March 20, 1986.
I don’t know what to say. I guess maybe my name… So, here goes.
My name is Rima Schwartz. I’m ten years old and I live in Odesa in the USSR. I don’t know how to talk to the diary. I mean, after all, it’s a piece of paper. It’s like I’m talking to my reflection in the mirror. Anyway…
March 25, 1986.
I was a little embarrassed last time. Didn’t know what to say but that was so silly. I mean, no one ever is going to read it so what am I afraid of? So, Dear Diary, I decided to start talking to you because my friend at school told me about Anne Frank and how she kept her diary in the concentration camp. Well, I saw her picture in the book. I kind of look like her a little. I mean I’m also a Jew. I know I’m younger but we are now more mature. At least, that’s what my grandparents are saying, how fast my generation is growing and how smart we are. I think Anne was very smart. And she kept writing even when she was very scared. I wonder if I could have been this brave. I hope I would. I mean, it’s not like I want to live through war or anything but if something serious were to happen, I would know if I’m strong! I will try to do better, Diary, and come to see you every day.
April 1, 1986
Hi Diary. I’m sorry I didn’t talk to you in a while but I was upset. Some of the kids in my school are really mean to me. They called me names and even hit me! My grandparents say that I should not respond because that means I’m lowering myself to their level but I don’t get it. If I don’t respond, then it means they can do whatever they want! And why are none of my teachers stopping them? It’s not fair. They are like Nazis! I mean, it’s been forty years since the war, and these people still don’t like Jews. Why? What did I do to them personally? My dad says it’s because they are threatened. Because we are smarter and more talented than they are but right now I don’t feel smarter or better. It’s April Fool’s day but somehow, I’m the only one they pranked today. I don’t like it!
One thought makes me happy though. Odesa is the USSR’s capital of humor so on April 1st we always have a big celebration with a bunch of famous people coming to town. I’m going there in just a few minutes, Diary. Hope it will help me feel better. See you later.
April 5, 1986.
Dear Diary, today is the first day when I knew summer was coming soon. It’s so warm and sunny. When it gets like this, it smells like summer. How to explain what summer smells like? It’s a mix of grass, hot dirt, blooming trees, and the sea. We are not too close to the beach but when it gets warm, I can smell the sea in the air. I like it a lot. Mom said I will be going to the pioneer’s camp in June, right after school is over. I really don’t want to… they are mean to me there too. The only good thing is if I go to the camp, we will be going to the beach every day…
April 17, 1986
I missed you, Diary. Sorry I haven't written in a long time. I was busy with doing all the tests for the third quarter and then we had a spring break. I went with my friend and her parents to the wild beach. I know it sounds funny but it just means that it’s a seashore without any changing booths or bathrooms. Just the sea, the forest, and the hills. I can’t wait until I’m old enough to go by myself to places like that. I like long walks and the beach. But most of all I like to collect mussels from the bottom of the hill that is covered in water. In some spots, there are so many of them you can just cut them right off the seaweed. Just have to be careful not to slip – it can be tricky to walk on the rocks in the water. But the best and the biggest ones are a little further away from the shore so I had to dive to get them. The grown-ups were yelling that the water was cold but I liked it! Not for too long, of course. It was a little chilly, to be honest. But I saw one huge mussel! My friend said I don’t have the guts to get it so I did! Does that mean I’m brave like Anne? Probably not quite. Anyway, when I brought a full bag home, my parents were very happy. Mom made pilaf with mussels. The entire apartment smelled like the sea for a few days and I helped to open up all the shells so we could put them in a pilaf. Yummy! I always eat it with bread and tomatoes but it’s too early. I have to wait for tomatoes until summer comes… See you later.
April 25, 1986
Hi! Did you miss me, Diary? Just kidding. Somehow it is easier to talk to you now. I guess it’s like a new friend – the more we talk and get to know each other, the easier it gets. I don’t feel so stupid anymore writing to you. So, I have one good piece of news. I found out that my friend next door (the one that I went to the beach with) will be going to the same camp! That makes it better. At least, I will know one person there. Oh, and another good news is that I got a letter from a friend of mine who lives in Kyiv. Her name is Kira. We met two years ago when her family came to Odessa for a month and we ended up being neighbors at the resort. My grandmother and I go there almost every year for at least two weeks. It’s like two hours away by train but then it’s right on the beach. There are a bunch of little wooden houses and everyone has to eat at the big cafeteria and we have to share toilets and showers but I don’t mind. We were going there for as long as I can remember. I can even go to the beach by myself! Grandma says it’s safe as long as I don’t swim far. I always promised her I would stay by the shore but … once I actually swam all the way to the buoy! It was hard on the way back but there were these boys who said that I’m just a little girl who wouldn’t have the guts or the strength. I showed them! I did it! Of course, I didn’t like lying to my grandmother but technically, I didn’t lie. I just didn’t tell her. Anyway, I was talking about my friend, Kira. We became pen pals after that. Every month I would send her a letter, maybe a few pictures and she would do the same. She said Kyiv is very pretty. I really wanted to go but Mom says I need to be a bit older so I can “really appreciate it”. Whatever. I was hoping Kira would come again this summer but she can’t. She’s older than me and is planning to take exams at the university this year… maybe she will come back next year if she’s not too busy.
April 27, 1986
It’s Sunday but something is happening. No one knows what but everyone is gathering by the building and whispering. I asked mom but she just said she wasn’t sure. I can see they are worried. Diary, I’m scared. What if it’s another war?
April 29, 1986
This is horrible. I couldn’t write yesterday because I was really scared but I have to tell someone! Diary, yesterday when we came to school, they told us to gather in the auditorium after the third period. They told us that classes are canceled for the rest of the week. There was a big explosion at the nuclear reactor in Chornobyl. Of course, I heard about Chornobyl before. Everyone said it was a very advanced power plant but I didn’t know what it meant. Our physics teacher explained to everyone today that the explosion of the nuclear reactor may lead to radiation in the air, which is dangerous. I don’t understand how it works! And how is it possible that something we can’t see or smell can kill us? That’s like the most unfair war ever!
My parents are worried. Odessa is far from there – almost 700 kilometers away! So we are safe, right? But I’m really worried about Kira. Kyiv is only 90 kilometers from there! That's very close! What if Kira gets sick? They don’t even have a phone so we can’t call them! I will write to her today and ask her to respond as quickly as she can. Now they are talking about it in the main news. They said the roof was burning and some people died. I hope not too many. I’m very sad, Diary.
May 1, 1986
This is the time when we always celebrate Labor day. We have picnics and cook shish kebabs and potatoes on the open fire. I wait for this every year. But this year, they said we can’t go. It’s not safe. We are all staying home. It’s weird. Feels like we are in some kind of bubble. My grandmother is outraged. She said the government needs to own up to this one but they won’t. I think it’s because they are scared just like all of us. True, Moscow leaders are all far away and they decided not to come to Ukraine to examine this thing just yet. That makes me scared more than anything. They said they will send a group to research the issue. But my friend’s dad is a scientist. He said we should stay indoors with windows closed as much as possible. He told us that if we get poisoned by radiation, we could get very sick and even die. No one yet knows how far it would spread. I still don’t understand. How can I get poisoned if I don’t eat “it”? I told everyone that I should be good to go outside if I keep my mouth closed and radiation can’t get inside me. The adults sort of laughed at me which was very upsetting! It wasn’t funny. My friend’s dad finally explained that when radiation is in the air it kind of sips through the skin too. Even our houses can’t completely stop it from entering since there are always some holes and gaps here and there, especially around windows. What do we do?! I don’t want to die!
June 15, 1986
Hello Diary, I haven't written in a while. I didn’t feel like it and we were all very busy here. Turns out, I won’t be going to camp this year after all. The government decided to bring all the kids from the Chornobyl area to the south for the summer. It means that they will be taking all our spots this year but I don’t mind! I’m glad they can be safe here. My friend’s dad was able to get this little yellow machine that beeps whenever there is radiation. It has a little arrow that points to a number to show the level. He said it’s called a Geiger counter. I now see other people starting to get it but when I asked my mom if we need one, she said there is no point. It’s not going to change anything. It’s weird to see how empty our streets are. People are afraid to be outside unless they absolutely have to go somewhere. Babushka also insisted we stock up on some dry groceries. She said they will last us a while and hopefully what was already in stores and markets wasn’t yet contaminated.
Yesterday, they said that we here in Odessa should be safe but suggested not to go to the beach or swim this year. I cried for a long time when dad said radiation spread to the sea now. What about all the animals there? I love our Jellyfish and Dolphins. They are so pretty. I was also told very strictly not to pick any mussels this year… They don’t know if we ever will be able to come back to it. This is not fair! I can’t understand why this happened but dad says it’s all the government's doing. They stole a bunch of stuff and didn’t follow some protocol. Cut corners, he said. I’m not sure I get it but it sounds like some people didn’t do everything they should have done or something. I hope they will be punished but my grandmother told me not to count on that.
July 18, 1986
It’s really hot in Odesa. I miss the beach and swimming but every time I think about it, I stop myself. Some people have it so much worse than me. Many did get sick. Someone told me that those that were too close to the reactor, got a radiation burn! I didn’t know it can do it. Why did they build this plant this close to the cities if it’s so dangerous? I don’t understand. Sometimes, I think about all these kids that actually lived right there, in Chornobyl, and I start crying. It could have been me! Many of them who now came to Odessa, looked pale and scared. Most were here without their parents who either stayed behind to work or had to travel looking for a place where they can move. I can’t even believe it’s been two full months since the blowup. My dad says that people like no other animal can adapt to any situation. And now I see it’s true! The stores look emptier than before so we have to get most of our food at the market but that also turned out to be dangerous.
A couple of weeks ago, some of the farmers that came from the villages to the weekend market started bragging about their beautiful produce and it was true. Suddenly, everywhere we went, we saw tomatoes three times bigger than normal. They looked very red and shiny. We never saw anything like that before. The same was happening with cucumbers, eggplants, and even cabbage (it was HUGE). At first, we were laughing about it but my friend’s dad told us not to be stupid and don’t dare to try it. In the last two weeks, we started going to the market together with him. He was using his counter at every stand, checking everything we were buying. His counter was beeping loudly nonstop. It was awful because I just imagined how I would bite into this big juicy red apple not knowing that it was poisoned! It looked so delicious that I was salivating. It reminded me of a fairy tale about Snow-white and the apple the witch gave her. In another week or so we noticed that the less appealing the produce looked, the cleaner it was. Now, it feels like we are all scouting! Looking for fruit and vegetables that have some sort of spots or, better yet, a little worm! Grandma taught me how to cut out a piece with the worm so I can eat the rest. I’m getting really good at it. I can almost do it in one swift move!
Hope I have time to come back soon…
Oy! I completely forgot to write about Kira! Her family came to Odessa! They actually stayed with us for a few days. It was a little tight but so much fun! Kira says she will end up waiting until the next year before she can apply to a school because this year no one wanted to deal with it, thinking about how to survive. Turned out that the place where her family lived was on the Chornobyl side of Kyiv so they were much closer than others and had to evacuate. We went to the beach a few times but didn’t dare to swim. It was a shame because I have never seen the waters so calm and still. Kira said that even the Black Sea is depressed and worried about getting sick. It’s very sad.
December 19, 1986
The school is going as usual. Everyone is trying to come back to normal but I still have nightmares about another plant blowing up. It repeats this dream where I see a huge mushroom rising above the city before a massive wave covers all of us destroying everything in its way. I wonder, Dear Diary, would this dream ever go away? Talk soon…
Feb 4. 2012
Dear Diary, I just found you after so many years. What a time capsule you turned out to be! Only recently did the details of the Chornobyl tragedy surface to the public. I don’t think we would ever know for sure how many people died in that catastrophe or later because of it. Many years later, whenever I had any health issues, it was written off to “What did you expect? You are Chornobyl kid.” Kira and I lost touch after her family moved to Israel and only recently her mother found me on Facebook. Kira died of an aggressive brain tumor when she was only twenty-five... Until next time.