Dear Diaries, You're Home Again

Friday, June 5, 1998

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Naomi and Esther, age 3 1/2
Naomi, left, and Esther, at age 3 1/2, flank their mother in 1947.
(submitted photo)
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All along, they thought their mother was just jotting down appointments in her pocket calendar.

The Guttmann twins, Esther and Naomi, were wrong.

Turns out, she was recording milestones in her daughters' young lives. Her pocket calendars were her diaries. The brief daily entries she made during 1945 and 1946 would someday make it possible for the twins to play back their memories.

Wednesday was the day. Sitting in Esther's quiet Amberley Village living room, the twins looked over the diaries. Reading the entries, they relived the days when doctors made house calls on holidays. "January 1, New Year's Day: Dr. Stewart here for Esther."

And going downtown was an event. Noticing a July 31, 1945, trip to town, Esther recalled:

"We'd always go to Graeter's for a nectar soda. That was Mom's favorite. Now, it's mine."

"But first," Naomi reminded her, "we'd go to Shillito's coffee shop, sit at the counter and eat a tuna fish sandwich on toast.

"To me," she added, "those trips downtown were better than a birthday party."

Present Esther and Naomi
Esther, left, and Naomi reminisce after being presented their mother's diary from the 1940's
(Tony Jones photo)
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The twins were reminiscing over diaries that had been lost for years. They were found after a series of coincidences, including a mysterious trip from the twins' childhood home in Avondale to an antiques shop in Florida.

In the 1945 and 1946 dairies, the sisters are referred to as "the babies." Today, the babies are grown up and married. Esther's last name is Whitman. Her twin, Naomi Klatzkin, makes her home in Dayton.

They had not seen their mother's diaries in years. But on Wednesday afternoon, they were reunited with the little calendars.

Hands trembling, the twins turned the diaries over and over. Before examining even one of the hundreds of pages filled with their mother's cramped handwriting in German, Hebrew and English, they caressed the covers.

Periodically, they rubbed their fingers over the pebbly surface of the diaries' red Leatherette bindings.

"Oh, my God, I remember these. Mom always had one in her purse," Esther said and clutched the diary from 1946 to her chest.

"She'd write in them in my dad's study, on a table by the window."

Naomi placed one hand on top of the other. The diary from 1945 rested between her palms.

"This is so precious," she murmured. "I'm holding something my mother touched and wrote."

The twins' mother, Manya Guttmann, died in 1992. Her diaries disappeared after the death in 1994 of her husband and the twins' father, Alexander Guttmann, a world-renowned Talmudic scholar.

Manya and Alexander Guttmann escaped Nazi Germany and the Holocaust in 1940. They came to live in Cincinnati, where he taught at Hebrew Union College for 44 years.

After their father's death, Naomi and Esther slowly sold off the contents of his library.

"He had tons of books. We counted them," Esther said. "There were ...."

"10,000 books. Maybe the diaries were stuck in one of the books," Naomi piped up, finishing Esther's thought.

"Please, don't interrupt," Esther replied.

"I'm not interrupting," Naomi noted. "I'm interjecting."

The twins are always doing this, completing sentences and getting on each other's case.

Their upset never lasts long. Immediately after this short skirmish, they smiled sweetly at each other and opened the diaries. "We thought they were lost forever," Esther said.

"Gone," Naomi interjected once more, "for good."

Not hardly. They just went South for a few winters.

Found in Florida

Sometime in the '90s, Bill McKechnie doesn't remember "exactly when or how," a box of books arrived at his antiques shop in Cross City, Fla., a small outpost about 40 miles from Gainesville.

One rainy, customer-free afternoon, Bill rifled through the box and spied the two diaries.

Neither had a name or address inside. Skimming the entries, noticing they were in three languages and knowing German and English, Bill was intrigued.

As he read the yellowing pages, he mentally began heading North and going back to his childhood. He saw references to Eden Park. The Zoo. Graeter's ice cream.

"Whoops," he told himself. "This is Cincinnati."

Bill knows Cincinnati. He grew up here and graduated from Anderson High School. His grandfather and namesake, Bill McKechnie, managed the Reds from 1938 to 1946, winning the National League pennant in 1939 and the World Series in 1940.

Bill McKechnie, the manager, was running the Reds the day the Guttmann twins were born. On Aug. 18, 1943, while Esther and Naomi were making their debut at Jewish Hospital, the Reds were spliting a doubleheader with the Boston Braves.

The more diary entries he read, the more Bill McKechnie, the grandson, yearned to find out who wrote these diaries. If possible, he wanted to give them back to their rightful owner. So, he called the Enquirer's TV critic, John Kiesewetter, who referred Bill to me. With the help of a certain genealogist I know, namely, my wife, and her expertise in tracing missing people, I found Esther and Naomi.

Memory makers

The emotion in Esther's living room grew with the afternoon's shadows as the twins took turns reading diary entries. Every line told a story.

"September 22, 1946: Ari on fishing trip with Turners."

Ari is the twins' older brother. The Turners lived next door to them in Avondale.

Mr. and Mrs. Turner's son was, in Esther's words, "a wild kid."

"He was the neighborhood bully," Naomi declared. "He'd pop you in the eye if he didn't like the way you looked."

One day, the bully hit Esther. Naomi came to her sister's defense.

"I told him: 'See these fingers? See this thumb? See this fist? You'd better run.' "

And, Ted Turner, the future Captain Courageous, did.

While reading the 1945 diary, Naomi came across a one-line entry for May 8, 1945.

"V-E Day."

Manya Guttmann wrote that line with such force the point of her pen pressed through four pages.

"That day is my earliest memory," Esther recalled. "I got on my father's shoulders. My mother gave me a pot and a wooden spoon and told me to bang on it. We marched out the front door. All the neighbors were yelling and shouting. The war in Europe was over."

Two days later, on May 10, 1945, Manya Guttmann's diary notes that she received one letter and three postcards from "Mutti," her mother.

The cards and letter told her that her mother was alive, had survived a forced labor camp in Russia and was trying to make her way to America.

Mutti eventually came to Cincinnati and lived with the Guttmanns. Naomi, "a naive 3-year-old at the time," had hoped her grandmother would bring them lots of presents.

"But all she brought with her were an old blanket and a tin cup from the work camp. Boy, was I disappointed."

As they grew older, the twins came to see their grandmother's blanket and cup as gifts of great significance.

They served as powerful reminders of the will to live, to survive against all odds. And, to cherish the memories preserved for safekeeping in two little diaries.

Columnist Cliff Radel can be reached at 768-8379; fax 768-8340.