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Child of the Holocaust


Memoir by Jack Kuper, 1967

Jack Kuper's Child of the Holocaust relates the story of Jankele Kuperblum, a young Jewish boy whose impoverished family arranges for him to be taken on as a farmhand by a local Polish woman in the summer of 1942. While suffering the fear and pain of being separated from his family and being thrust into an alien and menacing reality, this food and shelter for work arrangement saves Jankele's life. While he is working on the farm, the Germans liquidate the Jews of his hometown.

Child of the Holocaust belongs to that domain of Holocaust literature concerning children hidden during the Holocaust years. As such, this leads to a natural comparison between this work and what may be arguably the two most well-known works concerning children and the Holocaust: Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl and Jerzy Kosinski 's The Painted Bird. Like those works, in this work there are none of the more harsh elements of the Holocaust experience such as transports, concentration camps, and death marches. There exist signifi-cant differences in style, tone, and content, however, between Kuper's childhood memoir and the aforementioned works.

Criticism has pointed to the fact that those involved in the original publication of the diary of Anne Frank and its subsequent inclusion in the school curriculum sought to normalize both Anne and the Holocaust. Despite the fact that later editions of the diary include material initially viewed as inappropriate, the original sanitized diary (and subsequent stage and film productions) established a somewhat otherworldly Anne, perhaps best remembered for one specific entry where she reaffirms her basic belief in the goodness of humanity.

If the story of Anne Frank has served to deliver a rather benign view of the Holocaust experience and its meaning, Kosinski's The Painted Bird does quite the opposite. The pseudo-memoir of a young boy who roams the Polish countryside during the Holocaust years presents a reality so nightmarish and fantastic that the reader is all but compelled to ultimately view the events described as not being of this world.

As opposed to the above, Child of the Holocaust presents in a direct and uncompromising fashion the story of a child who meets tremendous goodness, indifference, and evil as he seeks to save himself from the Germans and starvation. The events, people, and behaviors described are very much of this world: friendship and bigotry, love and blind hatred, faith and doubt.

Through the eyes of the child that he was, Kuper shows how Jankele confronts his reality. While Kuper believes that his young age saved him from realizing the full impact of the events around him, it also was a factor in the slow disintegration of Jankele's self—identity—and his emotional health—described in the book. While in face of the hatred he eventually comes to deny and hate himself and his identity, Kuper shows the power of the individual and leaves the reader with hope for the regeneration of the self.

The book opens with nine-year-old Jankele on his way to visit his family for the first time since he left home months before: "A heavy layer of mist covered the village of Kulik, disclosing a few chimneys and thatch roofs as if they were suspended in the air … Mrs. Paizak sat in the front [of the wagon] holding the reins, her back toward me. "Vio!" she called out to the horse whenever he slowed down, and hit him across the back. The horse too could barely be seen, and it seemed as if we were sitting on a cloud being pulled by some magic force. Perhaps all this is a dream I thought. When I awake I'll find Mrs. Paizak and Genia gone." Not only does the dream not end but it quickly turns into a nightmare when Jankele learns that the Jewish residents of the ghetto have been sent to a concentration camp. Jankele subsequently must attempt to make sense of the events swirling around him like the mist covering the village of Kulik. Deprived of the advice and instruction of family and friends, young Jankele begins to struggle with debates that develop among voices that appear in his head. Dream and reality interchange as he struggles against both known and unknown dangers.

Hiding his Jewish identity as he wanders the Polish countryside, Jankele transforms himself into Kubush the shepherd boy, Franek the farmhand, and Zigmund. He eventually reinvents himself so often that he finds it increasingly more difficult to remember the young boy who he once was. Indeed, after years of pretending to be a Christian, Jankele begins to look, act, and feel like the peasants among whom he has lived. Regretting being born a Jew, he identifies in Jews (including himself) the very traits about which he heard from the peasants. Reaching a Jewish orphanage at the end of the war, Jankele discovers that neither he himself nor the other boys see him as a real Jew. The disintegration of his previous self is so complete that by the end of the war he cannot even understand or speak his native tongue of Yiddish.

At the edge of the ultimate self-negation, standing near a church in Lublin and considering conversion to Christianity, Jankele encounters a man garbed in a turban and white sheet: "His arms outstretched toward passerbyers, he kept repeating the same phrase in a strange language … 'Who is he?' I asked … 'An Indian,' answered a boy. 'What is he saying?' I asked. 'No one knows,' answered the same boy. 'He's been walking around like this for weeks. He's lost and nobody understands what he's saying."' The image of the man lost without his people returns Jankele to himself and to his people. He makes a mad race to the center for missing persons. Panting, he reaches a room where people smile at him "as if expecting" him. Regaining his faith in both his past and his future, he lists his name among those looking for the living and makes it known to the world that "Jankele Kuperblum is alive."

Out of the depths of despair, reaching out for a hand to take his, Jankele (Kuper) concludes his memoir with a reaffirmation of life. Offering comfort for himself (and the reader), he concludes: "It's possible, I told myself. Everything is possible."

—Avi Kay

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