The Lost Childhood: A Memoir

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Memoir by Yehuda Nir, 1989

In acknowledging his Holocaust memoir, The Lost Childhood (1989), Yehuda Nir pays tribute to the many people who were instrumental "in enabling a remaining witness to give testimony to a story that must be set down." The intensity of his commitment, with all its urgency, more than the terrifying events he recounts, empowers the narrator voice of his Holocaust memoir. The prose is spare, authentic, and devoid of stylish devices but crammed with a breathless raciness of hairbreadth episodes and dangerous escapes that mirror wartime treacheries yet defy belief even within the genre of the Holocaust memoir.

Dedicated to his savior, Ludwig Selig, Nir's domain is clearly that of a Holocaust witness. With an understated yet retaliatory tone of irony, he sets down the experiences of his peaceful Polish Jewish childhood detonated by the 1939 German invasion. Nine-year-old Yehuda Nir's story begins in Lvov, Poland, when following the German invasion, the Red Army in a counterattack occupied his city. The family's initial deprivations under the Soviets include the appropriation of his father's factory, relocation, and reduced living quarters shared with a Russian officer and his wife. Two years later when the Germans invade the Soviet Union, the real horrors for Yehuda's family begin. The occupying Germans, assisted by Ukrainians, begin shooting Jewish men on the street and then begin arresting others. When his father is arrested Yehuda follows to the police station and describes the parting glance he has with the parent he will never see again. Many years later at the end of the war, he learns that his father was murdered the same day by the Germans. The three surviving family members—Yehuda, his mother, and his sister, Lala—merge into what he describes as "an interdependent triangular symbiosis," adopting new roles to prevail in the endgame of survival.

Before long they are ordered into the ghetto, taking only a bed, a table, and a few chairs. When the German annihilation plan unfolds, they escape deportation through talents of Lala's boyfriend, Ludwig. With his extraordinary talent for forgery, Ludwig fashions baptismal certificates and gives Yehuda's mother a new identity. Ingeniously he procures baptismal papers by writing to his landlady's church in Lithuania requesting her replacement baptismal papers. These papers establish a new identity for Yehuda's mother, that of Halina Skrybaylo, Ludwig's landlady. Then by purchasing a blank baptismal form on the black market from an "enterprising priest," Ludwig fills in the name Julian so it will closely match Yehuda's name Julius. The safe identity of Roman Catholics with Aryan papers forever alters his destiny. It enables the family's flight from Lvov to Warsaw, where unrecognized they live out three more years of their ordeal until Poland's surrender in October 1944. Ludwig's heroism takes on a tragic poignancy when Yehuda learns later that he has been denounced and murdered.

In anonymous Warsaw life remains precariously dangerous despite Aryan papers. Yehuda finds work as an assistant to a German dentist, an officer of the Wehrmacht. He is almost denounced when, posing as a Catholic Pole, he asks what day in December Christmas falls on. Quick thinking saves him when he threatens to reveal a suspected affair. Later when he becomes ill it is Lala's idea that he can conceal his circumcision by feigning modesty with the female doctor she summons to treat him. He poses as a member of the Hitler Youth, an identity that will backfire from the anti-German fury of his Polish concierge. The ironies continue when after heroic acts of resistance, posing as a Pole in the failed Polish uprising, Yehuda and his family are sent to Germany as Polish slave laborers. Bribing a German camp guard with her wedding ring, Yehuda's mother asks him to call the German industrialist Rockschmidt, for whom she had previously worked as housekeeper in Poland. Once again the luck that has marked Yehuda's existence intervenes when Rockschmidt sends his uncle to bring them to his estate at Erzberg, where they live out the war.

Yehuda escapes several dangerously close calls only with sheer nerve and chameleon-like changes. He manages to escape the German death machine that is murdering European Jews in Poland's death factories. Living by his wits, he triumphs and trumps German efforts to murder him. He has lost his childhood but he will recast his future in the role of witness.

The Lost Childhood at times closely parallels the award-winning novel Wartime Lies by Louis Begley , whose survivor fiction recounts the exploits of Maciek, a six-year-old boy living on the run with an aunt in wartime Poland. The six-yearold protagonist of Begley's novel lives with forged Aryan papers and establishes a Catholic identity. The composite character Aunt Tania shares some of the characteristics of Begley's mother and is reminiscent of the resourcefully ingenious Lala, Nir's sister. Tania's daring boldness makes her the novel's heroine shepherding Maciek through duplicitous traumas such as concealing circumcision, escaping blackmailers, and posing as a pious Catholic. Adopting multiple identities scars his nascent identity, and young Maciek, unable to grasp a sense of who he is, never fully answers that question. His fractured identity, not unlike that of the small boy in Jerzy Kosinski 's The Painted Bird, provides Begley with the novel's leitmotiv. Recollections of a plundered childhood mute memory, and thus questions of identity and selfhood haunt adulthood. In The Lost Childhood, nine years old when his six-year trauma begins, Yehuda Nir also has to adopt multiple identities to survive. The voice in his memoir, however, reverberates with the intensity of a survivor invested with a mission to bear witness to German and Polish atrocities.

Begley purposely chose the fictive form of a novel, more to confront the enduring dilemma of unraveling a fractured identity rather than to recount the horrors of a childhood forfeited to Holocaust treachery. The legacy of fabricated lies so vital to survive an evil universe leaves Maciek, who was born in Poland the same year as the author, with an existential dread. Who is he and what has become of his past are questions Maciek reckons with in the closing passage of the novel: "And where is Maciek now? He became an embarrassment and slowly died. A man who bears one of the names Maciek used has replaced him. Is there much of Maciek in that man? No: Maciek was a child and our man has no childhood that he can bear to remember; he has had to invent one."

And while The Lost Childhood describes a relentless struggle with multiple identities Nir assumes in a universe determined to exterminate him, his memoir is less a search for self than a resounding call to heed the voice of a witness to the Holocaust crimes committed against his people.

—Grace Connolly Caporino