The Story Behind The Girl with the Diary

Shari J. Ryan

The author's grandmother provided the inspiration for her new novel.
Bedřich Fritta's drawing of living conditions at Theresienstadt
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Sometimes in life when realization hits, making us aware that we don’t know exactly who we are or how we got there. For some, a life-changing event is the only window to a view of our world in a different light. This is where my story began.

A person who had been a part of my life from the day I was born was gone without warning. I took time and life for granted because I hadn’t endured a true dose of reality just yet.

We weren’t close. That was my excuse. But we were close—she’s my grandmother. But she didn’t care about me like other family members. She was cold and sometimes mean, and I couldn’t understand why. So, I gave up because I was sure everyone showed love in the same way.

I love you.

Three simple words, never spoken by my flesh and blood.Thirty-three years came and went, and I never heard those words from my grandmother. I went through life wondering if she loved me at all, questioning if I wasn’t adequate or worthy enough. I debated if I was born to be a disappointment. She presented her demeanor through waves of confusion—explanations of why she was the way she was—who she was, and who she had been.

My grandmother was a survivor, and that was the only necessary explanation. However, I didn’t understand the defined meaning of “survival” well enough throughout most of my life—throughout the span of my life overlapping hers. After she passed away, I felt the need to find answers to all the questions I should have asked before it was too late.

Bedřich Fritta’s drawing of a funeratl at Theresienstadt

My grandmother and great-grandmother lived through three years of torment during the Holocaust at Theresienstadt, a concentration camp in what was then Czechoslovakia. The conditions in the camp were inhumane, even worse than what I wrote about in this story.

Writing this book was a journey for me—it was a way for me to heal and understand more about my grandmother. After thirty-three years of avoiding the terrifying stories she tried to share with me, all I wish to do is ask her the questions I constantly think about, learn more about her life and the monsters that lived under her bed. It’s too late for that, but the information is still here, even though it has been denied and erased by so many people over the years.

I was in pain after she passed away, but I couldn’t bear this emotion. She told me crying was not a way to express our feelings, but seen as a form of weakness. We weren’t supposed to cry at funerals. Instead, we should be grateful for the good times and that there is no suffrage.

No one cried at my grandmother’s funeral. It was out of respect for her.

We told her we loved her, knowing we would never hear the words in return. It took nearly a hundred thousand words in writing this book to help me understand why she couldn’t verbally express her love.

My grandmother lost her brother, her father, aunts, uncles, and cousins to genocide. They took everyone from her except her mother. Yet, she carried on through life—existing, learning, teaching, researching, and writing.

Unlike the main character, Amelia, in The Girl with the Diary,, she didn’t want to forget. My grandmother wanted to remember, so she carried her memories with her—the habits she learned in the camp and the way of life no one should willingly choose. Her ways made me angry and upset, and I couldn’t understand why she was so cold when I was warm.

Now, I understand.

What she experienced at that camp had such a profound effect on her that it became part of who she was. Almost everyone she loved was gone, and Hitler’s army did not give her the chance to tell them she loved them or say goodbye. If they weren’t given the opportunity then, I can understand how no one else could deserve those stolen words. The meaning was different for her and me. She had to go through life, knowing it was a mutual feeling, kept intact even with time and distance between them—something unquestioned, and unnecessary of spoken reminders.

My grandmother may be gone, but never forgotten. It took me too long to understand why her views differed from mine. But now, I accept, appreciate, and respect the unique ways she embraced life.

If she didn’t fight to survive, I wouldn’t be here. I’m grateful for her strength and courage, and I hope I’ve inherited just an ounce of her unwavering spirit.

Shari J. Ryan is the author of The Girl with the Diarypublished by Bookouture.