Dry Tears: The Story of a Lost Childhood

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Memoir by Nechama Tec, 1984

There is a caste system in the Holocaust survivor's community. At the top is the concentration-camp survivor who is obsessed with the experience and feels compelled to tell his story, and on the bottom is the hidden child who lived his childhood as a non-Jew, neither deported nor incarcerated, and who keeps the milhomeh yahren (war years) to himself. Though both groups acknowledge that to honor the memory of the brutally murdered is to never forget—and, thus, to reveal what was concealed, denied, minimized, and destroyed—there are distinct variables between them. A common thread among camp survivors is forever living the guilt and pain of surviving, and that for the hidden children is forever remembering the idiosyncrasy of surviving by any means necessary. Such is the grist of Nechama Tec's memoir.

In the whole of Jewish history there has been no more murderous an age, no period more villainous for the Jew, than the Shoah. With so much that is painful to remember—dislocation, despair, death—Tec's memoir is that rare story of one Jewish family's ability to survive intact. Tec (née Bawnik) was eight years old when World War II began with Nazi Germany's invasion of Poland on 1 September 1939. As a child she did not understand her mother's cry, "We are lost, we are lost," which foretold her family's destiny in the coming years. Despite her ignorance and confusion about the situation at hand, she learned enough to remain alive and to be quiet about it. Survival and secrecy became the matrix around which she attempted to recapture her childhood in order to comprehend the character of her being.

Tec's coming-of-age story details the perils involved in Jews passing as Christians among anti-Semitic people who sheltered them, loved them, lived off them, and despised them. Typical is the family Homar, of Kielce, who sheltered the Bawniks during the war. Tec wrote: "All the Homars made me feel welcome. They were so warm and friendly that I was hurt when I discovered that they were anti-Semitic, and totally uninhibited about being so. Unabashed by my presence, they would talk disparagingly about Jews, and even scold me half jokingly: 'Don't be a nosy Jew,' 'Don't be clumsy like a Jew.' I said nothing, but my face must have registered some surprise or opposition or both, because they would then add, 'You know that you are not a real Jew. You are not really Jewish."' Ironically, the truth behind their mean-spirited remarks is vouched for by Tec herself: "Early in life I became aware of my 'non-Jewish' appearance. Blond and blue-eyed, I had what was considered to be a 'typically Polish' look." This look enabled Tec to pass as a Gentile and sell rolls on the black market to help sustain her family in hiding.

Collectively, events remembered in this book may well resemble those found in other memoirs in form but not necessarily in content. What is unusual is the dilemma of a young girl who became a Pole and a Catholic on the outside, thereby separating herself from her real self and from her family, religion, and ethnicity. Seemingly, by giving up her Jewish identity—born Helen Bawnik, she became Pelagia Pawlowska and later Christina Bloch—and embracing silence, she found solace "inside a church [where] I felt neither a Christian nor a Jew, but only a human being, who had a terrible need to confide in someone. In the stillness I could whisper my secrets without fear, and whether it was a Christian God or a Jewish God who listened to me did not matter. What mattered was that I had someone to confide in, and that he was listening." Though Tec emerged from the war with a personal vow to "never again pretend to be someone else," her conflicted identity continued to prevail. Her need to heal is the raison d'être of Dry Tears. For the most part she succeeded in overcoming her bifurcate identity.

—Zev Garber