Ohio library preserves diary of life in a Soviet labor camp

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TOLEDO, Ohio (AP) — A teenager's diary documenting life in a Soviet labor camp more than 70 years ago is now available for the public to read, thanks to a digital preservation project by the Toledo-Lucas County Public Library.

For years, Elizabeth Frankowski's account of her family's experience as prisoners in Siberia has been largely under wraps. Now, at 88, the longtime Toledo resident is sharing her story with the masses.

The original diary was written in Polish in a notebook given to her by a friend. The book is bound in a scrap of an old school uniform. Some pages are stained in places and a little yellowed, but the ink — dark blue with a dainty flourish — is mostly unfaded and easy to read. If you read Polish, that is.

An English transcript of Frankowski's diary is also available online, thanks to a 1998 translation by Frankowski and her sister after prompting by Frankowski's children, who could not read Polish.

Frankowski was 13 when her family, including six siblings and her pregnant mother, were sent to the labor camp after the Soviet army invaded Poland in 1939.

The diary, written in 1942 while she lived in Iran after her release, details the teenager's recollection of life in captivity, including the night the Soviet army rounded up her village, sending them on trains to Siberia. She describes long work days, meager rations, and rampant disease. Her words are enhanced by illustrations showing weary laborers and small wooden huts.

"For a long time I have been dreaming of writing my memoirs, to put on paper, what was in my heart, the experiences my family and I lived through, since Poland lost her freedom," the teen wrote in the memoir's first pages. "The writing of this diary might be inadequate, but it is not a storybook or novel. These are my real life experiences during the war. Fate dealt us a terrible blow. The scars in my heart and soul will remain forever."

She later settled in Toledo in 1952 after stops in several countries, including Lebanon, where she earned a nursing degree from the American University in Beirut. She was a nurse for more than 30 years until retiring in 1990. She still lives in Toledo.

"It's just extraordinary, that she had the presence of mind to do that, it's such a tribute," said U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur, a Democrat from Toledo, who brought the diary to the library's attention after learning about it through an event with Toledo Sister Cities International.

After a visit to Frankowski's home and a peek at the diary, Kaptur knew it was something special. "Her life stands out as just one brilliant testimony to what occurred. It's very precious," Kaptur said.

The diary is among the first documents scanned in the library's new digitization lab. The library purchased the equipment with a 2013 grant from the State Library of Ohio using federal funds from the Library Services and Technology Act program.

Toledo's nearly $200,000 grant was used to purchase a robotic book scanner and large planetary scanner for flat objects such as maps. The lab also now has a photo studio to photograph three-dimensional objects, which was not purchased through the grant. The diary was scanned with the book scanner, though done manually and not with the machine's robotic arm because of the book's fragility.

Frankowski said she's thankful that the library is bringing her words to a larger audience. She said the horrors of Joseph Stalin's regime are still not fully known, and as a history lover, she wants to share her experience with others.

"I am glad there is interest to see what has happened," she said. "Maybe someone can learn something from it."

Jill Clever, manager of the local history and genealogy department at the library, said the digitization lab works to unveil documents hidden away "in boxes somewhere and make them available online." She called the Frankowski diary "a beautiful document" with the benefit of English translations.

"If people don't read Polish, they can still read and marvel at her life," she said.

Librarian Gayle Hebert, who was the primary person working on digitizing the diary, said the grant allows the library to preserve documents and objects of local significance including newspapers, maps, and Civil War-era diaries. She said she especially enjoys working with works like the diary because of their personal nature.

"You think, 'wow, someone wrote this,' " she said of working with the document. "Mrs. Frankowski's work is one of my favorites."


Information from: The Blade, http://www.toledoblade.com/

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