the most fascinating diaries are those of children. I posted some entries from the famous diary of Holocaust victim Anne Frank when footage of the schoolgirl surfaced last October. I have now learned of the 1943 diary of 14-year-old Rutka Laskier, dubbed the "Polish Anne Frank," who wrote the following passage shortly before being sent to Auschwitz: "The rope around us is getting tighter and tighter. I'm turning into an animal waiting to die." Compare this to the predicament of a contemporary Pakistani schoolgirl under constant threat of the Taliban. Many historic diaries were written by soldiers fighting such enemies. New Zealand soldier George Petersen left a personal record (1st image) of his presence at Gallipoli in World War I: "Turks blew up our trenches just as we arrived, terrible explosion blew dust and stones hundreds of feet in the air, landed all around us, 4 killed and 10 wounded," he penned on May 30th, 1915. Lieutenant Kenneth Wootton of the British army left a 120-page journal compete with illustrations (3rd image) in which he describes fighting the 1st World War from the trenches of Germany: "We escaped with nothing more than lumps of earth falling around us. The German front line had been smashed almost out of recognition as we passed through shell holes and most were filled with filthy water and bodies," he wrote in July 1917. A British soldier in World War II, Corporal Harry Oughton Jones, recorded witnessing the death of Nazi Heinrich Himmler at a German prisoner of war camp, as he bit on a cyanide capsule in May 1945: "So at once the officer said to me to take him, as we made to get him he just put his hand to his mouth and before we got to him he dropped dead on one of the beds and kicked two or three times and then lay still."

Some diaries are left by criminals rather than their captors. Though he predicts his vicious attack in prison, a child pornographer's diary does not evoke much sympathy. Neither does the diary of a British couple who stole a yacht and set sail on the high seas elicit much interest, except that it was found on board with their bodies after they had starved to death off the coast of Africa. "The lights are going out in my heart. We have not eaten for four weeks. I dream of my mum's steak and kidney pie, roast dinner, and sausage and mash," wrote the female half of the ocean-going "Bonnie and Clyde." A journal was also found with the body of British explorer Robert F. Scott, but under much more heroic circumstances. Eight months after Scott and his 3 team members ran out of supplies once they had reached the South Pole in 1912, their frozen bodies were found in their tent. "For God's sake look after our people," was Scott's last entry. Just as heartwrenching is the news that 18 pages of the diary (4th image) of Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon survived the fiery disintegration of space shuttle Columbia in 2003, a 38mi fall to Earth, and 2 months of exposure to rain and sun in a Texas field.

A voyager in another century, 6-year-old Laura Jernigan of New Bedford, Massachusetts, spent 3 years on a whaling vessel with her father (the captain), her mother, her brother, and 31 crew members. A typical entry in her diary (2nd image) reads, "Tuesday. 21th 1871. It is quite pleas-ant today. the men are cuting in the whales. they smell dredfully. we got a whale that made 75 barrels. the whales head made 20 barrels of oil. the whales head is as big as four whole rooms. and his boddy as long as one ship. the men have got 5 whales cut in. they have throne some of the whale over board. it is fun to see". If you find such diaries are your cup of tea, I have identified a few websites devoted to diaries:

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