The Unwritten Diary of Israel Unger
Paper 240 pp.
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At the beginning of the Nazi period, 25,000 Jewish people lived in Tarnow, Poland. By the end of the Second World War, nine remained. Like Anne Frank, Israel Unger and his family hid for two years in an attic crawl space. Against all odds, they emerged alive. Now, after decades of silence, here is Israel’s “unwritten diary.”
Nine people lived behind that false wall above the Dagnan factory in Tarnow. Their stove was the chimney that went up through the attic; their windows were cracks in the wall. Survival depended on the food the adults leaving the hideout at night were able to forage. Even at the end of the war, however, Jewish people emerging from hiding were still not safe. After the infamous postwar Kielce pogrom, Israel’s parents sent him and his brother as “orphans” to France in a program called Rescue Children, a Europe-wide attempt to find Jewish children orphaned by the Holocaust. When the family was finally reunited, they lived a precarious existence between France—as people sans pays—and England until the immigration papers for Canada came through in 1951.
In Montreal, in the world described so well by Mordecai Richler, Israel’s father, a co-owner of a factory in Poland, was reduced to sweeping factory floors. At the local yeshiva (Jewish high school), Israel discovered chemistry, and a few short years later he left poverty behind. He had a stellar academic career, married, and raised a family in Fredericton, New Brunswick. The Unwritten Diary of Israel Unger is as much a Holocaust story as it is a story of a young immigrant making every possible use of the opportunities Canada had to offer.
Born and raised in New Brunswick, Carolyn Gammon moved to Berlin in 1992. Her poetry, prose, and essays have appeared in anthologies in North America and Great Britain, and in translation. She is co-author of the Holocaust memoir Johanna Krause, Twice Persecuted (WLU Press, 2007).
Israel Unger was born in 1938 in Tarnow, Poland, and immigrated to Canada in 1951. He is Dean Emeritus of Science at the University of New Brunswick. Israel Unger was one of fifty Holocaust survivors to be honoured by the Government of Canada in 1998 in connection with the fiftieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. He was the educational advisor for Atlantic Canada for the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies.
“[The Unwritten Diary of Israel Unger] is a powerful story of courage, survival, humility, and love—love of family, love of community, and love of peace, justice, and truth.... Unger and his collaborator, Carolyn Gammon, wrote this book clearly intending to tell the story of an extraordinary life. In the process, it became more than just a writing exercise for them. Like so many works motivated by passion and discovery and framed within the borders of historical and family narratives, this book became a journey of self-discovery and narrative renewal.... This book of memory is as finely written an account of a life as I have read.”
— Richard Blaquiere, Bugle-Observer (Woodstock, NB)
“In a small town in Poland, nine Jews hid from the Nazis in an attic crawl space for two years. All of them survived. Israel Unger, professor and dean emeritus of the University of New Brunswick, was one of them. With the help of Carolyn Gammon, Unger has shared his story in the Unwritten Diary of Israel Unger. Unger says the idea to write this book was not his, it was Gammon’s. ‘When she first suggested to me that we write a book, my answer to her was that there wasn’t a book, that my memories were not very extensive because I was so young at the time,’ he says. Unger was five when they first hid in the attic, seven when they left that tiny space after Poland was liberated. ‘And I was 1 1/2 when the German war machine crashed into Poland,’ he notes. ‘But Carolyn then said, what happened afterwards is also interesting.’ Looking at himself as a representative of what happened to many survivors, he realized that there might be a book. ‘There were 350,000 Jews that survived Poland—10 per cent of the 3.5 million that were living there before the war—and I was one of those,’ says Unger. ‘It seemed to me, in telling the story, you could also tell in some ways the story of many other people.’... What [Unger] found particularly gratifying was that the external reviewer said his story wasn’t just part of Holocaust history, it’s part of Canadian history. The reviewer also said his story filled a gap. ‘To me, it was kind of a justification for the book, that somebody considers it a part of Canadian history,’ he says.”
— Lori Gallagher, Fredericton Daily Gleaner
“This is like a detective story where we are also taken on the journey with the authors and become witnesses to the discovery of evidence that, in every detail, supports Israel’s memories and stories. I have seldom been so moved that I literally stop everything else, including eating until I reach the end. There is a tension between the utter honesty and attention to detail of Israel’s story, and the need to dig deeper and find out more emotionally. It makes this book powerful and indeed, empowering. This is storytelling / history / memoir / biography at its very best. The Unwritten Diary of Israel Unger deserves an award for its content but also its methodology. It provides a useful blueprint for other writing–interviewing partnerships and shows how dedication to the cause can lead to an incredibly compelling book.... You cannot read this book fast. It is a slow read. It needs to be. Nor can you put it down. So, be prepared to find a safe haven, take plenty of time, and begin this journey. You will not emerge the same person as you began. This is one of those unique, life-changing books.”
— Cathie Koa Dunsford, Asia Pacific Review
By the same author
Johanna Krause Twice Persecuted: Surviving in Nazi Germany and Communist East Germany, Carolyn Gammon and Christiane Hemker