Representations of the Holocaust in Children's Literature
Representations of the Holocaust in Children's LiteratureINTRODUCTION
OVERVIEWS AND GENERAL STUDIES
FICTIONAL ACCOUNTS OF THE HOLOCAUST FOR CHILDREN
HOLOCAUST DIARIES WRITTEN BY CHILDREN AND YOUNG ADULTS
The delicate presentation of children's literature meant to honor and remember the devastating genocide that took place during World War II.
The Holocaust is a difficult subject to explain to any literary audience, particularly children. It is believed over eleven million people from various "undesirable" groups—including Jews, Gypsies (or Roma), homosexuals, Slavs, dissidents, Jehovah's Witnesses, and a host of other victimized peoples—were killed in a variety of horrific manners by Germany's Nazi regime as part of their infamous, genetic-cleansing "Final Solution" during World War II. The Jewish people, plagued by long-simmering negative stereotypes in Europe, suffered the most—over six million killed—with many native populations almost completely destroyed by either mass exodus or murder.
Holocaust children's literature has always been controversial. Though some feel that the subject matter is inappropriate for young audiences, others argue that children must be educated about such a significant historical event. Thusly, Holocaust children's texts have taken many forms throughout the latter half of the twentieth century. For example, while there has not been a wealth of Holocaust-related material for pre-adolescent readers, several works of Holocaust literature do exist in the picture book format, which can generally divided into two disparate forms. The first relies on creating an allegorical universe in which the Holocaust is dealt with as more of a generality. These stories function primarily as an introduction to evil—rather than an account of the historical details of the Holocaust—and, as such, are handled with a marked gentleness. One notable example, Eve Bunting's Terrible Things (1980), utilizes a quiet forest of animals to revisit a famous homily by German dissident Martin Niemoller. A Lutheran pastor in Berlin during the war, Niemoller was an initial supporter of Hitler until the true intentions of the Nazi regime became clear. Imprisoned in the Dachau concentration camp for his opposition, Niemoller survived the camps and become an advocate for publicly acknowledging the German atrocities of World War II. The pastor was perhaps most celebrated for his simple analogy: "They came first for the Communists and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Communist. Then they came for the Jews and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Jew. Then they came for the trade unionists and I didn't speak up because I wasn't trade unionist. Then they came for the Catholics and I didn't speak up because I was a Protestant. Then they came for me—and by that time no one was left to speak up." Bunting's story evokes this simple parable, inserting an unseen dark force—the "Terrible Things"—for the Nazis. Over the course of Bunting's short picture book, the Terrible Things first take all the birds from the forest, and then one by one, all the other species disappear until only the rabbits are left.
Christophe Gallaz and Roberto Innocenti's Rose Blanche (1985)—referred to alternately by critics as a picture book or a young adult novel—is an anomaly in illustrated Holocaust children's literature in that, not only does the title character come into contact with the harsh realities of the concentration camps, but she also dies within the course of helping those imprisoned. Significantly, Rose is no older than ten or twelve herself, and Innocenti's drawings of the camp she visits, while not graphic, are indeed unsettling. After witnessing the suffering of those in the concentration camp, Rose returns daily to offer food. She spend weeks providing whatever succor she can, but is tragically killed by a bullet on the day of the camp's liberation by Allied soldiers. Initially rejected by numerous publishers, the book's release sparked a minor controversy. In her review of Rose Blanche, librarian Lorraine Douglas found merit in the work's message, describing it as "a difficult book to classify, as the text is easy enough for a young child to read alone, and it has the appearance of a picture book but the content of the text and illustrations is full of emotional impact and subtlety." In many ways, the book personifies many of the central questions surrounding how to represent the Holocaust in children's literature.
Critic Eric Kimmel has defined four types of young adult and juvenile novels within the genre of children's Holocaust fiction: resistance, flight, occupation, and concentration camp novels. In the works of resistance, the books mainly seek to honor the vital roles resistors played in saving the lives of millions. Newbery Medal-winning Number the Stars (1989) by Lois Lowry exemplifies this group, documenting the little-known story of the salvation of the Danish Jews. On September 29, 1943, the Danish resistance discovered that the Nazis were preparing to shepherd all of Denmark's small population of Jews into the concentration camps. In order to spare them, a flotilla of Danish boats ushered every Jew to neutral Sweden. Lowry's text also typifies another common trend within Holocaust children's fiction, featuring a teenaged protagonist who, despite threats to her very life, is able to find a happy ending. In flight, the second form of juvenile Holocaust fiction, authors document the stories of children and their families who had the foresight to leave their homelands before the Nazis invaded. Judith Kerr's When Hitler Stole Pink Bunny (1971) is a prime example of this model. In the book, nine-year-old Anna, her older brother Max, and their family live in Berlin in 1933. As World War II approaches, Anna witnesses dramatic changes in her hometown and the people around her. One day, her father disappears, and her mother suddenly takes Anna and Max to England where their father is waiting. In "flight" books, significant attention is paid to everything that had to be left behind—in Kerr's text, this is symbolized by Anna's treasured pink stuffed bunny—as well as the emotional impact of starting a new life in a foreign culture. These stories commonly feature autobiographical elements, as they are often reflective of the true tales of many survivors who went on to record their struggles. Such is the case with Kerr, who fled Germany much in the same way as her protagonist Anna.
The third category, the occupational novel, relates the daily accounts of life under the Nazi regime. Many texts of this genre chronicle the difficulties in maintaining friendships between Jews and Gentiles during wartime; such works include Doris Orgel's The Devil in Vienna (1978), Norwegian author Aimee Sommer-felt's Miriam (1950), and German author Hans Peter Richter's Friedrich (1961). The final category of Holocaust fiction for children, works that focus on the concentration camps, is also the least common. As it was with Innocenti's Rose Blanche, the suitability of presenting the most horrific details of the Holocaust is still widely debated. Perhaps the most prominent works of this type include Gudrun Pausewang's The Final Journey (1996), Jane Yolen's The Devil's Arithmetic (1988), and Margaret Wild's Let the Celebrations Begin! (1991). In The Final Journey, Alice Dubsky narrates her story from within the confines of a train headed to Auschwitz. Alice has had the truth of the Jewish situation kept from her as she spent the last two years hiding in her grandparents' home. After her family's location is disclosed, she begins to realize the enormity of her situation as people (including her grandfather) die in the cramped quarters of the train. The words "concentration camp" are never actually used, but the reader is definitely aware of Alice's approaching fate, even if Alice is not. The Devil's Arithmetic recounts modern-day Hannah's boredom at her family's annual Passover dinner until a freak occurrence sends her back in time, into the body of a young Polish concentration camp resident named Chaya. As the reality of her situation sets in, Hannah/Chaya becomes an integral cog in the camp's daily events and even willingly takes the place of another young girl, Rivka, in the execution chamber. Suddenly transported back to her Passover dinner, Hannah realizes that Rivka was none other than her own aunt, who speaks tenderly of Chaya's sacrifice. Wild's Celebrations is another picture book similar to Rose Blanche, although Wild utilizes more cartoon-like illustrations as well as a relatively simpler and more optimistic plot.
The most well-known Holocaust children's literature is told through the personal narrative, communicated through the pages of the diaries of children who struggled to survive throughout the Nazi regime. Among the most-studied include the diaries of Moshe Flinker (1926–1944), a Dutch orthodox Jew who fled to Belgium with his family before a Jewish informer revealed their presence, resulting in Moshe's death at Auschwitz; Eva Heyman (1931–1944), a Hungarian girl killed with her grandparents at Auschwitz; Dawid Sierakowiak (1924–1943), a talented young writer who recorded the suffering of the Polish Lodz Ghetto before his eventual death of tuberculosis; and most famously, Anne Frank (1929–1945), who hid in an attic with her family in Amsterdam before her capture and eventual death at Bergen-Belsen. The diarist is a firsthand witness, retelling history and personalizing it in a way that no other form of literature can offer. Hedda Rosner Kopf has commented that, "the diary is a more immediate and often more accurate account of events and the writer's responses to them. Diary entries, however, do not have the benefit of the writer's understanding of how those events were resolved or what they would come to mean in the writer's life. For the most part, the diary entries are made up of the raw material of the self." The war was a period of stress for every member of the family. The emotional burden was overwhelming and, for a child who did not want to add to the problems of the family, the diary was a refuge where they could turn to release their own fears. For example, Moshe Flinker writes of his dedication to religion and a God he held in the highest faith, even when the walls around him seemed to be closing in. Not without doubt, Flinker's diary nevertheless depicts a young man coming to terms with his essential belief in God. Anne Frank, a secular Jew, depicts a very different reality in her diary. Perhaps the most famous piece of juvenile Holocaust literature, Het Achterhuis (1947; Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl) chronicles the life of a tender young woman dealing with the dread and anticipation of her possible capture while approaching her own adolescence. Eleanor Roosevelt famously described Frank's diary as "one of the wisest and most moving commentaries on war and its impact on human beings that I have ever read."
Chana Byers Abells
The Children We Remember: Photographs from the Archives of Yad Vashem (picture book) 1983
Alan Adelson and Robert Lapides, editors
Lodz Ghetto: Inside a Community Under Siege (juvenile nonfiction) 1989
We Remember the Holocaust (juvenile nonfiction) 1989
Hilde and Eli: Children of the Holocaust [illustrations by Karen Ritz] (juvenile nonfiction) 1994
Child of the Warsaw Ghetto [illustrations by Karen Ritz] (juvenile nonfiction) 1995
Hiding from the Nazis [illustrations by Karen Ritz] (juvenile nonfiction) 1997
A Hero and the Holocaust: The Story of Janusz Korczak and His Children [illustrations by Bill Farnsworth] (juvenile biography) 2002
Terrible Things [illustrations by Stephen Gammell] (picture book) 1980
Hana'ar Moshe: Yoman shel Moshe Flinker [Young Moshe's Diary: The Spiritual Torment of a Jewish Boy in Nazi Europe] (diary) 1958
Het Achterhuis [Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl] (diary and memoirs) 1947
The Diary of Anne Frank: The Definitive Edition [edited by Otto Frank and Mirjam Pressler] (diary, essays, and memoirs) 1995
Christophe Gallaz and Roberto Innocenti
Rose Blanche [illustrations by Roberto Innocenti] (young adult novel) 1985
The Tiger Who Came to Tea (picture book) 1968
When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit (juvenile fiction) 1971
The Other Way Round (juvenile fiction) 1975
Number the Stars (juvenile fiction) 1989
Lisa (juvenile fiction) 1987
Jesper (juvenile fiction) 1989
Daniel's Story (juvenile fiction) 1993
The Devil in Vienna (young adult novel) 1978
The Island on Bird Street (young adult novel) 1984
The Man from the Other Side (young adult novel) 1991
The Final Journey (young adult novel) 1996
The Upstairs Room (autobiography) 1972
Hans Peter Richter
Friedrich [translated by Edite Kroll] (juvenile fiction) 1961
Dear Mili: An Old Tale by Wilhelm Grimm [translated by Ralph Manheim] (picture book) 1988
Upon the Head of the Goat: A Childhood in Hungary, 1939–1944 (young adult novel) 1981
Grace in the Wilderness: After the Liberation, 1945–1948 (young adult novel) 1985
The Diary of Dawid Sierakowiak: Five Notebooks from the Lodz Ghetto [edited by Alan Adelson] (diary) 1960
∗Maus: A Survivor's Tale I: My Father Bleeds History (graphic novel) 1986
†Maus: A Survivor's Tale II: And Here My Troubles Began (graphic novel) 1991
‡The Complete Maus (drawings, journal entries, and recordings) 1994
David and Jonathan (young adult novel) 1992
Let the Celebrations Begin! [illustrations by Julie Vivas] (picture book) 1991
The Devil's Arithmetic (young adult novel) 1988
Briar Rose (young adult novel) 1992
∗Early versions of chapters 1 through 6 originally appeared in Raw magazine between 1980 and 1985. The chapter "Prisoner on the Hell Planet" originally appeared in Short Order Comix #1 in 1973.
†Early versions of chapters 1 through 4 originally appeared in Raw magazine between 1986 and 1991.
‡The Complete Maus was released as a CD-ROM, combining artwork, movies, and recordings of interviews with Spiegelman's father.
David L. Russell (essay date April 1997)
SOURCE: Russell, David L. "Reading the Shards and Fragments: Holocaust Literature for Young Readers." Lion and the Unicorn 21, no. 2 (April 1997): 267-80.
[In the following essay, Russell examines how three works of Holocaust children's literature—Lois Lowry's Number the Stars, Hans Richter's Friedrich, and Jane Yolen's The Devil's Arithmetic—effectively highlight the horrors of the Holocaust for young adult readers.]
A great many books about the Holocaust have been written for young people over the years, and, like all books about the Holocaust, they are unsettling, even painful to read. The Holocaust is among the most difficult topics for a young reader to approach. There are those who deplore any attempt at writing Holocaust literature, claiming, with Michael Wyschogrod, that "art is not appropriate to the holocaust. Art takes the sting out of suffering. Any attempt to transform the holocaust into art demeans the holocaust and must result in poor art" (qtd. in Rosenfeld 14). But the more persuasive argument lies with those who insist that not to speak out is a greater injustice, that it is "blasphemy to remain silent" and give Hitler "one more posthumous victory" (Rosenfeld 14). When we are considering literature for children, we must inevitably confront the question as to whether such a grim topic is at all appropriate for young minds. It reminds us of the age-old argument over the fairy tales—another case in which adults so frequently underestimate children. A great deal of evidence suggests that children from about the ages of ten or twelve and up are fully capable of dealing with the fundamental issues of the Holocaust.1 (See Deverensky, Minarak, Sherman, and Zack for firsthand accounts of positive classroom experiences with Holocaust literature.) Indeed, the Holocaust should not be viewed as merely a suitable topic for young readers, but an important and necessary topic. And through the literature—diaries, reminiscences, novels—young people not only acquire exposure to the Nazi atrocities, they achieve a measure of perspective on their meaning. Contrary to what Wyschogrod says, art need not remove the sting from suffering and demean its subject—in fact, art, which focuses on the particular, may have greater power to move our emotions than do the numbing statistics of history. We are appalled at the death of millions, but we weep at the death of the one. As Eva Fleischner writes, "we can attain universality only through particularity: there are no shortcuts. The more we come to know about the Holocaust, how it came about, how it was carried out, etc., the greater the possibility that we will become sensitized to inhumanity and suffering whenever they occur" (qtd. in "Preface," Facing History and Ourselves xvii). Additionally, it is important to realize that art of the Holocaust is necessarily didactic art—the experience is too sobering for it to be otherwise. Stories of the Holocaust are like cautionary tales, warning us of the danger of complacency, reminding us of the tenuous thread on which human decency is at times suspended.
The Holocaust—its incomprehensible nature aside—is an extraordinarily complex and multifaceted experience. Recognizing that fact many years ago, Eric Kimmel identified various types of Holocaust literature, which he described using the analogy of the concentric rings of Dante's Inferno. The outermost ring includes the Resistance novels, depicting the underground movements in which the Jews are typically helpless victims aided by "righteous Gentiles." Refugee novels are stories, largely by Jewish writers, focusing on the flight of Jews and their subsequent struggle for survival. Occupation novels, usually focusing on Jewish characters, describe the exploits of ordinary citizens coping with Nazi rule. At the very center of this Inferno are the harrowing stories of the death camps (Kimmel 85ff.). We cannot grasp the total impact of the Holocaust without knowledge of all these facets of the experience. An examination of three works of Holocaust fiction—Lois Lowry's Number the Stars, Hans Richter's Friedrich, and Jane Yolen's The Devil's Arithmetic—will reveal how a brutal subject, sensitively handled, can be presented in a fashion appropriate for young readers. These books are testaments to both the very best and the very worst humankind can achieve. Individually, each book is a powerful statement on the Nazi atrocities, and each delivers a distinctive lesson in ethical decision-making and behavior, but taken together they begin to form a cohesive vision of the Holocaust and suggest what may be the ultimate significance of that human experience for us all. The whole becomes greater than the parts.
The most accessible of the three novels for young readers is Lois Lowry's Newbery Award-winning Number the Stars, a story of the rescue of the Danish Jews, one of the few glimmering moments in the long dark night of Nazi oppression. A Resistance story with a gallery of heroes, Number the Stars relates how a ten-year-old Danish girl, Annemarie Johansen, helps her best friend, a Jewish girl, Ellen Rosen, and her family escape the Nazis' purge in occupied Denmark. The Danes managed to aid the flight of some 7,000 Danish Jews (nearly 90 percent of the total) to neutral Sweden and thus saved their lives. Denmark was easily overrun by the German forces early in the war, but the Danes maintained a fierce Resistance throughout the duration, inspired by their beloved King Christian X who daily rode his horse through the streets of Copenhagen defying the Nazi presence. Early in the book, Annemarie's father tells the story of a German soldier in Copenhagen who, seeing the King riding unattended in the streets, asked where the King's bodyguard was; a small boy replied, "All of Denmark is his bodyguard" (14). Annemarie's father explains to her and her sister that any Dane would gladly die for the King. Suddenly Annemarie realizes that "she—and all the Danes—were to be the bodyguard for Ellen, and Ellen's parents, and all of Denmark's Jews." She then wonders, "Would she die to protect them?" She admits secretly to herself "that she wasn't sure" (26). This novel is the story of the test of her convictions.
When the word is spread that the Germans intend to round up the Danish Jews, a massive effort is undertaken to hide them until they can be gotten safely to the boats for Sweden. Ellen is taken in by Annemarie's family, and when German soldiers search the Johansen home in the middle of the night, Ellen suddenly realizes that she is wearing a Star of David necklace, which would surely give her away. It is Annemarie who manages to break the chain with a fierce thrust, just at the moment the soldiers enter the bedroom. When the soldiers finally leave, convinced that the girls are sisters, as Mr. Johansen feigned, "Annemarie relaxed the clenched fingers of her right hand, which still clutched Ellen's necklace. She looked down, and saw that she had imprinted the Star of David into her palm" (49). The imprint of the Star of David is a symbol of the strength of Annemarie's conviction, her devotion to her friend, and the sacrifices we make on behalf of our ethical choices.
The Johansens help to transport the Rosens to the Danish coast where they will steal away in fishing boats to Sweden. The risk is great for the Johansens, but they outwit the German soldiers with further deceptions. Nothing is ever quite what it seems. The sisters are not really sisters, a wake is not really a wake, an innocent visit to relatives by the sea is not really innocent. One of the most elaborate deceptions occurs when the Johansens pretend to be mourning the death of Great-Aunt Birte. A closed coffin contains, in fact, blankets and supplies for their Jewish friends' journey to Sweden. Annemarie is not told the entire truth about the incident, although she does know that she has never heard of Great-Aunt Birte before. When Annemarie accompanies her mother into the living room, she finds the coffin surrounded by strangers.
"Friends of Great-aunt Birte," Mama said quietly in response to Annemarie's questioning look. Annemarie knew that Mama was lying again, and she could see that Mama understood that she knew. They looked at each other for a long time and said nothing. In that moment, with that look, they became equals.
In the typical Holocaust story, we find young children reaching maturity before their time, the extenuating circumstances demanding it. And so it is with Annemarie.
Near the end of the book, Annemarie is thrust into the adult world of deception and intrigue. She must carry a packet to her uncle's fishing boat which awaits to take the Jews to safety. The packet contains a handkerchief treated with a compound of cocaine and rabbit's blood to numb the senses of the German tracking dogs, allowing the Jews to escape undetected. Before she reaches the boat, she is stopped by German soldiers in their shiny black boots. Her bravery is put to the ultimate test, but she musters her courage and outwits the soldiers (essentially by carrying out a successful deception, pretending to be a silly little girl that no one would take seriously). The soldiers are duped and Annemarie completes her mission. At the outset Annemarie had expressed doubts about her own bravery: "Annemarie admitted to herself … that she was glad to be an ordinary person who would never be called upon for courage" (26). But in wartime, "ordinary persons" do not exist, and Annemarie unwittingly discovers the meaning of courage. Her uncle tells her she did a brave thing in standing up to the soldiers and delivering the precious package, but she responds:
"Brave? … No, I wasn't. I was very frightened."
"You risked your life."
"But I didn't even think about that! I was only thinking of—"
He interrupted her, smiling. "That's all that brave means—not thinking about the dangers. Just thinking about what you must do."
Number the Stars is an uplifting story, filled with drama and suspense, and concluding with the successful accomplishment of a dangerous mission and the salvation of many lives. Good overcomes evil through wit and cunning. Danger is ever present and courage is demanded of even the very young. Death occurs offstage, as it were, but its presence is looming. (Lise, Annemarie's older sister, has died working for the Resistance prior to the book's opening, and Peter, her fiance and a key figure in the story, will die after our story closes; and we hear only rumors of the death camps.) As a story of the "righteous Gentile," in which non-Jews undertake enormous risks to rescue imperiled Jews, Number the Stars tells of people who are faced with a powerful ethical dilemma. They could choose security and relative comfort, which would mean turning their backs on the most vicious human tyranny as well as on their friends. Or they could fight on behalf of their Jewish compatriots and jeopardize their own lives. It is difficult to say what influences an individual's decision in such matters. For Annemarie's family, the choice seems fairly simple. They had already lost a daughter in the cause. Not to act would invalidate Lise's selfless sacrifice. Their choice is bolstered by the inspiring image of a valiant and aged king and the oppressive image of the shiny black boots of the German soldiers marching across their homeland. In other words, they recognize that they have something worth fighting and even dying for—national pride and freedom, yes, but the more salient elements are human dignity and honor. The symbolism of the boots trampling on this human dignity is found in many, if not in most, stories of the Holocaust. In fact, Lowry's editor felt that there were too many references to the boots and that some should be eliminated, but Lowry rejected the advice, noting that "those high shiny boots had trampled on several million childhoods and I was sorry I hadn't had several million more pages on which to mention that" ("Newbery" 420). Number the Stars is a popular story; it contains likable characters, suspense, and heart-warming friendships where ethnic differences are embraced not feared. It is the hopeful tale of a tragedy narrowly averted, and few could object to its appropriateness for young readers. Number the Stars is a good beginning, but it only scratches the surface of the Holocaust experience. Much remains for these readers to learn.
For Annemarie, the choice to act came easily. But what about the masses of Germans who chose otherwise, who by their very inaction allowed the atrocities to occur? This is the subject of Hans Richter's Friedrich, the story of two German boys—one Jewish and one Gentile—who were friends and neighbors from birth. The tale is a chronicle of the rise of the Third Reich and the persecution of the Jews. Friedrich is that rare example in children's literature of an ironic tale, to use Northrop Frye's terminology, the story of a disintegrating society, without a hero, "the nightmare of social tyranny," of suffering relieved only by death (238). The tale is narrated in the first person by the Gentile boy, who remains unnamed throughout the book. At the outset the two families enjoy close ties, although the Schneiders' "Jewishness" is a fact that grows in importance as the story progresses and eventually separates the families completely. The little boys are inseparable—they play together and bathe together. However, it should not go unnoticed that the narrator's mother does not refrain from making a distinction—"Well, Fritzchen! You look like a little Jew!" (6). In this remark we may note the seed of prejudice on which the Nazi machine built its program. When he is only seven, the narrator joins Hitler's Jungvolk, clearly not comprehending the significance of the movement (precisely what the Nazis counted on), and he takes Friedrich to a meeting. There, the boys learn that everyone is expected to recite one sentence: "The Jews are our affliction." Friedrich, eager to be one of the group, reluctantly acquiesces, but he departs in anguish immediately afterwards, leaving the narrator to remark simply, almost helplessly, "I stayed where I was" (88), signifying his inability or his unwillingness to act, politically, philosophically, and emotionally.
With each passing year the oppression and the injustice worsen. The Jews are increasingly segregated from society, their children pulled out of the schools, their shops vandalized and their homes ransacked. If occasionally, compassionate adults are to be found, they, like the narrator, are largely helpless. The boys' teacher, Herr Neudorf, appears sympathetic toward Friedrich when the boy is told he must henceforth attend a Jewish school. Neudorf bids him an affectionate "Auf Wiedersehen," but then, in an ironic twist, "with quick steps [he] hurried to the front of the class. He jerked up his right arm, the hand straight out at eye level, and said, 'Heil Hitler!'" The narrator reports simply, "We jumped up and returned the greeting in the same way" (64). All are blindly obedient, none seemingly aware of the hypocrisy.
Eventually, the narrator finds himself caught up in the mass hysteria of the program and, before he realizes it, he is swinging a hammer and smashing glass and whatever else comes in his way: "I felt so strong! I could have sung I was so drunk with the desire to swing my hammer" (92). When the narrator finally does take decisive action, it is mindless submission to mob pressure. He continues in this destructive rampage until "All of a sudden I felt tired and disgusted. On the stairs, I found half a mirror. I looked in it. Then I ran home" (93). The broken mirror reflects the fragmented self. At home he weeps with his mother. But his disgust and these tears cannot redeem him in our eyes; they only underscore the failure of the narrator and his family to effect any meaningful change in German society.
When, the narrator accidentally discovers a rabbi hiding in the Schneiders' apartment, he knows that it is his duty to turn him in to the authorities. However, the narrator has not totally lost sight of his responsibility to his friends, and he faces an ethical conflict. This conflict disables him, and his inability to cope with this dilemma is characteristic of the confusion of the times:
Herr Schneider, the rabbi, and Friedrich all looked at me. I didn't know what to do. The rabbi was a stranger to me. And what about my mother and father? Didn't they stand closer to me than this Jew? Might I endanger myself and them for the sake of a stranger? Would I never give myself away? Would I be able to bear the secret or would I suffer under it like Herr Schneider?
The longer I hesitated, the more urgent the three faces before me became.
"I don't know what to do!" I said very softly. "I don't know."
His exclamation of ignorance simply means he is unable or unwilling to make the difficult ethical choice. He lacks the courage of any conviction of right or wrong—the very antithesis of Annemarie. The ultimate failure of the narrator and his family comes when, during an air raid, Friedrich, who is now seventeen and driven into the streets, is denied a place in the shelter by his former landlord. The narrator and his parents sit by silently and watch Friedrich's eviction from the shelter. He is killed in the ensuing air raid. The narrator's reporting of these tragic events is almost numbly dispassionate, which is almost more disquieting than the violence of the act itself.
The narrator and his family are given no names; one critic refers to him as the "everyman narrator" (Bosmajian, "Narrative Voice" 313). Certainly he is intended to represent the typical German of Third Reich, too defeated by economic exigencies to confront the political system that has found a way to feed him and his family, too intimidated by an increasingly powerful police state that dares to mold the minds of the youth. Indeed, it would be unusual to find a German narrator who was not numb to human suffering, who was not apparently devoid of human compassion, who was not sleepwalking through life to avoid being overwhelmed by the grim reality about him. But another, less forgiving, facet of this behavior is suggested by Bettelheim:
Many Germans—by no means only Nazis—derived tangible advantages from the persecution of the Jews…. With a Jewish family's enterprise or position going to one gentile German family, their home to another, and their possessions to three or four others, easily five or more German families profited greatly from the persecution of a single Jewish family. Enough reason—if not to be happy with—at least not to object to a policy which greatly enriched them without any effort on their part.
("The Holocaust" 86-87)
In fact, at the outset of the book, the narrator's father is out of work and money is a constant worry, whereas Friedrich's father is a postal official and the Schneiders enjoy a comfortable life. By the book's conclusion, the narrator's father has acquired a job and some financial security; as for the Schneiders—Frau Schneider has been killed, Herr Schneider has been apprehended, and Friedrich is a fugitive in the streets. This reversal of fortune mirrors what happened on a rather large scale in Germany during the 1930s. The narrator's anonymity represents the faceless German masses who, through their silence and acquiescence, through their failure to act on ethical convictions, bear their own share of guilt for the Nazi atrocities. Their cowardice contrasts sharply with the moral courage of the Johansens in Number the Stars. The two stories juxtaposed provide a dramatic contrast between ways of responding to ethical crises. And notably, Friedrich is virtually devoid of hope—an element so often seen as essential to a children's book—making the book far more problematic for youthful readers than Number the Stars. On the other hand, as a piece of didactic literature, a work intended to instruct us in human behavior, it succeeds because it does not lecture to us, but forces us to seek the answers within ourselves. It poses the hard questions. Would we respond as the narrator? Whom do we condemn, if anyone? How are we to know what is right and what we should do? We should also note that the absence of hope in the story is countered in part by the historic timeline at the end of the book, which reminds us that the background events are real and that Nazi Germany ultimately would be defeated.
However, even in its expression of irrational inhumanity, Friedrich does not begin to reveal the depth of terror awaiting the Jews in the death camps. This brings us to the final work, Jane Yolen's The Devil's Arithmetic, the story of a young Jewish girl inside a Nazi concentration camp, and the rarest type of Holocaust literature for younger readers. It is interesting to note how Yolen handles the subject to bring it within the grasp of the teenage audience. The Devil's Arithmetic is a time-shift fantasy, employing a story within a story. The protagonist, Hannah, a character based on Yolen herself (249), is transported from the present back in time to 1942 (how is neither explained nor important to the story), experiences life in Poland as Chaya, an orphaned girl who ends up in a concentration camp, and then, as mysteriously, is transported back to the present, where no perceptible time has elapsed. (Lloyd Alexander uses a similar technique in The First Two Lives of Lukas-Kasha.) But aside from the time-shift, the story is closer to historical realism than to fantasy, with its shattering portrayal of the Nazi treatment of the Jews.
The story opens in the present day with Hannah begrudgingly taking part in her family's Seder dinner at Passover. The very first sentence in the book is Hannah's complaint, "I'm tired of remembering," referring to her impatience with the ritual, which she finds tiresome and repetitious. Hannah, in her early teens, is experiencing the natural rebellion of youth against the family; she is entertaining religious doubts, and traditions seem old-fashioned and irrelevant to her. Among her extended family is her aunt Eva, her grandfather's maiden sister, who is given the honor of lighting the Seder candles. Hannah has always felt a special tie to Eva, who is both wise and gentle. Hannah once thought her aunt's answers to her endless questions were "magical," but "as Hannah got older, the magic disappeared, leaving Aunt Eva a very ordinary person. Hannah hated that it was so, so she pushed the thought away" (11). Aunt Eva becomes a seminal character in the story, which will explain this strange affinity Hannah has felt toward her. When the moment in the Seder ritual is reached that the door is to be opened for the symbolic entrance of Elijah, it is Hannah who is instructed to open it. "Slowly Hannah moved toward the front door, feeling incredibly dumb. She certainly didn't believe that the prophet Elijah would come through the apartment door any more than she believed Darth Vader, or Robin Hood, or … or the Easter Bunny, would" (20). The religious ritual has become foolish superstition for Hannah. She reluctantly moves toward the apartment door, flings it open, and finds herself facing, not the "long, windowless hall with dark green numbered doors leading into other apartments," but "a greening field and a lowering sky" (20). The magical translation back to Poland, 1942, has taken place.
Hannah has been inexplicably incarnated as a recently orphaned Polish girl, recovering from an extended illness in the home of her aunt and uncle, Gitl and Shmuel (who are sister and brother), somewhere in rural Poland. Hannah initially believes that she is dreaming and she accepts the strange circumstances fully expecting to awaken at any time. But the dream will quickly turn into the worst kind of nightmare. As it happens, Hannah's translation has occurred the day before the wedding of Shmuel with the beautiful Fayge, and she joins in the joyous preparations for the event. Understandably perplexed, Hannah nevertheless embraces this new experience with a bit of relish. The name of the Polish girl whose body Hannah inhabits is Chaya—which, Hannah reminds herself is her Hebrew name, "The one I was given to honor Aunt Eva's dead friend." This presages the story's conclusion, when we learn just who Chaya was. The badchan, who is a village entertainer-seer-poet (he reminds Hannah of a jester), says to Hannah: "So, your name is Chaya, which is to say, life. A strong name for a strange time, child. Be good, life and long life to your friends, young-old Chaya" (55). This will become a prophetic remark.
On the wedding day, a procession is formed and heads for the village where Shmuel will meet and marry his bride. Only when the procession reaches the village and Hannah sees army trucks surrounding the synagogue does she realize that she is in the past. She immediately recognizes the Nazi soldiers and knows enough history to realize what is about to happen to all the Jews of the village—including herself. She tries to warn her new-found friends, but to no avail. She foresees the future, but no one will believe her. The villagers are herded into trucks, transported to railway boxcars, and sent on an excruciating journey to a concentration camp. The first death recorded in the book is that of a young child suffocated in the packed railway boxcar—the child was lucky.
The remainder of the novel chronicles the atrocities visited upon the Jews in the camp, the humiliation and degradation (their heads are shaved; their names are exchanged for numbers tattooed on their arms; they are forced to wear the tattered, cast-off garments of the dead) and the savage brutality (the smokestacks of the ovens loom over the camp as a constant reminder of their precarious existence). In the camp, they encounter unspeakably cruel German captors and their day-to-day survival is tenuous at best. There is nothing of human decency; they are treated worse than animals and the German guards seem to relish the torment they inflict. There is a reversal of all human values—the sick, the infirm and the old are, instead of being cared for, destroyed.
The most notably recurring word in the text is "remember." From the book's very first sentence—"I'm tired of remembering"—it is memory that guides the characters through this story. Hannah summons up her memories of her own past experiences—of books she has read and movies she has seen—and they provide her with a wealth of stories she draws upon to entertain the children. As the days, weeks, and months pass, she must also keep alive the memories of her family back in New Rochelle at the Seder, which is somewhere in the future. As Chaya, Shmuel and Gitl naturally expect her to remember a past that she, as Hannah, never had. And, most horrifying of all, she is gifted, like Cassandra of Greek legend, with knowledge of the future (a forward-looking memory of the fate of the Jews) that no one will believe. The memories help to pass the time in the concentration camp where the passing of time itself is a meaningless concept. Every day is the same and carries with it the same expectancy of death. As she witnesses friends and acquaintances, usually the weak and the sick, being taken off to the furnaces, all she really knows is that "each day she remained alive, she remained alive. One plus one plus one. The Devil's arithmetic, Gitl called it" (135). There is little else to sustain them. This may be slim hope on which to establish a raison d'être, but extraordinary circumstances demand extraordinary determination sustained by vivid memories of a cherished past. In the camp, Hannah befriends Rivka, a girl who has lost both parents, three sisters and a brother to the ovens, who tells Hannah, "As long as we can remember, all those gone before are alive inside us" (113). Hannah/Chaya comes to represent this determination and comes to understand the value of remembering as a part of this strength, of this hope.
At the climax of the story, Hannah/Chaya is "chosen" for the ovens, and, in a final moment of heroism, she makes it possible for Rivka to escape from the camp. Then, summoning all the strength she knows, she walks with two other friends toward the furnaces, and tells them the story of Hannah of New Rochelle as they go and of the wonderful things the future will hold for those who survive. They pause before the door of Lilith's cave, the name the Jews gave to the furnace rooms, and "Then all three of them took deep, ragged breaths and walked in through the door into endless night" (160). It is a profoundly moving passage, depicting the ultimate human dignity and at the same time suggesting the hope that does indeed lie in the future. At this point, the story returns to the present. The doorway to the furnaces is the passage back to the present and Hannah finds herself back in her grandmother's apartment—but a very changed person. The symbolism is profound, for through the ovens of the Third Reich Hannah has been transported into the security of a middle-class apartment in New Rochelle, New York. Chaya's own sacrifice, Hannah learns, made the present possible, for Rivka, who escaped, is Hannah's Aunt Eva. Hannah now grasps the significance of the numbers tattooed on Aunt Eva's arm and comprehends the importance of remembering, which is at once our means of keeping the past alive and ensuring the continuity of our values into the future. Through her extraordinary experience she has achieved an understanding of human suffering, suffering that teaches us what really matters, and her understanding will continue, for another generation at least, the timeless process of renewing the human spirit.
Yolen has presented a frank and sensitive tale of the grimmest aspects of the Holocaust. The time-shift fantasy, Yolen contends, is an ideal vehicle for presenting history to reluctant and skeptical teenagers because it thrusts one of their contemporaries into the past where he or she can ask the very questions that often perplex young readers about history and historical figures. "How can you believe the world is flat when it isn't?" "How can you trust that the people helping you over the mountain will not enslave you? How can you believe these Nazis when they say you are only being resettled?" (Yolen, "An Experiential Act," Devil's Arithmetic, 248). Through the eyes of Hannah, their contemporary, young readers experience one of the most incomprehensible periods of modern history. We see, in the Nazi persecutors, the deplorable depths to which human nature can plummet. We see the phenomenal resilience that is possible in the besieged human spirit. We see the necessity for never forgetting such atrocities. We see the importance of remembering. And so we have descended, to return to Kimmel's analogy, to the Ninth Circle and have stared into the face of evil. Yolen has enabled us to confront directly the most savage of Nazi horrors—even Friedrich's end looks merciful in comparison, and we now know what would have awaited the Rosens had the Johansens' efforts failed.
When I was a high school student in the 1960s, the pastor of our church was a Japanese-American who never lost an opportunity to spark the social conscience of his parish in our small Midwestern town. I still vividly recall one sermon describing a woman who admired what she thought was a beautiful abstract picture hanging above a friend's mantle. But when her friend pointed out to her that it was not an abstract picture at all, but an aerial photograph of a World War II Japanese-American internment camp in the American Southwest, the woman no longer found the picture beautiful. Under close scrutiny, the picture became a haunting reminder of a shameful chapter in American history. From a comfortable distance, we can ignore the atrocities; it is only when we are forced to view them close-up that the ugliness, the horror, the baseness of humanity are revealed. And sooner or later we must realize, along with Yolen's Hannah, that in the face of these horrors, "We are all monsters … because we are letting it happen" (141). Children's books about the Holocaust are unabashedly didactic—they have an overt moral purpose and because of that they are delivered with the same fervor as those Puritan tales of James Janeway or Benjamin Keath that many modern readers find so startling. But the comparison is not so bizarre, for the seventeenth-century Puritan writers conceived the fires of Hell to be every bit as real as the twentieth-century writers know the furnaces of Birkenau to be. And in both cases, the writers have believed it crucial for children to be told their message—and in both cases, the message is a warning and a guide, its ultimate aim being salvation. These are messages that cannot be mollified or sweetened lest they lose their impact.
Because of the complexity of the Holocaust, and because of the scope of the atrocities, it is not possible for any one book to give children a comprehensive understanding of this human tragedy. One critic of adult literature on the subject remarks:
We have no Milton or Tolstoy of the Holocaust and should not soon await one; in fact, it is wiser to discourage expectation of literature of epic scope and look instead to its opposite, to the shards and fragments that reveal, in their separateness and brokenness, the uncountable small tragedies that together add up to something larger than the tragic sense implies.
Holocaust literature for children is always sobering, always enlightening, and it may be some of the most important reading children ever undertake. It reminds us of the appalling truth that of the estimated six million Jews who died as a result of the Holocaust, some one and a half million were children—and so it is a tale that very much involves children. In these novels of the Holocaust we see children telling their story to children, and not to shock or titillate them, but to share their bitter herbs in the hope of securing a happier future. Young readers will emerge from these "shards and fragments" of human experience more serious, more pensive, more wary of humanity. They may also emerge with a deeper sense of the ethical and moral obligations that lie ahead for them—and therein may lie the ultimate value of Holocaust literature. What is appropriate for young readers? The truth, the truth, the truth. The Holocaust leaves no room for deception. It was itself, after all, orchestrated through a grand deception—it would be a cruel irony indeed if we perpetuated its memory with yet more deception. Knowledge of the Holocaust forces us all to confront the fear, ignorance and hatred lurking in the dark recesses of the soul. And in these stories of suffering humanity, we may at times hear above the cries of despair, the faint, persistent murmuring of the compassionate heart that will lead us out of the darkness and toward the light.
1. It is possible to find picture books on the Holocaust, most notably Roberto Innocenti's Rose Blanche (1985). For a fuller discussion of this and other picture books focusing on violence, see my article "Hope among the Ruins: Children, Picture Books and Violence" in the Fall 1996 issue of Para∗doxa.
Bettelheim, Bruno. "The Holocaust—One Generation Later," in Surviving. New York: Knopf, 1979. 84-104.
Bosmajian, Hamida. "Narrative Voice in Young Readers' Fictions about Nazism, the Holocaust, and Nuclear War," in The Voice of the Narrator in Children's Literature: Insights from Writers and Critics. Ed. Charlotte F. Otten and Gary D. Schmidt. New York: Greenwood Press, 1989. 308-24.
―――――――. "Nightmares of History—The Outer Limits of Children's Literature." Children's Literature Association Quarterly 8 (Winter 1983): 20-22.
Derevensky, Jeffrey L. "Introducing Children to Holocaust Literature: A Developmental Approach." Judaica Librarianship 4 (Fall 1987–Winter 1988): 53-54.
Facing History and Ourselves Resource Book: Holocaust and Human Behavior. Brookline, MA: Facing History and Ourselves National Foundation, Inc., 1994.
Farnham, James F. "Holocaust Literature for Children: The Presentation of Evil." University of Hartford Studies in Literature: Journal of Interdisciplinary Criticism 18 (1986): 55-61.
Frye, Northop. Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays. New York: Atheneum, 1969.
Harrison, Barbara. "Howl Like the Wolves." Children's Literature 15. Annual of the Modern Language Association and the Children's Literature Association. New Haven: Yale UP, 1987. 67-90.
Kimmel, Eric A. "Confronting the Ovens: The Holocaust and Juvenile Fiction." The Horn Book Magazine (February 1977): 85-91.
Lowry, Lois. "Newbery Medal Acceptance." The Horn Book Magazine (July/August 1990): 412-24.
―――――――. Number the Stars. New York: Dell, 1989.
Minarak, Barbara. "Books in the Classroom: The Holocaust." The Horn Book Magazine (May/June 1993): 368-73.
Posner, Marcia W. "Echoes of the Shoah: Holocaust Literature." Part I. School Library Journal 34 (January 1988): 36-37. Part II. Idem 34 (February 1988): 30-31.
Richter, Hans Peter. Friedrich. Trans. Edite Kroll. 1961. New York: Puffin, 1987.
Rosenfeld, Alvin H. A Double Dying: Reflections on Holocaust Literature. Bloomington: U of Indiana P, 1980.
Sherman, Ursula F. "Why Would a Child Want to Read about That?: The Holocaust Period in Children's Literature," in How Much Truth Should We Tell the Children? Ed. Betty Bacon. Minneapolis: MEP, 1988.
Yolen, Jane. The Devil's Arithmetic. New York: Viking; Kestrel, 1988.
Zack, Vicki. "It Was the Worst of Times: Learning about the Holocaust through Literature." Language Arts 68 (January 1991): 42-48.
Adrienne Kertzer (essay date April 1999)
SOURCE: Kertzer, Adrienne. "'Do You Know What "Auschwitz" Means?': Children's Literature and the Holocaust." Lion and the Unicorn 23, no. 2 (April 1999): 238-56.
[In the following essay, Kertzer considers how the instinctive need for closure in children's Holocaust fiction may not necessarily work in the best interests of young readers, arguing that, "[i]f we persist in thinking that children need hope and happy endings … then the stories we give them about the Holocaust will be shaped by those expectations."]
The question of my title is asked by the mother of Piri Davidowitz in the penultimate sentence of Aranka Siegal's fictionalized memoir, Upon the Head of the Goat: A Childhood in Hungary, 1939–1944. The reader never hears the answer to the mother's question; Siegal's final sentence reports that before Mr. Shuster can respond, the German guard yells and the train door clanks shut (214). The sequel, Grace in the Wilderness: After the Liberation, 1945–1948, begins in Bergen-Belsen at the end of the war. Presumably Piri, having survived Auschwitz, now knows the answer to her mother's question, but the reader is never given this answer; coherent, conclusive statements are not part of the meaning of Auschwitz. That meaning is not just hidden from the reader; it is denied. If Piri cannot know for certain what Auschwitz means for her mother, in that Piri survives and her mother does not, what meaning can the reader possibly construct? The unanswered question, in effect, becomes the meaning. For the mother's unanswered question is what the reader is left with: Do you know what Auschwitz means? Auschwitz is what I cannot narrate.
Part of what Piri cannot narrate is the death of her mother, a death that she guesses occurs shortly after the arrival at Auschwitz. Piri's need to understand the mother's final words to her two older daughters as "her last act as our mother, setting an example to last us a lifetime" (Grace 70) is itself ambiguous, for Piri had come to notice in the ghetto what a good actress her mother was. Are the mother's final words, "Be brave and look after each other" (70), part of a continuing act of motherhood, a mother acting as though maternal gestures make sense on the ramp of Auschwitz? The very idea of motherhood as protective, powerful, and nurturing cannot survive the boarding of the trains, as is evident when Mrs. Davidowitz orders the German soldiers not to touch her daughters, and despite her ability to speak in both German and Hungarian, her maternal voice is powerless. She can protect neither Piri nor herself. Even as the train door clanks shut, Mrs. Davidowitz must pull "her head back just in time to avoid being struck by the door as it closed with a loud metallic clank" (Upon 214). It is the sound of machinery, not the human voice, that triumphs in the final sentence of Upon the Head of the Goat.
What bears notice is that this brutal diminishment of maternal power and maternal voice happens before the train door shuts. It represents the end of what can be narrated. The mother's head pulls back to avoid being struck by the train door; what happens when she is pushed, the reader assumes, into the gas chamber? For Siegal's two subtitles are deceptive; appearing to cover a nine-year period, they omit the time between June 1944, the shutting of the train door, and spring 1945, the moment of liberation. Piri may say in the sequel, "I could not get my mind away from Auschwitz" (Grace 69), but the narrative focus on post-war events indicates that as a traumatized survivor, Piri can neither express nor consciously think about what her mind dwells on. In Grace in the Wilderness, fragments of memories, details of nightmares, will occasionally convey that Auschwitz is synonymous with the mother's death, "I choked up at the mention of Mother. I could not get my mind away from Auschwitz" (69), but the mother's question remains unanswered, as impossible to narrate as the moment of her death.
Memoir, like fiction, is obviously constructed; the writer in retrospect gives a shape to her experience; she recalls or gives emphasis to events that she now sees as significant. Yet to do so is not necessarily to explain those events, or to conclude that there is a lesson about the triumph of the human spirit in the words of her story. The writer may see a pattern and a redemptive meaning in her experience, but she need not. There is a religious and legal sanctity inherent in being a witness that frees the witness from the need to explain her testament: I saw this; it may make no sense to you or to me, but this is what I saw. In Grace in the Wilderness, when Piri returns to her memory of the Auschwitz selection, the moment when she last saw her mother, she refers to her mother as the one to whom the daughters look "for an explanation" (69). Her sister, Iboya, may see a spiritual meaning in their survival, that is, the guiding hand of the mother's spirit, but Piri remains confused and uncertain as though the possibility of explanation vanishes with the mother's selection.
In removing the necessity for an explanation, memoir disrupts a commonly recognized boundary between children's and adult reading about the Holocaust, in that children's books about the Holocaust seem to function primarily to explain what adult texts often claim is ultimately inexplicable. Disrupting this boundary, memoir also offers the possibility of presenting to children a Holocaust topic adults can barely tolerate, that which is conveyed by the word, Auschwitz. Conveyed, yet not conveyed, for the word, Auschwitz, has become for many adults the location of the unbelievable, the incommunicable, the place where no well-argued explanation ever seems complete enough to make those of us who were not there fully understand what Auschwitz means. For Auschwitz, the place supposedly beyond the descriptive capacity of everyday language, has itself become a synecdoche for all the death camps, as well as a metaphor for all the places that Terrence Des Pres insists were beyond metaphor (205). It is as though full understanding is available only to the dead; even the survivor often admits that what she witnessed in the death camps was witnessed by a different self, and only that self fully understands what the survivor/narrator now speaks of. Often in adult Holocaust memoirs, the narrator testifies to inhabiting a double self, the deeply buried one who lived in Auschwitz, the surface one who can talk to us and herself about it: "No, it is all too incredible. And everything that happened to that other, the Auschwitz one, now has no bearing upon me, does not concern me, so separate from one another are this deep-lying memory and ordinary memory. I live within a twofold being" (Delbo 333).
But to write thus for children, to suggest that the narrator has problems believing, comprehending, and narrating her own story, that the sensations and memories accessible only through dreams are fortunately not accessible through ordinary language, goes against our understanding of the function of historical children's literature, a function that David Russell, in "Reading the Shards and Fragments: Holocaust Literature for Young Readers," alludes to when he says that "art of the Holocaust is necessarily didactic art" (268).1 How can this art be didactic, what exactly does it teach, when the memoirist herself writes from a different impulse, a need to convince both herself as well as the reader that the words she writes testify to an experience she still finds "incredible"? The memoirist often claims that she does not comprehend her own experience. How then can she take on the explanatory function so essential to the child protagonist who often narrates Holocaust fiction for children? Memoir appears to inscribe an impermeable border to our knowledge, presenting through its fragments not so much a "whole [that] becomes greater than the parts" (Russell 268) as a questioning whether full comprehension of Auschwitz is either possible or desirable. And in its insistence upon a limit to understanding, memoir sometimes betrays our conviction that children need a Holocaust fiction that is very different from the fiction that adults read. Thus, identifying when a Holocaust memoir is intended for children is a tricky business. Are we not likely to assume that the memoir with the hopeful lesson must be the memoir that is most appropriate for children, that the more hopeful the lesson, the younger the reader?
Yet this is not always the case. That Siegal's memoirs are marketed as children's books demonstrates more than the ineptness of publishers in recognizing the features of age-specific reading, but the way the Holocaust mocks our belief in any clear relationship between maturity and understanding.2 What permits Upon the Head of the Goat to become a highly regarded children's book (winner of both the Boston Globe/Horn Book Award for Nonfiction, and Janusz Korczak Literary Award) appears to be the decision to close the train door, a narrative strategy that (like the religiously connotative titles) fools us into thinking that Siegal's memoir has the other characteristics that we tend to associate with children's books, that is, the consolation of shaping narrative order. But think about that ending and its unanswered question. Where is the triumph of the human spirit, the heroic rhetoric that reassures us, not just in children's books, but even in Holocaust memoirs directed at adult readers?
An example of an adult memoir that is far more hopeful is Eva Brewster's Vanished in Darkness: An Auschwitz Memoir. At the end of the book (published not by Puffin, but by a small western Canadian publisher, NeWest Press), the narrator recounts how her heroic mother, who has repeatedly saved her daughter from extermination, instructs her at the end of the war in her future role as a survivor: "You … will see to it that young people will not ever again be persecuted for their race, color, or beliefs" (134). The narrator accepts this heroic task, promising her mother "that, never again, as long as [she] lived, would a dictatorship rob [her] children of their birthright, their freedom and their happiness" (135). This is the meaning that the narrator gives to her experience; this is the task that will lead Brewster years later to write her memoir.
The marketing of Brewster and Siegal's memoirs indicates the difficulty the memoir as genre raises for our deeply held beliefs regarding age-specific Holocaust reading. Another example is Binjamin Wilkomirski's Fragments: Memories of a Wartime Childhood. Despite its recent appearance on several children's booklists, Fragments is not simply a problematic entry on children's booklists,3 but a narrative that is likely to be too disturbing for most adults,4 conditioned as we are to look for the happy endings we think we have outgrown. For if we are surprised that Vanished in Darkness is marketed for adults, it can only be because we take for granted that hopeful lessons drawn from Holocaust material are what young children require, as though the very proof of our maturity is our willingness to give up childish things, in this case the hope and lessons that we require as children.
I see several inconsistencies in this model of developmental understanding, and many are evident in Russell's essay, an essay that concludes oblivious to the irony inherent in its directive to tell children "the truth … [because] the Holocaust leaves no room for deception" (279). Implicit in Russell's argument that "children from about the ages of ten or twelve and up are fully capable of dealing with the fundamental issues of the Holocaust" (267) is the belief that these issues need only be treated the right way, that is, "sensitively handled" (268), and children will "achieve a measure of perspective on their meaning" (267). Only by ignoring other "truths"—that historical events never come with ready-made singular meanings; that post-Holocaust, we continue to argue over the meanings of this particular historical event; that the work of Judith Miller, as well as that of many others, demonstrates how nations make different meaning of the Holocaust—can Russell refer to a singular meaning, consistent perhaps with how he refers to "fundamental issues" but never clarifies what those issues are. Yet Russell also concedes that there are obvious limits to children's ability to understand the Holocaust, limits he contains so easily with dashes, "The Holocaust—its incomprehensible nature aside—" (268).
At what age then, do child readers become adults, or whom we permit a larger "perspective" that paradoxically includes the possibility that there is something "incomprehensible" (268) about the Holocaust? How do we frame our child-directed explanations so that children do not sense the deception in our not telling them this? And of most concern, how do we ensure that children who have learned that the Holocaust is a subject like any other, one that can be "sensitively handled," do not remain forever insensitive to the kind of troubling knowledge accessible in memoir? Fearing that we will brutalize children by a bluntness of language regarding the murder of millions of people, we tell stories whose delicate and sensitive language persuades us that, despite the Holocaust, human values remain the same. The Holocaust was a blip; our humanistic values remain strong.
For despite Russell's hyphenated aside and the shards and fragments named in his title, his own language reveals an adult who clearly does believe that there is a singular meaning, an "ultimate significance" (268) to the Holocaust. Perhaps he is right, but his choice of diction, for example, "the besieged human spirit" (277), and "the baseness of humanity" (278) reminds me that there are others who do not share his belief that the "ultimate significance" of the Holocaust is a universal lesson about human nature. And Russell's conclusion sounds very much like the kind of universal human lesson we are used to finding in children's books: "These books are testaments to both the very best and the very worst humankind can achieve" (268). Comparing children's books about the Holocaust to Puritan tales, Russell applies to Holocaust fiction a religious sensibility in which such reading will "lead us out of the darkness and toward the light" (279). Such redemptive language mocks the "incomprehensible" (is God supposed to explain it?), and undercuts once again the very distinction between what the child can understand and what Russell, the adult, understands.
Unlike Vanished in Darkness and Russell's essay, Upon the Head of the Goat contains no heroic exhortation and even Grace in the Wilderness is far more tentative in its hopeful conclusion, as Piri comes to understand that she will have "to live with the Fritzes of the world—even try to understand their guilt, understand them, in hopes of making a better world" (220). Her memoir gives a meaning to her experience, but a meaning where hope is minimal and the lesson far from obvious. Siegal's work thus fits uneasily into our usual expectations of children's books; instead of offering the closure that has the heroine reach a moment of "insight, reconciliation, maturity, or moral triumph" (Langer 237), Siegal disrupts her narrative, and thus creates a memoir that comes close to the fragmentary nature of Holocaust testimony as described by Shoshana Felman: "composed of bits and pieces of a memory that has been overwhelmed by occurrences that have not settled into understanding or remembrance" (16).
Even admitting that a written memoir is not oral testimony, that Siegal's work does show multiple signs of remembrance, I still find it remarkably free of the usual heroic lessons that accompany many children's books on the Holocaust, for example, the heroic self-sacrifice of Chaya who dies so that another may escape extermination in Jane Yolen's The Devil's Arithmetic. Just before Chaya dies, she insists that there is a lesson, "That we will survive. The Jews. That what happens here must never happen again" (157). Siegal's work is suspicious of such eloquence. References to a lesson emerging from Piri's survival are rare: the dedication to Upon the Head of the Goat may state "Auschwitz could not sever the bonds of love and friendship which contributed to my survival," but its moral implications are more than balanced by the numerous descriptions of the child narrator's confusion, her inability to understand the newspapers or the conversations of the adults around her. Siegal's narrative emphasizes Piri's confusion and unanswered questions: "pogroms, scapegoats—was this what being a Jew meant?" (13). Over and over again, the same line appears: "I felt confused" (38).
Piri's confusion resembles that of the adults around her. Having early on seen the bodies of dead Ukrainian soldiers floating in the river, Piri chastises her-self for imagining such fates for her father and brother-in-law: "Why did I think of such terrible things, I wondered?" (41). In repressing her fears, in trying to live life as normal, she resembles her mother far more than Babi, the grandmother who disapproves when her daughter gets pregnant in such terrible times. It is Mrs. Davidowitz who ignores her mother's advice to send her older daughters to the United States until too late. In stressing Piri and her mother's shared confusion, Siegal implies how like innocent children the adult victims of the Nazis were; the child narrator that Siegal constructs never exhibits the wisdom of hindsight. Writing only what she witnessed and thought then, she remains loyal to the voice of the dead mother. Yet such loyalty seems less a sign of conscious moral choice than of her inability to understand what has happened to her.
It is left to the reader with her later knowledge to see ironic patterns: the repetition of Passover Seders at which one or more family members are absent; the contrast of trains in 1939 that do not run when the borders are sealed and so keep Piri apart from her family versus the trains that in 1944 do run and produce a final separation; the gentleness of her mother's bathing her in a setting where only her younger brother and niece can laugh at her nakedness versus the later undressing and showers of Auschwitz. Piri merely reports and the reader, too, gets confused. When Piri tells her mother of testing God by eating grapes on the Sabbath, her sister scolds her that the lack of divine punishment does not mean God does not notice; God is just too busy (51). Is God too busy to see what is happening in Europe? A Slovak refugee fleeing deportation does not know her intended destination: "Only God above knows and I hope he is keeping track of what is taking place" (64). Piri never says that God is absent; she only asks questions that demonstrate her growing distance from her grandmother's faith: "'We are all God's children,' Babi used to say, meaning both Jews and Christians. Did she mean Germans, too?" (211).
Piri's questioning of her faith brings her closer to her mother's position. The goat that the mother buys is initially just a goat that can provide her children with milk; when the goat is confiscated by the local authorities and Piri's mother ironically revises the Old Testament scapegoat reference so that the goat is sent into the wilderness bearing the sins of the Nazis, the revision to Leviticus emphasizes the mother's critique of traditional religion. How can religion explain what is happening? Piri does not initially understand her mother's reference to the scapegoat (100); when Mr. Shuster later suggests economics might offer a better explanation, "very bad to be a Jew during depressions. We make such perfect scapegoats" (205), and then explains what a scapegoat is, Piri is even more "confused" (205). While she now understands her mother's reference to a scapegoat, a reference that provides the title of the memoir, the title itself implies a question: "'But these are not our sins,' I said, 'they are the Germans'. Why should we have to carry them?'" (205). The title is a tribute to the dead mother's voice, but the question remains, and seems to provoke only more questions.
The challenge of writing about the Holocaust in children's literature lies precisely here: resisting the well-intentioned impulse to construct an unambiguous hopeful lesson; considering instead whether there are ways in which even young children's texts, and certainly young adult texts, can include a space for such questions. Such questions, left unanswered in the sense that there is still no consensus about what the answers should be, are more likely to be unsettling when children's books include strategies that bring readers within the barbed wire of the concentration camps. I recognize that much can be explained to young children about the Holocaust, for example, the nature of anti-Semitism, racism, the historical, economic, cultural, and religious events leading to genocide (no list of causes is ever comprehensive), and all of these topics do appear quite regularly in children's books, including picture books. Yet most children's books are justifiably reluctant to take on the task of coherent explanation written from within the perspective of the concentration camps. The Jewish protagonists usually escape (through immigration before the war, through hiding or resistance during; it often seems that the only two Holocaust stories for children are Anne Frank or the Danish resistance), or the stories are told from an outsider's perspective (for example, American Christian as in Cynthia Voigt's David and Jonathan, or German as in Roberto Innocenti's Rose Blanche or Hans Peter Richter's Friedrich). Such narrative perspectives permit the powerful telling of stories (whether of resistance or acceptance of Nazi ideology), but still avoid the more difficult writing of a story told from the perspective of the concentration camp victim. Carol Matas's Daniel's Story, published in conjunction with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, is a rare exception.
Margaret Wild's Let the Celebrations Begin! indicates the difficulty of creating a picture book set in a concentration camp. The epigraph tells us that a "col-lection of stuffed toys has been preserved which were made by Polish women in Belsen for the first children's party held after the liberation." This epigraph forms the impulse behind a very hopeful story ending in the liberation of the camp, "and so the celebrations begin!" Yet some might find Let the Celebrations Begin! offensively hopeful in its seeming disregard for the many children who died in the camps, and in the absence of historical context (not only no Nazis and no dead bodies, but except for one double spread illustration of the barracks, the women and children are drawn on a white background). To speak of a longing for toys, "I know Sarah and David want a toy more than anything else in the world," seems to trivialize the reality of a place where admittedly "there are no toys," but to say only this seems so inadequate. Is the focus on toys a way of resisting the Nazi perspective on these children? And do the repeated references to four-year-old David wrapping himself in his "mama's old black shawl" and the mockery of old Jacoba who complains twice "that it will be our fault if she gets rheumatism in her back this winter" provoke young readers to ask questions that the dominant narrative does not mention? For where is mama and why does David have her shawl? Whose fault is it really if Jacoba gets rheumatism? And there are other questions: why do the children look so thin and have no hair? Why are their clothes only rags? Why are they in this place? All important questions for young readers to consider, but the likelihood of their asking such questions seems to depend on a historical awareness that the book dares not present.
In comparison, in the picture book Rose Blanche, children view events from the German child's perspective, a child who holds a Nazi flag in the first illustration. Children see the Holocaust victims, including the vulnerable, unnamed little boy with hands held up that is obviously based on a famous Nazi photograph taken in the Warsaw ghetto. Even though the book's title alludes to the anti-Nazi White Rose student movement, and the heroine, Rose Blanche, ends up following the little boy, discovering and aiding the starving Jewish children behind the electric barbed wire, and dying for her heroic actions, it is her death (shot because she is part of the resistance or because of an accident—the text "Soldiers saw the enemy everywhere" leaves this uncertain) that captures the reader's interest. What happens to the concentration-camp children, who, like Rose Blanche, are missing in the final illustrations is not the subject of narration.
Staying outside, such texts can both explain and provide the hero and hope so necessary to children's books; for example, Alex, the eleven-year-old protagonist in Uri Orlev's The Island on Bird Street, survives five months in the ghetto on his own, and is then reunited with his father and ready to join the partisans. Compare Alex to Robinson Crusoe, Orlev instructs readers—and readers do—for we already know how to read such heroic adventure stories; others will disappear, be shot dead, but not our hero: "You sure are lucky, Alex" (30). It is only the dust jacket that implies another comparison, with Orlev himself, a child who also hid in the Warsaw ghetto but was captured and sent to Bergen-Belsen. Alex may question his luck, may long to be in a fairy tale where animal helpers assist him, may even realize that "real wars weren't like the ones in adventure books" (102), but the Robinson Crusoe metaphor keeps us hopeful. What child will question Alex's conclusion, "That's really the end of my story. They took me to the forest to be with them, among the partisans" (160). Yet is it not the end of Alex's story only because the camps are what cannot be narrated?
Books directed at young adult readers insist less on the necessity of hope and happy endings, yet such books also hesitate to take readers into the concentration camps; for example, Cynthia Voigt's David and Jonathan, a novel set in both a post-war American world and a 1967 America caught up in Vietnam. In this novel, Voigt distances and contains the narrative of the survivor by focalizing the action through the naive American innocence of the non-Jewish Henry, who must have Jewish customs and post-Holocaust anxieties explained to him. Although the novel's title refers to the two Jewish protagonists, David, a Holocaust survivor, and Jonathan, an American Jew, the reader's point of entry remains Henry who realizes in horror that he finds it "easier to imagine doing it [being a Nazi] than enduring it [being a victim]" (148), and that "he [doesn't] want to understand" (150). David, the traumatized Jewish survivor who ultimately commits suicide, remains unknown, operating more as provocation to Henry's questions about his own sexual desires than as a character whose trauma leads to further insight about the Holocaust. The little that David tells about the camps is more than Henry can stand. In his conflict with David over Jonathan, Henry comes to wish that David—that is, the past—"never … happened" (185) because David forces an unwilling understanding upon Henry:
He could see it all, understand all of it: How the Jews could stay in Germany, because they couldn't imagine people … turning into enemies…. How non-Jews—and that wasn't just the Germans either—could refuse to believe or discover what was going on, and feel innocent. How the Nazis, the SS, could treat people…. None of it was more than Henry could imagine. He knew himself.
Exploring issues of responsibility, and post-war American anti-Semitism, as well as parallels between Vietnam and the Holocaust, David and Jonathan repeatedly struggles with "the futility of questioning the unanswerable" (228), but in a manner that implies that young adult American readers can only approach the concentration camp world indirectly and in very small doses. After David's suicide, his uncle insists that Christians and Jews must ask different questions and must derive different lessons from the concentration camps. American Jews must ask how and whether they will live in this world; American Christians must learn another lesson, about the link between the genteel anti-Semitism of old money in Boston and the atrocities in the camps: "For the gentile world, what else is the lesson of Dachau, of Buchenwald, of Auschwitz, of Ravensbruck" (198). Just hearing the camp names makes Henry despair: "The names were like dead hands reaching up, out of the earth, long bone-fingers to catch Henry and pull him down, back into … pity and shame, fear, guilt, disgust, anguish" (198-99).
If such despair is the result, it is no surprise that we avoid narrating Auschwitz, preferring to celebrate hope and heroism, spiritual victory over physical slaughter, telling children and young adults stories about the Holocaust that we can ourselves tolerate. Yet to do so is to embrace a comforting delusion Lawrence Langer identifies when he argues that the Western tradition that finds tragic enlightenment in suffering is merely ironic evidence of our inability to understand, and reluctance to confront, what concentration camp life was really like. Langer argues that we need a different language—given that camp victims had no agency, to speak of tragedy is inappropriate; to find heroism misleading:
Those who would convert death in Auschwitz or Bergen-Belsen into a triumph of love over hate feed deep and obscure needs in themselves having little to do with the truth.
This quotation from the introduction to Langer's Art from the Ashes: A Holocaust Anthology appears in the section where Langer explains why he has not included the writing of Anne Frank in his collection. In writing on Holocaust literature, Langer always speaks of the need to unlearn our literary assumptions, to "surrender … the comforting notion that suffering has meaning—that it strengthens, ennobles, or redeems the human soul" (4). Langer gives a scathing critique of focusing on the uplifting, heroic story, our need "for reassurance that mass murder had its redeeming features" (7).
Similarly, Elie Wiesel and Claude Lanzmann are hesitant to view their own work on the Holocaust as fitting within the category of explanation. To explain is dangerous for it runs the risk of understanding. Wiesel concludes that the need for understanding relates to our need for closure: "We want to know, to understand, so we can turn the page: is that not true? So we can say to ourselves: the matter is closed and everything is back in order" (144). Lanzmann, director of Shoah: An Oral History of the Holocaust, speaks of the obscenity of understanding, of the way grand theories to explain the Holocaust are a way of escaping the reality of the camps ("The Obscenity of Understanding" 207) and endorsing the perspective of the killers. In Lanzmann's documentary, Shoah, survivors repeatedly conclude their accounts with the word, "unbelievable." It is SS Unterscharführer Franz Suchomel in his account of Treblinka who keeps asking Lanzmann "Verstehen Sie?" (Shoah 54). To understand, to make sense of the process of extermination, is to speak as a Nazi. Lanzmann refuses to understand; at the end of the PBS televising of Shoah, when he is asked by Roger Rosenblatt what did he understand after the eleven years he took to make his film, Lanzmann cannot answer. Finally he says, "I cannot tell you."
Certainly many writers, both historians and novelists, have criticized Wiesel and cautioned about the danger of mystifying the Holocaust, warning that sacralizing the systemic murder of millions of people does nothing to ensure that such murder does not occur again. Yet the wide acceptance of the capitalized word, Holocaust, like Lanzmann's use of the word, Shoah, indicates how culturally difficult it is to find a language appropriate to this particular systemic murder. And it is revealing that the critique of mystification has been voiced by those who have decided to set their fiction outside the Auschwitz boundaries. Thus Aharon Appelfeld, child survivor and Israeli novelist, whose fiction is so deeply about the Holocaust, places his fiction before and after what happens in the concentration camps, even as he warns against "the tendency to speak of the Holocaust in mystical terms, to link the events to the incomprehensible, the mysterious, the insane, and the meaningless" (92). Seeing this "tendency [as] both understandable and dangerous, from every point of view," Appelfeld rightly reminds us that "Murder that was committed with evil intentions must not be interpreted in mystical terms" (92).
Not only can children's books not afford the luxury of Lanzmann's refusal of understanding, the refusal seems itself to be an explanation, in that Lanzmann's very insistence on the "machinery of murder" ("The Obscenity of Understanding" 213), on the question—How was extermination carried out?—cannot avoid implicitly asking the question, Why? As context for his refusal, Lanzmann likes to quote Primo Levi, "Hier ist kein Warum" [Here, there is no Why] ("The Obscenity of Understanding" 204), the answer an SS guard tells Levi when he asks a question upon arrival in Auschwitz. Lanzmann insists that his own refusal of understanding is based on the gap between all the possible explanations of the Holocaust and the reality of what took place in the camps:
Between all these conditions—which were necessary conditions maybe, but they were not sufficient—between all these conditions and the gassing of three thousand persons, men, women, children, in a gas chamber, all together, there is an unbreachable discrepancy. It is simply not possible to engender one out of the other … there is rather a gap, an abyss, and this abyss will never be bridged.
("The Obscenity of Understanding" 206)
Although I agree with Lanzmann that on a moral level no explanation can ever be complete enough to "precisely engender the Holocaust" ("The Obscenity of Understanding" 206), that no book will ever lead us to conclude, "Well, is it because of all these conditions that the children have been gassed?" (207), to conclude that we should therefore not bother telling children about the Holocaust is far from my intention. Wiesel's statement, "Who has not lived through the event, will never know it" (Fine 44) would be ironic indeed if it resulted in a refusal to tell children anything at all. For even if children's books can never satisfy the stringent premises of Langer, Wiesel, and Lanzmann, it may still be possible to write children's books about the concentration camps that acknowledge Lanzmann's insight and incorporate it as part of the explanation that the books provide. While it may seem that our justifiable reluctance to have young readers witness the gas chambers means that most Holocaust children's fiction is inevitably ineffective, a failure through its very desire to protect, evoking in the child reader, according to Hamida Bosmajian, "no more than a vague sense of sadness" (208), there have been more successful attempts to write such fictional witnessing for both children and young adults, and I wish to conclude by looking briefly at the very different strategies of two of them: Daniel's Story by Carol Matas and Briar Rose by Jane Yolen.
Matas, a Canadian writer, has written other books about the Holocaust, for example, Lisa and Jesper, but Daniel's Story published in 1993 in conjunction with the exhibit "Daniel's Story; Remember the Children" at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum is for that very reason a good example of how Americans think we should tell children what Auschwitz means. The book is narrated by fourteen-year-old Daniel who, even as he is transported in 1941 from Frankfurt to the ghetto in Lodz, happens to be carrying a photo album that allows him to review his past and try to understand, "What has happened to me?" (Daniel's Story 3). In each of the four sections, real or imagined pictures, "Pictures of Frankfurt," "Pictures of Lodz," "Pictures of Auschwitz," and "Pictures of Buchenwald," allow Daniel to explain to readers a history and a sense of self that are far more coherent than those expressed by the fragmented voice that speaks in Wilkomirski's memoir. Yet Daniel admits that the self who looks at the photographs understands far more than the self contained within the photograph, "Father took this picture. It is dated April 1937. It's amazing to look at it and to realize how little I understood then" (13). By examining the photographs, Daniel comes to understand what he could not understand before, and in so doing, he models for young readers/visitors to the museum the historical understanding that comes, not from the experience of being on the train, but from viewing the inanimate objects that are all that remain. It is as though Daniel is both Holocaust protagonist and visitor to the Holocaust museum: "Memories. Pictures. That's all I have left" (39).
As Daniel moves from town to ghetto to concentration camp, he learns that no matter how horrific the event, it never prepares him for the next degree of horror. Arriving in Auschwitz, he thinks, "Could it get worse? … What could be worse than mass murder?" (85). After joining the camp resistance (the child protagonist must always be part of the resistance), Daniel does witness and photograph the worst: the murdered human beings burning in the fire pits of Auschwitz, a vision so horrendous that he nearly jumps into the pit himself. It is only the fortune of his father's presence, a presence that reminds him why it is so important to resist, that keeps Daniel from committing suicide, and keeps Daniel's Story within the parameters of what may be described in a children's book. Yet within these parameters, Matas makes Daniel a very angry protagonist who witnesses and hears of brutalities that are both impossible to narrate according to the "sensitively handled" ideal of Russell, and impossible to explain:
I had my little sister Anya by the hand. They tore her from me and one SS man threw her over to another. She screamed for me, "Adam, Adam." Then the SS man took her little body so she was face-up looking at him, and he raised his knee and broke her back, like it was a stick.
Hearing such stories (and surely they are stories whose focus is more on how genocide happens than on why), Daniel questions why he should survive, and longs to have "the power of God … [to] wipe the entire human race off the face of the earth" (69). He is persuaded otherwise only by the moral voice of his younger sister, Erika, who tells him to defy Nazi ideology by living justly and dying, if necessary, with dignity. It is Erika who instructs Daniel to live: "to start over in Palestine. And to have children. And to remember those of us who were destroyed by the worst in humanity, by its hate" (70). Erika's voice, so similar to the words of Anne Frank as recorded before she experienced Bergen-Belsen, is crucial to the inscription of the moral lesson that children's books about the Holocaust require. Yet Erika dies (in what is surely a further irony, after the war, in a displaced persons' camp), and Daniel is left, clinging to Erika's lesson of memory, but only temporarily consoled. The final line of Daniel's Story respects the happy ending so necessary to children's books, but in a way that foregrounds its fragility: "And for the moment, I am content" (131).
Yolen's Briar Rose, presumably intended for older readers, is more daring. Unlike Yolen's earlier and more conventional The Devil's Arithmetic, Briar Rose respects the narrative expectations of young adult fiction, only to abandon those expectations in the concluding "Author's Note." In the novel, Yolen gives us the "Hope and Happy Endings" (Paterson 172-91) we have come to expect in young adult fiction; in the "Author's Note," she deliberately takes both away. The lesson that emerges in this sophisticated interplay between text and peritext is not the consoling lesson of spiritual triumph but a much harder one in the reality of historical facts. Rewriting Briar Rose as the fantastic story of how one woman survives the death camp, Chelmno, Yolen initially tricks us into feeling superior to conventional fairy tales, and then in the "Author's Note" makes us regret our arrogance. She gives us the heroic language Langer critiques, albeit parodied; the Polish Jewish princess is indeed kissed by a prince (some would even call him a fairy, the derogatory homosexual slang indicating Yolen's ironic distance from conventional fairy tales). The partisans are neither romantic, heroic, nor particularly brave. "Wars do not make heroes of everyone" (Briar Rose 146), the narrator tells us. From a realistic perspective, the novel is absurd; a woman never asks questions about her own mother's background; it is the granddaughter, the youngest daughter, who after the grandmother's death, determines to make sense of her grandmother's obsessive and peculiar retelling of "Briar Rose." Yet as a fairy tale, Briar Rose makes perfect sense. Who survived? The lucky. "It explains a lot…. It doesn't explain anything" (88).
Because the grandmother's memories are obliterated by the gas, when she is revived, she has no memory of her past except for a fairy tale in which she, a princess in a castle, is the only one kissed awake. The partisans try to save others; one woman before she dies tells them what it is like to be gassed: "I called my daughter's name over and over and over but she did not answer. Then the van started up and that is all I can remember" (176). In this way Yolen enters the gas chamber and tells the reader what Siegal and Matas cannot narrate. The mother remains loyal to the daughter, at least as far as she can remember; the amnesia produced by the gas allowing Yolen a way to avoid what Lanzmann's Sonderkommando witnesses report, parents struggling to breathe even as they were gassed, stepping on top of their own dying children.
Lanzmann begins Shoah at Chelmno, and the viewers are told that only two men survived this particular death camp, one an adolescent who was often seen by the villagers rowing up the river to get feed for rabbits. This child, Simon Srebnik, is interviewed extensively as a middle-aged adult by Lanzmann. He also appears as an unnamed character in Briar Rose (169-70), and there are other signs that the novel is influenced by Shoah, for example, when Yolen says, "There may be good people [in Chelmno]. I have never heard them interviewed" (201). Respecting Lanzmann's insistence on the obscenity of understanding, Yolen invents a fairy tale in which a female survivor is resurrected by the partisans. Srebnik tells a far bleaker story of unloading the Chelmno gas vans:
I remember that once they were still alive. The ovens were full and the people lay on the ground. They were all moving, they were coming back to life, and when they were thrown into the ovens, they were all conscious. Alive. They could feel the fire burn them.
(Lanzmann, Shoah 101-2)
Yolen convinces us of a different narrative, but the lesson lies elsewhere, in the final paragraph of her "Author's Note," and its blunt refusal of the story she has just told: "This is a book of fiction. All the characters are made up. Happy-ever-after is a fairy tale notion, not history. I know of no woman who escaped from Chelmno alive" (202).
The history that makes us wish fairy tales did happen, that life were like a children's book and we all lived happily ever after, is not an easy history to read or write. If we persist in thinking that children need hope and happy endings (and I must confess that I believe that they do), then the stories we give them about the Holocaust will be shaped by those expectations, and we will need to consider narrative strategies like Yolen's that give readers a double narrative, one that simultaneously respects our need for hope and happy endings even as it teaches us a very different lesson about history. For there are those who would tell us yet another fairy tale, one in which the mass murder of millions of people did not happen. As the daughter of an Auschwitz survivor, I know that it did, and I know that we need to find ways to tell children that it did. For what Auschwitz means to me is the voice of my mother speaking, telling me not only about the gassing of her father in October 1944, but another story, of how in the summer of 1944 she was marched into a room in Birkenau, but for some reason, nothing happened. As a child, I understood this story to mean what she said that it did, an example of grotesque and sadistic Nazi humor: "They pretended it was the gas chamber to scare us," she says. "It wasn't." But was it? And what does it say about the questions raised by memoir, as well as our understanding of what Auschwitz means, that I now find the story that my mother was not gassed more incomprehensible than the fact that my grandfather was?
1. While the title, "Reading the Shards and Fragments: Holocaust Literature for Young Readers," and focus of his article suggest that Russell is talking about Holocaust literature as a didactic art only in so far as it is presented to young children, there is very little in his argument that allows for the possibility of a Holocaust writing that is not didactic.
2. In What Did You Do in the War, Daddy?: Growing up German, Sabine Reichel ridicules her initial belief that she was taught about Hitler and the Third Reich when she was fourteen as "the result of a carefully calculated estimate by the school officials—as if German students were emotionally and intellectually ready to comprehend and digest the facts about Nazi Germany at exactly the age of 14.3" (104). German history, she later realizes, was taught chronologically.
3. In the initial presentation of this paper at the International Research Society for Children's Literature (IRSCL) conference at York, August 1997, I confidently asserted that Wilkomirski's text would never appear on children's booklists. This assertion has been challenged by the book's appearance on several such internet lists, appearing for example on "Sixth through Eighth Grade 'Essential' Fiction" according to the international school librarian's listserv LM-NET: http://www.wcsu.k12.vt.us/∼wardsboro/list67.htm. Fragments is also identified as a children's book by the Cooperative Children's Book Center at the School of Education, University of Wisconsin-Madison: http://www.soemadison.wisc.edu/ccbc/trans96.htm, and as one of the best books for young adults (12-18), American Library Association: http://www.ala.org/yalsa/booklists/bestbooks97.html. I am indebted to Steve McCullough, a graduate student at Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia, for bringing these lists to my attention. That each list specifies a different age group indicates some of the difficulties inherent in generalizing about age-specific readers.
4. That Fragments is not simply a memoir that is too disturbing for children was very evident as I observed the nervous shifting of adult listeners, most of whom did not know the book and were introduced to it through the passages read by Mary Jacobus in her lecture to the Association of Canadian University and College Teachers of English (ACUCTE) May 29, 1998 at the University of Ottawa.
Appelfeld, Aharon. "After the Holocaust." In Writing and the Holocaust, ed. Lang, 83-92.
Bosmajian, Hamida. "Memory and Desire in the Landscapes of Sendak's Dear Mili." The Lion and the Unicorn 19 (1995): 186-210.
Brewster, Eva. Vanished in Darkness: An Auschwitz Memoir. Edmonton: NeWest Press, 1984.
Caruth, Cathy, ed. Trauma: Explorations in Memory. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1995.
Delbo, Charlotte. "Days and Memory." Different Voices: Women and the Holocaust. Ed. Carol Rittner and John K. Roth. New York: Paragon House, 1993. 328-33.
Des Pres, Terrence. The Survivor: An Anatomy of Life in the Death Camps. 1976. New York: Quokka, 1978.
Felman, Shoshana. "Education and Crisis, or the Vicissitudes of Teaching." In Trauma: Explorations in Memory, ed. Caruth, 13-60.
Fine, Ellen S. "The Absent Memory: The Act of Writing in Post-Holocaust French Literature." In Writing and the Holocaust, ed. Lang, 41-57.
Innocenti, Roberto, and Christophe Gallaz. Rose Blanche. Creative Editions. New York: Harcourt Brace and Company, 1985.
Lang, Berel, ed. Writing and the Holocaust. New York: Holmes and Meier, 1988.
Langer, Lawrence L., ed. Art from the Ashes: A Holocaust Anthology. New York: Oxford UP, 1995.
―――――――. "Fiction." In Art from the Ashes, ed. Langer, 235-39.
―――――――. "On Writing and Reading Holocaust Literature." In Art from the Ashes, ed. Langer, 3-9.
Lanzmann, Claude. "The Obscenity of Understanding: An Evening with Claude Lanzmann." In Trauma: Explorations in Memory, ed. Caruth, 200-220.
―――――――. "Shoah": An Oral History of the Holocaust: The Complete Text of the Film by Claude Lanzmann. New York: Pantheon, 1985.
Matas, Carol. Daniel's Story. New York: Scholastic, 1993.
―――――――. Jesper. Toronto: Lester and Orpen Dennys, 1989.
―――――――. Lisa. Toronto: Lester and Orpen Dennys, 1987.
Miller, Judith. One, by One, by One: Facing the Holocaust. New York: Touchstone, 1991.
Orlev, Uri. The Island on Bird Street. Trans. Hillel Halkin. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1984.
Paterson, Katherine. "Hope and Happy Endings." The Spying Heart: More Thoughts on Reading and Writing Books for Children. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1989. 172-91.
Reichel, Sabine. What Did You Do in the War, Daddy?: Growing up German. New York: Hill and Wang, 1989.
Richter, Hans Peter. Friedrich. Trans. Edite Kroll. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1970.
Russell, David L. "Reading the Shards and Fragments: Holocaust Literature for Young Readers." The Lion and the Unicorn 21 (1997): 267-80.
Siegal, Aranka. Grace in the Wilderness: After the Liberation, 1945–1948. 1985. New York: Puffin, 1994.
―――――――. Upon the Head of the Goat: A Childhood in Hungary, 1939–1944. 1981. New York: Puffin, 1994.
Voigt, Cynthia. David and Jonathan. New York: Scholastic, 1992.
Wiesel, Elie. "A Plea for the Dead." In Art from the Ashes, ed. Langer, 138-52.
Wild, Margaret. Let the Celebrations Begin! Illus. Julie Vivas. 1991. Sydney: Omnibus Books, 1992.
Wilkomirski, Binjamin. Fragments: Memories of a Wartime Childhood. Trans. Carol Brown Janeway. New York: Schocken Books, 1996.
Yolen, Jane. Briar Rose. The Fairy Tale Series. New York: Tom Doherty, 1992.
―――――――. The Devil's Arithmetic. New York: Viking Kestrel, 1988.
Sarah D. Jordan (essay date September 2004)
SOURCE: Jordan, Sarah D. "Educating without Overwhelming: Authorial Strategies in Children's Holocaust Literature." Children's Literature in Education 35, no. 3 (September 2004): 199-218.
[In the following essay, Jordan explores how writers of children's Holocaust literature contextualize their subject material without overwhelming young readers.]
the creation of a literature of atrocity for children, and the presentation of that literature, calls upon us to recognize and convey the evil that is new in the post-Holocaust world. It calls upon us to make judicious choices in sharing the horrors of the Shoah with young readers. It calls for a consciousness on our part of the crucial need to confront the evil, to contextualize it, to warn children, and to provide them with a framework for consciousness, for making moral choices and for taking personal responsibility. Finally, it calls upon us to recognize the seeming paradox of the Holocaust being at once 'unspeakable' and yet something that must be spoken about, not necessarily to make it meaningful but to make its reality imaginatively possible so that the next generation is vigilant about the hatred inside all of us.
(Baer, 2000; p. 391)
It now is well accepted that educating children about the horrors of the Holocaust is an essential part of any curriculum. It also is generally agreed that, especially when teaching younger children, it is important to avoid disturbing children by inundating them with information that is graphic or too emotional for them to handle. One of the best pedagogical tools for educating youngsters about the facts of the Holocaust, for conveying the importance of remembering what happened without explicitly divulging emotionally disturbing information, is children's literature. Through fictionalized accounts, often told through a child's point of view, children today can take on, for a moment, the perspective of a child who lived during the Holocaust and perhaps begin to address their own questions of what it was like and how it could have happened.
Within this body of literature, of course, there is great variation. There are many works of Holocaust literature that are geared towards or intended for child readers that are judged by many to be too graphic or disturbing. However, those works which are successful (in that children read and enjoy them and that they are used in Holocaust education) are so largely because the author knowingly uses strategies that present the information in a less threatening way, educating children without overwhelming them. This means not merely omitting troubling details, but also attempting to provide a balanced picture, highlighting the good as well as the evil inherent in any discussion of the Holocaust. As Totten (2001) notes, "Outstanding literature is also capable of 'personalizing' this history, placing a 'face' on the horrendous facts and events" (p. 24); literature is a mechanism by which children can face inhumanity in a very human way. Through literature, they are able to get a glimpse into what life was like for children their age in 1930s and 1940s Europe. They are able to safely see how daily existence was changed under the Nazi regime, both as a Jew and a Gentile. Kertzer (2002) says that the mark of a successful work of children's literature in this genre (historical fiction of the Holocaust) is that "[B]y the end of the story, the child knows more, and what she knows, because it works within the representational limits of children's books, still allows her to hope" (p. 13).
In this piece I will explore roughly a dozen works of literature for children about the Holocaust, ranging from picture book to fictionalized memoir to fantasy novel, which embark upon this task with varying degrees of success. I will examine the strategies each author employs to present the material in a constructive and didactic way while, at the same time, being extremely mindful of the effects of particularly upsetting details on the author's impressionable readers. As I have said, these strategies do not equate to simply omitting the graphic details; in many cases some upsetting facts are allowed to permeate the story, but are presented carefully and tastefully, in such a way that they are not as upsetting as they might otherwise be. Instead, these authors alter what can be changed in a discussion of a particularly horrible moment in history: who tells the story, where the story is set, how many realistic details are used, and so on. Although the authors vary in the strategies they employ, what their works share is a great respect for all the victims of the Holocaust and a recognition of the great importance of repeating stories of the Holocaust so that the past might not be forgotten or, worse, repeated.
CHILD NARRATORS AND PERSONALIZED STORIES
Perhaps the easiest way for today's children to identify with children of the past is through self-narrated stories of Holocaust-era children. Modern readers are easily able to see that children who lived half a century ago are not so different from themselves, which makes history seem not so far away. When modern readers realize that they easily could have been in a situation they read about, the events of the past are not so unbelievable. When they identify with the protagonists of the books they read, history—the Holocaust—becomes highly personalized.
In addition to serving as a way of personalizing the events of the Holocaust, using a child narrator to tell his or her story is also a very useful tool in protecting today's children from graphic details of the Holocaust. Child narrators often accurately do not know much about the horrors imposed upon the Jews by the Nazis. Much in the same way we are anxious about protecting children of today from the gruesome facts, the parents and adults in these children's lives protect them from knowing the truth. They, in large part, are ignorant of the systematic execution of millions of Jews in the camps, of the torture and "medical" experiments, and in some cases even of the degree of anti-Semitism of their neighbors and non-Jewish friends. In many cases their stories are those of realization, of a gradual awakening to the truth.
An excellent example of such a story is Gudrun Pausewang's relatively recent novel The Final Journey (1996). The narrative takes place in a cattle car and ends in the "shower room" of a strange place called Auschwitz. The main character, Alice, is indeed ignorant of almost everything at the beginning, and her grandfather, the one member of her family member traveling with her, continually seeks to protect her by maintaining a charade of going on an adventurous journey. Alice had been in hiding with her grandparents prior to the start of the narrative, although she was never told why they were hiding or even that they were hiding. At all times, her grandparents protect her from any information that might upset her. When her parents (presumably) are taken away, her grandparents make up an elaborate story about her mother going to a distant dental clinic for a septic tooth, even going so far as to type up counterfeit letters to Alice from her parents. Her ignorance is nearly total, because those who care about her have shielded her completely from the events of the world outside their hiding place.
The trip on the railroad car and her discussions with the other Jews she meets on board, however, act as an impetus for her "awakening," so to speak. Alice begins to question what her grandparents have told her and to think about some of the things she had overheard while still in hiding but not understood:
So now she was sitting in one of those trains that she had sometimes heard Grandmother and Grandfather talking about very quietly, when they thought she was asleep. One of those trains in which so many good friends and acquaintances of her parents and grandparents had gone away. And Lilli, Sarah and Lotte from her own class. And Aunt Irene and Uncle Ludwig too. All of them had gone away, no one had ever come back. How strange.
The others on the train, despite her grandfather's efforts to shield her, begin to tell her the truth: she learns that they are prisoners, headed to some type of prison camp, simply because they are Jews. As Alice begins to understand the full gravity of her situation, she grows angry at her grandparents for keeping the truth from her: "They had always given a clear explanation of everything … And she had believed them and trusted them blindly and had no idea of what had been going on outside" (p. 87). On the train, she is faced with the brutal side of reality and truth. She witnesses the birth of a baby and the death of several people, including her grandfather; in essence, she sees in a short period of time, in a highly unusual setting, the cycle of human life. She comes to understand what it means to be a Jew at this time, and that her life is in the hands of others. By the time she is finally let out of the railcar, she has matured beyond her years, yet she remains ignorant of perhaps the most horrifying truth of the Holocaust. Herded into a "shower" in Auschwitz with others from the train, "Alice tipped back her head. Soon, water would pour down over her from the nozzle up there. The water of life. It would wash her clean of the dirt and horror of the journey, would make her as clean as she was before" (p. 154).
Alice's gradual awakening to the truth of the Holocaust mirrors the way modern children should learn of it. Initially it is important to shield them from what is often a disturbing truth, but eventually children do need to be educated about what happened so that they can prevent its happening again. The final lines of Alice's story, quoted above, illustrate the fact that there are always things that we should keep from children and perhaps even from some adults. More mature children here will know that gas, not water, will come out of the nozzles, but it is not necessary to tell this part of the story. It is sufficiently upsetting in this story to see Alice alone and suddenly thrust into understanding; we do not need her to realize she is about to die for this story to be effective. That she should be ignorant of her impending death and actually optimistic at the end is an indication that she has not yet learned all, and neither should modern children have learned all about the Holocaust in her story.
It is important to note that the use of a novel such as The Final Journey in an educational setting poses a very important development question: at what age is it acceptable or even appropriate for children to know the truth behind such details? Indeed, for readers who, like Alice, are unaware of the true purpose of these so-called showers, this ending might be viewed as hopeful. Yet there is also a danger that some children who might be judged too young to know the truth will understand and be affected by this conclusion. Thus, Pausewang's ending, although effective in presenting a true-to-life reaction to events by a child, also presents a challenge insofar as it may be used for educational purposes: do we forego a very realistic and powerful piece of literature for children because of the risk that they might read between the lines and be emotionally overwhelmed? Or do we take the risk because of the educational value of the novel, thereby raising the amount of work and vigilance required by the teacher to help his or her students understand and deal with the truth? This is a dilemma that frequently arises with respect to the use of Holocaust literature in education. Certainly use of a novel such as this as a means by which to teach children about the Holocaust is extremely complicated.
Another example of a child's self-narrated story is Uri Orlev's The Island on Bird Street (1984). Based in part on Orlev's own experiences hiding in the Warsaw ghetto (Shawn, 2001), The Island on Bird Street is the story of an eleven-year-old boy named Alex who escapes from a ghetto roundup and hides himself in an abandoned house until his father can return to find him. Unlike Alice, Alex is somewhat aware of what is going on outside the ghetto. He knows that the Nazis are evil and has even heard rumors of death camps. This information, however, is secondary to the story of Alex's survival; Orlev provides it simply as a reason for Alex to hide and uses it to amplify the importance of his continued survival. It might even be said that Orlev's novel is merely an example of the popular child's adventure story, which just happens to be set at the time of the Holocaust.
Because Alex spends much of his time hiding in the abandoned house on Bird Street, he is shielded from a great deal of what is going on in the rest of the ghetto. Isolated from human contact and forced to stay out of sight at all times, he does not see the violence of the roundups or hear any more rumors of death camps. He can only imagine what might be happening and fantasize about joining a victorious resistance effort. Because he is forced to make occasional forays outside in order to get food, however, he does occasionally come into contact with the "real world," the harsh reality outside his imagined adventure. These are playful, exciting outings for Alex until he is spotted by a German soldier and is forced to shoot the soldier with his father's pistol to prevent being discovered:
It was clear to me that I wasn't going anywhere. Not even to join the uprising as I had thought this morning. I realized now that real wars weren't like the ones in adventure books where children fought like heroes at the grownups' sides. One dead German soldier on the floor was enough for me. I would stay here.
Alex understands that being a hero does not always mean being brave in battle or even fighting. For him, it means staying hidden and, most importantly, staying alive.
Orlev conveys another important message about the Holocaust through Alex's discovery and then friendship with Stashya, a girl Alex sees from his window living on the Polish side of the ghetto wall. Alex soon learns that in fact Stashya is also Jewish, hiding like him but in a different way. Their friendship, Shawn (2001) points out, "helps readers understand that during the Holocaust Jews hid in different ways. Alex's hiding was physical, while Stashya hid her Jewish identity, assuming the posture of a Polish girl" (p. 118).
Orlev's book gives only cursory attention to the traditionally difficult subjects of Holocaust literature (i.e., the concentration camps). Instead, he focuses on an issue that is equally important to Holocaust education but also more easily grasped by children: the importance of survival. Alex's story is appealing to many modern day readers because it is exciting, and he is a character with whom readers easily identify. A similar identification occurs in the story itself, as Alex escapes his own world through his favorite book, Robinson Crusoe; the comparison of Alex and his adventures to his favorite fictional character keep the tone lighthearted and the reader hopeful (Kertzer, 1999). Although it is not filled with graphic images, The Island on Bird Street still provides readers with very difficult issues of life, death, and survival. Through Alex's experiences, readers are forced to think about life and death and to make decisions that can mean the difference between the two, which is very much characteristic of many Holocaust stories. Alex's quest for survival is successful, and so his story ends with the optimism that Kertzer (2002) suggests is so important for successful Holocaust literature for children. In concluding Alex's story, Orlev avoids the more complicated emotional implications of these issues of life and death with its hopeful yet high improbable ending.
In general, the authorial strategy of telling a Holocaust story from a child's point of view is very effective, especially for children just beginning their study of this dark period of history. In many ways, the development of the protagonists in such stories—their gradual understanding and growing knowledge of what is happening around them—mirrors that of young readers, in that, like their fictional peers, such children are largely ignorant of the horrors of the Holocaust and are only slowly beginning to learn of them.
A relatively easy and non-threatening way to tell a story of the Holocaust to children is through an allegory. A number of authors have used this approach to explain basic issues of the Holocaust to children without having to bring in any emotionally challenging material. This authorial strategy seems to be popular not only because it distances the reader from the truth (and thereby makes it less disturbing) but also because a sometimes incomprehensible topic can occasionally be paralleled to a well-known story that children do understand. Additionally, characters can be transformed into figures that are more accessible for children, such as animals, cartoons, or fairy tale heroes. Allegory often is employed as a strategy in literature for the youngest readers of the genre, as it can serve as an introduction to the main underlying themes without needing to incorporate specific facts or details.
A example of such an allegory, and a very appropriate book for younger children introducing them to the main theme of racial and group discrimination in the Holocaust, is Eve Bunting's Terrible Things (1980), illustrated by Stephen Gammell. At first glance this book would appear to be a very simple fable or morality story, were it not for the subtitle "An Allegory of the Holocaust" and Bunting's short introduction explaining the very minimum of the history that is needed to fully appreciate the allegorical meaning of this story. To adult readers, Bunting's tale clearly recalls the famous quotation attributed to Pastor Martin Niemoeller.1 To blissfully ignorant children, however, this is simply an animal tale with a moral at the end, much like other books and stories they may be reading. Baer (2000) notes that in using this book, the responsibility falls to the adult reading the story to the child to explain its meaning.
Rather than chronicling the atrocities committed by the Nazis in the concentration camps, Bunting's book completely avoids such troubling facts by focusing instead on those not taken away by the Nazis, those left behind after the deportations of victims. In the story, the animal kingdom is happy and the animals peacefully coexist with one another until the day the "terrible things," dark, shapeless forms in the illustrations, come and take away—without explanation—all the animals with feathers. After they are gone, the remaining animals rationalize what has happened, except for Little Rabbit, Bunting's hero, who questions the actions of the Terrible Things:
"Those birds were always too noisy," Old Porcupine said. "Good riddance, I say."
"There's more room in the trees now," the squirrels said.
"Why did the Terrible Things want the birds?" Little Rabbit asked. "What's wrong with feathers?"
"We mustn't ask," Big Rabbit said. "The Terrible Things don't need a reason. Just be glad it wasn't us they wanted."
As the Terrible Things return time after time to take away a new category of animals, those remaining silently watch. Little Rabbit is the only one who questions the actions of the Terrible Things, and in the end he is the only animal remaining. In the end, he realizes that it is not the right thing to do to watch silently as others are taken away and be thankful it wasn't him. He leaves the clearing that has always been his home to find other animals whom he might warn about the Terrible Things, and "He hoped someone would listen" (n.p.). Bunting specifically does not tell her young readers what happens to the animals that are taken away, but the pain of Little Rabbit, the lone creature left behind, is sufficient to communicate the tragedy of their loss.
The message to be gleaned from this book, of course, is moralistic: stand up for what you believe, even if it is difficult at times. But more than presenting a moral, this deceptively simple picture book is a commentary on all those who stood by while Jews, Gypsies, communists, homosexuals, the handicapped, and other "social undesirables" were taken away by the Nazis for inexplicable reasons. Bunting does not lay blame, but rather acknowledges that at times it is much easier to look the other way—in some cases, one's life may even depend on it. However, if people begin to question and stand up to what they perceive to be injustice, it is possible to prevent "terrible things" from happening again. In this sense, Terrible Things can be understood by children both on a very general level of how to live life as well as how to understand one facet of the Holocaust and how to prevent its happening again.
Another use of animal allegory for more mature readers are Art Spiegelman's two comic-strip books about his father's survival story. Maus: A Survivor's Tale: My Father Bleeds History (1986) (commonly referred to as Maus I) follows Vladek Spiegelman's story from right before his marriage to Anja to his arrival in Auschwitz; the second volume, Maus: A Survivor's Tale, II: And Here My Troubles Began (or Maus II; 1991) details the couple's survival in the camps and their reunion after war. Spiegelman's incorporation of animals into the story is quite inventive: the Jews are depicted as mice (a nod to the Nazi characterization of Jews as rodents), the Nazis as cats, the Americans as dogs ("dog face" being a nickname for an American soldier), the Poles as pigs, and so on. While these depictions certainly rely on stereotypes, visually they serve as a means of keeping who is who straight. When Vladek and Anja try to hide in Poland, and are therefore trying to pass as Poles, they are even drawn with pig masks on their faces so that it is apparent to the reader that they are still mice underneath.
Spiegelman's books do contain some very graphic images and descriptions, and so they are not appropriate for younger readers. In some cases, the material is even difficult for adults to take: a pile of the bodies of naked mice (representing Jews) set afire, some still alive; a diagram of a complex in Auschwitz containing gas chambers and crematoria; descriptions of Jews turning against and betraying other Jews in order to survive. While these images are softened somewhat by the fact that Spiegelman uses drawings of animals, and not photographs of humans, another useful strategy he employs is to stop the disturbing images when they get to be too much. His books depict not only his father's story, but also the process of his father telling his story to his son. Spiegelman thus breaks up a graphic and unsettling story of survival into smaller chunks that can be dealt with much more easily. Just when Vladek's story is coming close to becoming too disturbing, something in the present intrudes on his memory and the story pauses until the next session.
In addition to recording his father's story, Spiegelman's two volumes also have much to say about the importance of memory and remembering and how recalling a painful past to another can help alleviate the pain of remembering it. Leventhal (1995) remarks that
Traversing the breach between past and present, Father and Son, language and image, manifest and latent, Maus bears witness to the process of bearing witness, and the technological requirement of writing and tape-recording in order to produce a narrative of the trauma and thereby alleviate the symptomology of depression and withdrawal that is the danger of a past left to fester as an unhealed wound.
Spiegelman's record of his own difficulties in dealing with his father and transcribing his story is that of any modern day reader trying to make sense of Holocaust narratives. As the author struggles with how to present the story respectfully and faithfully when it is so disturbing to him, the reader follows along in Spiegelman's footsteps in his or her own struggle to accept and comprehend the facts. When Spiegelman worries that his book will not have an effect on his intended readers despite the time, labor, and pain that have gone into the process, his wife and stepmother remind him that it is the remembering, the retelling of the story, that is important. If readers choose to take the allegorical retelling of the Holocaust as fictional because it is too emotionally difficult or painful to accept as fact, they will at least take home this still-relevant message.
Jane Yolen's Briar Rose (1992) originally was written as an adult novel but is often read in classroom settings by young adults. In order to tell a story about Chelmno, a horribly "effective" death camp (that is to say, virtually all its prisoners were put to death), Yolen uses the fairy tale of Briar Rose as a framework. The protagonist, Becca, has always been taken with her grandmother, Gemma's, particularly unique telling of the story of the sleeping beauty in the woods and, upon the grandmother's death, vows to discover the truth behind the story and Gemma's fondness for telling it. Through a thorough investigation of the sparse documentation of her grandmother's life, and a trip to Chelmno in Poland, Becca learns that telling her grandchildren the story of Briar Rose was her grandmother's way of telling them the story of her life—"a memoir in fairy tale form" (Rogers, 2002; p. 264). What Becca, and the reader, discover is that the details of the form of the Briar Rose story her grandmother told comprise a much "safer" version, an allegory, of her experiences in the Holocaust in a death camp. The "castle" in the story is in reality the ruins of a Polish schloss (castle or mansion) where prisoners were detained before being taken to their deaths; the "mist" that settles upon the crowd and "puts them to sleep" is actually the poison gas which killed them; the prince who "wakes" Briar Rose with a kiss is a homosexual partisan who discovers Gemma still alive among the dead bodies and revives her with mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.
Kertzer (2002) argues that the plot of Briar Rose is a double narrative in this respect; to get the attention
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of modern readers, "Yolen in essence must trick them, must risk telling Holocaust truth through telling a fairy-tale lie and then deconstructing that lie" (p. 68). In the "fairy-tale lie" of the story, Gemma is revived at Chelmno, survives the rest of the war as a partisan, and immigrates to America. Miraculously, it seems, although the poison gas did not kill her, it did eliminate any memories she had prior to receiving the "kiss of life," and so all she knows of herself is a story that rather resembles that of Briar Rose. This story is retold over and over again to her children and grandchildren, and it seems to end happily; yet by the end of the novel it is clear that what Gemma is telling her family is not a fairy tale, but a true story about horrors of the Holocaust. Although Briar Rose also seems to have a happy ending, Yolen's note to her readers at the end establishes conclusively that "This is a book of fiction. All the characters are made up. Happy-ever-after is a fairy tale notion, not history. I know of no woman who escaped Chelmno alive" (p. 202). Readers are able to partially deal with the truth by writing it off as a fairy tale, as fantasy, yet they can never completely deny its validity as Yolen herself asserts the story's fictitiousness.
The power of Yolen's novel truly lies in its double narrative. Readers can choose which of the narratives they will accept. For those who have difficulty dealing with the atrocities of the Holocaust (many of which are quite pointedly alluded to in the book), the narrative stands as a fairy tale with a happy ending. Yet for those mature enough to address the more difficult aspects, the facts of the true, historical narrative can be used to deconstruct the fairy tale.
Expanding upon the strategy of using an ignorant or naïve child as the narrator, another authorial strategy is to distance the narrator from the events of the Holocaust further by having that narrator be a Gentile (or non-Jew), and therefore someone who can tell of what happened but never personally experiences it for him- or herself. In children's literature about the Holocaust, the Gentile protagonist often has a unique perspective on the Nazi persecution of Jews because of an interaction or friendship with a Jewish character. The resulting narrative is sufficiently distanced from the horrors of personal victimization, while at the same time is highly sympathetic to the plight of the Jews. This is very much the case with the three novels I have chosen to highlight here.
Uri Orlev's The Man from the Other Side (1991) tells the story of Marek, a 14-year-old Gentile boy living in Warsaw, Poland who has no conception of life inside the Warsaw Ghetto until his stepfather takes him underground through the sewers to sell smuggled goods to the Jews inside. Marek is given a firsthand view of what life is like for the Jews of Warsaw in the horrible conditions inside the ghetto, but at the end of the day he is able to return to his comfortable home where there is plenty to eat and no threat of persecution. Yet, although his life is relatively carefree, Marek's conscience weighs heavily upon him and he is haunted by what he has seen in the ghetto: "Each time I came back from a trip to the ghetto I had bad dreams at night, most often about the children who pleaded for food, or else about the beggars who lay drooling on the sidewalks" (p. 12).
Soon Marek's world changes completely when his mother reveals to him that his father was Jewish, and he begins to identify with the plight of those trapped in the ghetto. His forays through the sewers become more than just a scheme to make money; these become a way for him to see truths that deconstruct anti-Semitic stereotypes and to learn that Jews are no so much different from himself. Indeed, his own situation is precarious, for if the Nazis learned the truth of his parentage, he himself would be at risk of persecution and might find himself trapped on the other side of the ghetto wall. The experience that is truly transformative for Marek, however, is meeting a Jewish man on the run and realizing that his chances of survival are largely in Marek's hands. While helping this man, Pan Jozek, to hide from the Nazis, Marek is given an education in the darker side of humanity. Pan Jozek tells him about scapegoating, about Zionism, and even about the resistance efforts inside the ghetto. Through his friendship with Pan Jozek, Marek learns to respect the Jews and even joins them in their resistance efforts. He realizes that "It didn't matter to me whether I lived or died. My own private fate no longer mattered and I was ready to be killed alongside the Jewish fighters. I don't think it was recklessness. I think it was self-transcendence" (p. 163). Marek has transcended the boundaries between Jews and non-Jews to approach the Holocaust from a perspective of what is right and wrong for humanity as a whole.
Perhaps the most powerful aspect about The Man from the Other Side is that it is a true story, told to Orlev by the man who would become the character of Marek in the book. The real Marek had told no one else in his life about his background, and made Orlev promise to not publish the story until after his death. Although unwilling to share his experience with the world while he was alive, the real Marek re-alized the importance of his story being recorded for generations yet to come. He recognized that not all people would have acted as he had, but "Even then I believed that G-d arranges things so that we can choose between good and evil. The whole point is to choose" (p. 71).
Lois Lowry's Number the Stars (1989) is a fictionalized tale about the Righteous Gentiles of Denmark whose combined resistance efforts saved nearly 90% of their country's Jewish citizens (Russell, 1997). Ten-year-old Annemarie Johansen, who at the beginning is largely ignorant of the threat posed by the Nazi occupation of Denmark, becomes directly involved in the resistance when she learns that she must help to hide her Jewish best friend, Ellen, and her parents. Annemarie is in doubt of her own bravery until she is faced with a true life-or-death situation. While hiding Ellen in their home for the night, the Johansens are visited by Nazi soldiers looking for Ellen's family. Ellen escapes being identified (she is passed off by the Johansens as their dead daughter, Lise) only after Annemarie yanks off Ellen's Star of David necklace that would surely have given her away at the last minute. After the Nazi soldiers leave, Annemarie realizes that the imprint of the Star of David is on her palm from holding Ellen's necklace so tightly. Having just been instrumental in saving her best friend's life, the Star of David on her palm becomes "a symbol of the strength of Annemarie's conviction, her devotion to her friend, and the sacrifices we make on behalf of our ethical choices" (Russell, 1997; p. 269). Ellen's family, like the majority of Danish Jews, are safely transported to freedom in Sweden thanks in large part to the courageous acts of Annemarie and her family.
Number the Stars is a Holocaust story that focuses on one of the more positive moments of the time period. The bravery and heroism of the Danes in their efforts to save their fellow citizens is a true story and one of the few bright spots in the history of the Holocaust. By choosing to represent the good side of humanity, Lowry has alleviated some of the horror innate in any discussion of the Holocaust and given children some basis for hope in mankind (Drew, 2001). In her afterward, Lowry tells her readers that, although her story and characters are fictionalized, the selfless heroism of the Danes is fact:
And so the Jews, all but a few who didn't believe the warning, fled the first raids. They fled into the arms of the Danes, who took them in, fed them, clothed them, hid them, and helped them along to safety in Sweden.
In the weeks following the Jewish New Year, almost the entire Jewish population of Denmark—nearly seven thousand people—was smuggled across the sea to Sweden.
Lowry's story illustrates the fact that amid the cruelty and inhumanity of Nazi persecution, there were non-Jews who were willing to risk their lives to help their neighbors and friends. Even in darkness, there is light and hope in the form of other people. Even when others turned their backs on the suffering of the victims of the Holocaust, there were still those who stood up for what was right.
A significantly less uplifting story told by a Gentile narrator is Hans Peter Richter's nameless protagonist in Friedrich (1970). Covering the years from 1925 to 1942, the narrator describes the experiences of his Jewish friend Friedrich and illustrates for the reader concrete examples of how Friedrich's life is affected by the anti-Jewish policies of the Nazi party (Aupperle, 2001). Friedrich's daily existence becomes more and more restricted, as he is forbidden to join the Hitler Youth, to attend a movie, and even to go to school. When his mother dies and his father is arrested, he loses his family as well his freedom. And in the end, denied entrance to a shelter during an air raid, Friedrich looses his life. Richter's book does not have a happy ending, but all its events are reported by a narrator who is removed from their negative impact by the fact that he is not Jewish. He is a witness to the suffering, but without experiencing it himself, he does not—perhaps cannot—appreciate its full gravity.
Although the story he has to tell is not a happy one, it is a tale that addresses the questions of many of today's readers who ask how non-Jews could have allowed the Holocaust to happen. While the narrator's father is unemployed and the family is struggling to get by, Friedrich's family is well off and able to afford some luxuries. The narrator and his family are therefore susceptible to the Nazi propaganda telling them that the Jews are to blame for their financial woes, and when the narrator's father finally gets a job with the Nazi party, they have no choice but to subscribe to its beliefs and policies. The narrator soon realizes that it is easier to go along with the crowd than to try to turn against it, even if following the crowd means doing something you believe is morally or ethically wrong. He has firsthand experience with crowd mentality when he unwittingly becomes involved in a destructive riot in the chapter titled "The Pogrom." He feels strong and even intoxicated by the action of destroying until "All of a sudden I felt tired and disgusted. On the stairs, I found half a mirror. I looked in it. Then I ran home" (p. 93).
Richter does not shield his readers from what happened in Nazi Germany by giving them false hope at the end of his story. Rather, he distances himself from the tragedy of the time by allowing his Gentile narrator to tell the story of his unfortunate Jewish friend. In the process, he allows his readers to put themselves in the narrator's shoes, giving them a unique opportunity to see what it might have been like for them had they been there. While the narrator continued to feel for his Jewish friend's plight, in the end he was largely powerless to save him. Modern readers who respond that, had they been there, they would have fought back are forced to see that fighting back against the majority was not so easy (Aupperle, 2001).
Perhaps the most profound way to make modern readers identify with the protagonists of Holocaust literature is to use one of their contemporaries as a narrator. Even a main character who is the same age as the reader, but who lived half a century earlier, is sufficiently distanced from today's world to prevent the reader from forming a genuine emotional identification with the protagonist. Perhaps the most compelling and effective works of children's Holocaust literature to date are those that take modern day protagonists and actually transport them back to 1940s Europe, so that they experience for themselves the full impact of the Holocaust and learn the importance of remembering. Such an experience is facilitated through the strategy of time-slip fantasy: a modern day child is somehow (it is rarely, if ever, explained how) transported into the past, and after a significantly eye-opening experience allows the protagonist to gain a new appreciation for the events of the past, he or she is brought back to the present. Kertzer (2002) notes that there are few works of children's literature that actually take place inside the concentration camps; works in this category are a notable exception, for the fantasy element that allows the protagonist to enter the camps also allows them to escape back to the present before they face the full reality of the camps (i.e., before they themselves are put to death). This is a very clever strategy on the part of the author, for it allows a high level of identification with the protagonist on the part of the reader, but still ultimately shields the reader from too strong an experience of the atrocities of the Holocaust.
Jane Yolen's The Devil's Arithmetic (1988) is probably the most well known and most effective work in this category of Holocaust literature. Her protagonist, Hannah, is a modern day teenager who wants to live only in the present. She is tired of hearing about the past from her grandfather and great aunt, both Holocaust survivors, and doesn't see the importance of remembering the Holocaust. In fact, her very first words in the book are "I'm tired of remembering" (p. 3). Her world is dramatically changed when, during a Passover seder at her grandfather's apartment, she opens the door for the prophet Elijah and is transported back in time into 1940s Europe. She is no longer Hannah, but now Chaya, a Jewish girl who, much like the ancient Greek seer Cassandra, is cursed by being able to foretell the future yet is not believed by others. When the Nazis come to take the Jews of her village away she tries to warn them, but the others discount this information as the result of lingering delirium caused by Chaya's recent illness. When they are transported to Auschwitz, she thinks she knows what is coming. Yet the experience of Auschwitz is one that changes her whole outlook on life: the victims of the Holocaust are no longer nameless faces in the photographs or films she has seen, but now they are her friends and family. Her name in this world is Chaya—Hebrew for "life"—symbolizing the importance of living and remembering that Hannah comes to embody from her experience. It is the remembering of the victims, as people and not as the numbers that the Nazis gave to them, that allows them to live on. As her friend Rivka instructs her, "As long as we can remember, all those gone before are alive inside us" (p. 113). By the end, Hannah/Chaya has internalized this message:
"Nevertheless," Hannah said, "I remember. And you—you must remember too, so that whoever of us survives this place will carry the message into the future."
"What message?" Rivka asked, her voice breathy and low.
"That we will survive. The Jews. That what happens here must never happen again," Hannah said.
Significantly, it is Hannah herself who is able to heed her own words: as she is taken by a soldier to be executed, she is transported back to her family's seder at the precise moment she had left it, now with a new understanding of the importance of remembering; her last words of the story are "I remember. Oh, I remember" (p. 164).
The Devil's Arithmetic is a highly successful work of Holocaust literature for children in that Yolen's ac-count is historically very accurate and, by employing the strategy of time-slip fantasy, it allows contemporary readers to vicariously witness the Holocaust firsthand. Russell (1997) notes that, aside from the time travel, The Devil's Arithmetic is really more historical fiction than fantasy in its realistic portrayal of the Holocaust and Auschwitz. Yolen (1989) herself, in an essay on her book, notes that although the fantastical element may be seen by some as not appropriate for a topic as serious as the Holocaust, "I believe it is a straight road into memory, an experimental act for an understanding of the past. It is once-upon-a-very-real-time, making history immediate and accessible for the young reader, letting them see backwards through a very clear lens" (p. 247). Present-day readers can become a witness to the Holocaust vicariously through Hannah's experience and can themselves understand the importance of remembering. They can watch the horror of Auschwitz through her eyes while knowing that Hannah cannot really be there and must return to the present sooner or later. Even in Auschwitz, the element of fantasy in a Holocaust story prevents readers from being emotionally overcome by Nazi atrocities.
Han Nolan uses a similar time-slip fantasy strategy in If I Should Die before I Wake (1994). In her novel, an even more profound transformation takes place due to the fact that her protagonist, Hilary, not only is not Jewish but is also a member of a neo-Nazi white supremacist group. Her hatred of Jews is so strong at the beginning that she is even a Holocaust denier. When she is seriously injured in a motorcycle accident, however, Hilary's life quite literally takes a dramatic turn. Lying in a coma—ironically in a Jewish hospital—she is transported back in time into the memories of the other patient in the room, a Holocaust survivor. Reliving this woman's memories, Hilary begins a parallel life as Chana, a Jewish girl in Poland forced into the Lodz ghetto. As she loses members of her "family" and eventually winds up in Auschwitz, she begins to accept this life as her own and to reconsider her anti-Semitic beliefs: "We were all family now—all of us together, living on top of one another, crowded into one section of the city, all Jews, all hated, but all in a family. I knew this was important. I needed to remember this. I needed to save my own anger and hate for the people on the other side of the fence" (pp. 75-76). By the end, through her experience in being a victim herself of the anti-Semitism she has been inflicting on others, Hilary's attitude towards Jews has changed completely. The real Chana has allowed her a glimpse into her own experiences and instructs Hilary on how she may use this newfound knowledge:
"Use what you can to change things. You can change the world, Hilary."
"No. I can change me, but nothing else. Things— the world has always been this way. What difference could I make? What difference did you make?"
"I reached out to you. I touched you. I screamed, and you heard. You are a witness. It is your turn to remember, and to tell, and to keep on telling until you are sure others have heard."
Hilary awakes from her coma with the knowledge that even as one person, she can make a difference in the world—she can help to make sure that the horrors of the Holocaust, which her time travel has allowed her to experience, are remembered and are never allowed to happen again.
While not nearly as powerful in terms of its historical accuracy, Nolan's book is perhaps even more emotionally powerful than The Devil's Arithmetic for the dramatic transformation of its neo-Nazi, Holocaust-denier protagonist to a girl who realizes her own ability to guard against another Holocaust. How Nolan has chosen to portray this transformation is crucial, because the events described do have the power to be emotionally difficult for her readers. In addition to using the strategy of time-slip fantasy, Nolan uses Hilary's varying states of consciousness of the present to break up the difficult material; Hilary vacillates between past and present, so she is aware of both her own memories and those of Chana throughout the novel. Continually referencing the present is a way of maintaining a connection to the modern day reader, and ensuring that the reader returns to the past with Hilary.
In teaching a complex and controversial subject such as the Holocaust, which is both emotionally and intellectually difficult to understand, few tools are as useful or as illustrative as a good work of literature. Holocaust literature written specifically for children is a genre in which there are literally thousands of titles from which to choose; however, not all these works are equal in their appropriateness or their effectiveness in teaching children in a sensitive manner. Totten (2001) emphasizes that
If educators seek to assist students in gaining deeper insight into the Holocaust, to become more reflective and thoughtful human beings, to ponder and care about man's inhumanity to man, and to examine one's lived life in regard to personal and social responsibility, then the thoughtful use of Holocaust literature is a valuable vehicle for reaching toward those goals.
This "thoughtful use" implies careful selection of the works of literature to be used in the classroom. Those works selected, in addition to being historically accurate, should be sensitive to what children can handle when it comes to the horrific details of the Holocaust.
The works I have discussed here are exemplary for how they approach such a difficult subject matter in a sensitive manner while at the same time very effectively conveying an important message. The authors of these books have made very careful and deliberate choices about how to handle the topic of the Holocaust, and the strategies they have employed allow today's younger readers to learn about the Holocaust without becoming emotionally overwhelmed. These strategies range from animal allegory to time-slip fantasy to telling about resistance and righteous Gentiles, yet what these works have in common is a commitment to faithfully telling about the Holocaust and emphasizing the importance of remembering. Many of these works have been selected for use in classrooms as tools by which to teach today's children about the Holocaust alongside historical instruction, and rightfully so. Literature has the unique capacity to personalize history in a way other forms of education cannot. These works are powerful educational tools that successfully avoid disturbing children, in large part due to the strategies employed by their authors. In the hands of knowledgeable and capable educators, and used in conjunction with a firm grounding in the facts, these works of literature have the ability to transform a modern child's consciousness and instill in that child the importance of understanding and tolerance.
1. "They came for the communists and I did not speak up because I was not a communist. They came for the socialists, and I did not speak up because I was not a socialist. They came for the union leaders, and I did not speak up because I was not a union leader. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak up because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak up for me."
Aupperle, R. G., "'Face to Face': The Study of Friedrich, a Novel about the Holocaust," in Teaching Holocaust Literature, Samuel Totten, ed., pp. 73-102. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 2001.
Baer, E. R., "A New Algorithm in Evil: Children's Literature in a Post-Holocaust World," The Lion and the Unicorn, 2000, 24(3), 378-401.
Bunting, E., Terrible Things: An Allegory of the Holocaust. New York: Harper & Row, 1980.
Drew, M. A., "Teaching Holocaust Literature: Issues, Caveats, and Suggestions," in Teaching Holocaust Literature, Samuel Totten, ed., pp. 11-23. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 2001.
Kertzer, A., My Mother's Voice. Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Press, 2002.
Kertzer, A., "'Do You Know What "Auschwitz" Means?': Children's Literature and the Holocaust," The Lion and the Unicorn, 1999, 23(2), 238-256.
Leventhal, R. S., Art Spiegelman's Maus. www.iath.virginia.edu/holocaust/spiegelman.html, 1995 (accessed on 21 November, 2002).
Lowry, L., Number the Stars. New York: Yearling, 1989.
Nolan, H., If I Should Die before I Wake. San Diego: Harcourt Brace & Co., 1994.
Orlev, U., The Island on Bird Street. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1984.
Orlev, U., The Man from the Other Side. New York: Puffin Books, 1991.
Pausewang, G., The Final Journey. New York: Puffin Books, 1996.
Richter, H. P., Friedrich. New York: Puffin Books, 1970.
Rogers, T., "Understanding the Absence of Meaning: Coming of Age Narratives of the Holocaust," The New Advocate, 2002, 15(4), 259-266.
Russell, D. L., "Reading the Shards and Fragments: Holocaust Literature for Young Readers," The Lion and the Unicorn, 1997, 21(2), 267-280.
Shawn, K., "Virtual Community, Real-Life Connections: A Study of The Island on Bird Street via an International Reading Project," in Teaching Holocaust Literature, Samuel Totten, ed., pp. 103-124. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 2001.
Spiegelman, A., Maus: A Survivor's Tale. New York: Pantheon Books, 1986.
Spiegelman, A., Maus: A Survivor's Tale II: And Here My Troubles Began. New York: Pantheon Books, 1991.
Totten, S., "Incorporating Fiction and Poetry into a Study of the Holocaust," in Teaching Holocaust Literature, Samuel Totten, ed., pp. 24-62. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 2001.
Yolen, J., Briar Rose. New York: Tom Doherty Associates, Inc., 1992.
Yolen, J., "An Experimental Act," Language Arts, 1989, 66(3), 246-251.
Yolen, J., The Devil's Arithmetic. New York: Puffin Books, 1989.
Hamida Bosmajian (essay date 2000)
SOURCE: Bosmajian, Hamida. "Doris Orgel's The Devil in Vienna: From Trope into History." Children's Literature 28 (2000): 112-31.
[In the following essay, Bosmajian discusses how Doris Orgel's young adult novel The Devil in Vienna functions as a fictional biography, in which the author can write about the devastating events of the Holocaust from a safe psychological distance.]
Doris Orgel was reluctant to write The Devil in Vienna, a narrative she later considered "probably the central book of my career."1 Born 1929 in Vienna, she was nine years old when Hitler's army crossed the border on March 11, 1938, and annexed Austria to the Third Reich in what was euphemistically called the Anschluss. She remembers how Hitler's official arrival licensed the public abuse of Vienna's Jews and, although this frightened her, she was not surprised because "it was not so different from the way I had imagined the world right along" (Nakamura 196). Her childhood reading had already introduced her to the notion that "being white meant being superior to other races, but that Jews, although being white, were inferior and to be despised" (196). As a child reader of the Wild West stories of Karl May, she would have been exposed to May's racism and anti-Semitism but also to the blood brotherhood ritual between Old Shatterhand and his Apache friend. In childlike imitation of such magic and with a touch of feminist revisionism, the Jewish girl Inge Dornenwald and the Hitler Youth girl Lieselotte Vessely bond themselves in blood sisterly love in The Devil in Vienna by drinking a few drops of each other's blood in cooking wine (1988, 31). Needless to say, this childish ritual, expressive of genuine affection and love, would have been an anathema to any National Socialist.
Doris Orgel's grandfather was jeered at and publicly humiliated by the Nazis who forced him and others to scrub off with toothbrushes anti-Nazi slogans on walls and sidewalks. Her father was dismissed from work because he was Jewish, and nine-year-old Doris was dismissed from her third-grade class along with seven Jewish classmates. The family managed to escape Vienna by August 1938, but only later did young Doris realize that "we got out by a hair's breadth." She does not think of her family and herself as "survivors" and feels that this word belongs to those who suffered imprisonment in concentration camps. Nevertheless, as is the case with most survivors, it took her a long time to shape her memories into a story that could be told. For many years, even in the company of other refugees, "we never mentioned anything about our lives before coming to America." The taunts and insults suffered in Nazi Vienna still burdened her and others with the silent shame they felt as children (Nakamura 204). Around 1960 Ursula Nordstrom of Harper and Row, who had already edited two of her books, asked: "'When are you going to write about being a Jewish child in Vienna, and how you got out?'" (Nakamura 207). The Devil in Vienna was published eighteen years later. The diary of thirteen-year-old Inge Dornenwald, a composite of her older sister and herself, became for Orgel the mode that could contain her painful memories.
Inge's intelligence, imagination, and precociousness enable Orgel to accurately contextualize the narrative politically and historically, but the young reader will respond primarily to Inge's and Lieselotte's efforts to maintain their friendship in difficult times.2 That same reader might also become aware of how Inge grows through her sense of being Jewish, how she suffers from anti-Semitism, and how she also knows that she is not the person described by the Nazis. The reader may also empathize with Lieselotte's struggle to maintain her personal and religious values and her friendship with Inge even though she is pressured to align herself as a Hitler Youth Jungmädel in the Federation of German Girls (BDM). The politically and historically astute reader, however, realizes that history will destroy that friendship and negate the im-plicit authorial desire that such a human relationship could transcend the vicissitudes of history. Although Orgel relates to the reader the essential events occurring between February 10 and March 30, 1938, the nightmare of history that began for Vienna's Jews during the early days of the Anschluss remains largely an authorial subtext that is, however, unmistakably the foundation of Inge's diary. Hitler, though never seen in person by Inge, is a real presence in Vienna, but, though Orgel never demonizes him, he will be for the young reader identified as the Devil in Vienna, a trope that spares the young reader the cruel reality of history. Orgel's narrative exhibits that special relation between text and subtext so characteristic of all narratives about Nazism, Judeophobia, and the Holocaust. In shaping her memory through the diary of a young girl, Orgel creates a narrative distance between herself and the memories that haunt her and that she spares the young reader through a story that can be told about the time when Hitler came to Vienna. Moreover, the genre "diary of a young girl" by definition places limitations on what can be narrated through that point of view.
Claudia Maria Toll has given extensive critical attention to The Devil in Vienna in her study of the primacy of aesthetic and literary values over pedagogic goals in youth literature about National Socialism. She argues that the narrative respects the young reader's maturity not only by avoiding a hortatory or instructive tone but also by offering a multi-level narrative perspective. As Inge Dornenwald writes about events occurring between February 10 and March 31, 1938, she also reflects on early childhood experiences, presents entire conversations in direct speech, and copies into her diary, without comment, Lieselotte's letters about her experiences in the Hitler Youth. The literary value of the work, argues Toll, is brought out by the fact that Orgel's narrative distinguishes itself from other youth narratives about this subject in that it problematizes the act of writing about Nazism and the persecution of the Jews. Inge has already grasped that language is ambivalent and multileveled and at times does not suffice to express the inexpressible (68):
When confronted with true unbearableness, language fails. Although she never turns mute, Inge occasionally and consciously surrenders conceptual precision and resigns herself to casual discourse simply because she cannot express herself any better. But she still attempts to articulate, as when she writes: "Going home by myself, I had awful thoughts: Like that the hole they smashed in Herr Fried's store window is connected with the hole in the world I thought I was just making up as a way of writing how I felt on Saturday, and so that hole is just as real. This doesn't sound as though it makes sense, but it does to me."
Toll concludes that what is for Inge at first a metaphor, describing her psychological reaction to trauma, becomes realized in the smashed window of Nazi aggression (72).
The narrative is titled The Devil in Vienna, not The Story of a Friendship. Inge's and Lieselotte's friendship can only be contained in a book (240), for, no matter how much the author focuses on the narrator, it is the political and historical context that defines Inge's life. Something has intruded into Vienna, something that will destroy the comfortable middle-class life of the Dornenwalds and the friendship between two girls. The intruder, who is never depicted directly, is foreshadowed through the metonymy of the devil, but Inge, who cannot bring herself to say "Hitler is in Vienna," stops using the metonymy as historical reality makes itself felt. It is Mitzi, the Dornenwalds' maid, who, prone to the superstitions of folklore, utters for the last time the decisive trope on March 14: "'Today comes the Devil to Vienna'" (133). Orgel's subtext makes it clear that such tropological thinking is atavistic and prevents us from astute critical thought about the trauma human beings inflict on other human beings in political and military history. My discussion will focus on how the narrative moves from and between trope and historical reality and how that context shapes Inge, Lieselotte, and the world both girls inhabit. As children they both believed in the devil; as adolescents they experience how human evil begins to tear apart their friendship and their world. My discussion will begin with Inge's use and rejection of "the devil," her rejection of the temptations of Nazism, and her affirmation of herself as a Jewish girl. I will then move to how Lieselotte tries to resist the tremendous pressures to become a politically coordinated (gleichgeschaltet) Hitler Youth girl. The ground for the struggle of both girls is history, and the historical context will make their friendship impossible.
As Inge begins her diary on Thursday, February 11, the weekend of her thirteenth birthday, she is home alone and experiences "writer's block." She has been assigned to write on the topic "My Best Friend" with her "real and true feelings" (5), but her best friend Lieselotte moved three months earlier to Munich, where Herr Vessely, a fanatical Nazi, was assigned to work for the party. Moreover, Inge must not write about her true friend because the friendship has already been forbidden by both sets of parents. Though Inge has received one letter from Lieselotte, she experiences a deep fear: "I don't know whether she got my letter, or why she didn't write me again, or whether she has changed, or how. It's possible, it's even probable, she isn't my friend anymore. I'm more scared of that than the Devil—in whom of course I don't believe anymore" (10). Fear, Lieselotte, and the devil are thus connected from the beginning.
The word scared always triggers the memory of the first time she felt that emotion as a six-year-old in the forbidden underground viaduct where she encountered the "devil" after hearing of him in legends about St. Stephen's Cathedral. While still struggling with the alphabet, she had written her first story about the mischief the devil wrought in Vienna (10). The child Inge internalized the legendary image of the devil as a repository for "badness," but the adolescent Inge senses that losing Lieselotte to an anti-Semitic ideology is far more scary because that loss means that Inge necessarily would be as Other to her best friend as the devil is to the culture in general.
She remembers how she entered the dark viaduct, heard a match struck, and knew she saw the devil because "his eyebrows seem to slant weirdly devilishly up." Her encounter in the darkness of the viaduct foreshadows not only the devil Hitler but also Nazi depictions of "the Jew." The "devil" invites her with a "'Come here, little girl'" and then orders, "'Look,'" as he exposes himself to her and she sees "a stick or something stuck straight out from his unbuttoned pants" (13). Inge knew at the time what that "something was and knew that he wanted her to touch it. As a thirteen-year-old she wonders why she still cannot use the appropriate word" (13). As a child, she ran in panic out of the viaduct, relieved to find Lieselotte and her brother, Heinz, outside. Heinz defuses Inge's fright: "'Did old Kaugummi [chewing gum] Karl open his pants? Did he show you his Schwanz [tail]?" (14). Heinz, too, uses a trope for penis, but his somewhat coarse humor eases Inge's fright.
Though she eventually develops her first and much-approved crush on a family friend, Inge's early childhood memories establish a subtextual association between sexuality, seduction, and forbidden political power. In 1938, Inge will be encouraged by her grandfather to look at the anti-Semitic slogans on the walls and even the demonized and pornographic images of Jews in der Stürmer, for to be informed becomes a survival strategy. Nazism, however, was also seductive in its grasping (erfassen) and political alignment of youth through an emotional rush that, quite intentionally, supplemented youthful sexual energy. Inge's intimacy with Lieselotte the Hitler Mädel becomes a life-threatening intimacy that must be forbidden, but the lies and maneuvers both girls exercise as they plan their trysts resonate with the strategy of secret love. On her birthday, Inge panics over the prospect of losing Lieselotte; she watches the telephone, hoping that Lieselotte will call from Munich: "Then my mind went blank. As blank as the page before me, as the big empty desert must be. I felt I was in a desert too—hot, and my lips and throat were dry. And I thought, Lieselotte's different now, she doesn't care about me anymore, she doesn't want to know me" (70). Inge, as a Jewish girl, is by definition aligned with the Nazi caricature of "the Jew" as satanic seducer. It is unlikely that any of this becomes obvious to the young reader, but this subtext in part explains why it took Orgel such a long time to shape her memories through the genre of a girl's story and at the same time retain the complexities of "fascinating fascism" (Sontag 1970, 80) and the authenticity of her personal pain.
In its next manifestation the trope of the devil in Vienna reveals mythic power. Inge recalls how she and Lieselotte stood outside St. Stephen's Cathedral and intimidated Mitzi by telling her the legend of how the second steeple came to be shorter because the builder contracted with the devil, who eventually manifested himself triumphantly as a "huge gigantic shape with a green vest and horns … seen hovering over the shambles" (22-24). Frightened, Mitzi, the housemaid, accepted the story as truth, but, as the three entered the cathedral, Inge wished she, too, could have dipped her hand into the holy water. Had she been able to do so, she and Lieselotte might not have succumbed to naughty and uncontrollable laughter when both saw a pretentious woman scratching her behind. Inge still feels ashamed by her behavior, still wonders "what possessed us" (26), and she exorcises these feelings by telling a story that projects her as someone who has no recourse to names and rituals that may protect her from the devil who "tickled the girl's funny bone (which people think is near the elbow but is actually somewhere else, only the Devil knows where)" (29). Seeing the woman scratch her buttocks and laughing at her again relates that laughter to sexuality, but it also insinuates that, if Inge were not Jewish and could have crossed herself with holy water, the incident would not have occurred (27). Inge thus defines herself as an outsider. It does not matter to her that Lieselotte also misbehaved in a sacred place; Inge, the outsider, feels guilt, and the incident becomes her myth of origin of Otherness, a state that will become official policy once the Nazis seize political control of Vienna and demonize "the Jew as devil." By definition, Inge is in "league with the devil," the father of lies, as she continues her friendship with Lieselotte in spite of her parents' prohibition. Nevertheless, her "fall" not only leads her to maturation but also eventually facilitates the rescue of the Dornenwald family.
Inge must overcome her attraction to Catholicism and to Nazis—both generated by her need to belong—and accept herself as a Jewish girl in a dangerous time. When Inge was ten years old, Lieselotte taught her the seductive tune and words of the "Horst Wessel Lied," the Nazi anthem, which followed the national anthem at every official occasion in the Third Reich. Doris Orgel translates the first stanza:
Raise high the flag,
Close fast and firm the ranks,
SA, march on,
With calm and steadfast tread!
Our comrades who were shot in red-front reaction,
March in spirit side by side with us.
Inge remembers on February 12 how "the words sounded noble. And the melody stirred up feelings in me I didn't know I could have, such as wanting to march also and being sorry for the 'comrades who were shot in the red-front reaction,' whatever that was. I pictured their shirt fronts getting red with blood" (49). Again, Inge cannot explain these feelings that make her long to be swept up in the rush of unthinking communal alignment. Orgel projects ten-year-old Inge as hovering between childhood—her (mis)reading of "red-front reaction" as bloody shirt fronts—and the more critically thinking adolescent who, in 1938, is no longer "ignorant about world events" (48).
As Lieselotte teaches her the Nazi song, the child Inge fantasizes herself singing it in a crowd that welcomes Hitler, who singles her out because of her beautiful voice. When she tells him her name, he frowns and asks, "'Isn't that a Jewish Name?'" Inge confirms her identity and offers proof with her Mogen David pendant. "Hitler clasps his hand to his forehead and exclaims, 'I have been wrong about the Jews!' And from then on he likes Jews and treats them like everybody else—because of me!" (49). In her daydream Inge is in control; she can proclaim her Jewishness in the crowd and convert Hitler into a philosemite. The "devil" has been reformed; the little girl is his redeemer.3 The underlying pathos of this dream is the magical reasoning so typical of children in distress. In Inge's fantasy her excellent singing of a Nazi street fighters' song enables her to stop anti-Semitism with a single voice and thus make the world whole. When she later picks out the tune on her family's piano, her father and mother are outraged and severely limit her contact with Lieselotte. At this point Inge resolves: "As soon as they left, I sat down and wrote my heart out, how angry, disappointed and betrayed I felt. I remember I began, 'On this night I cease to be a child. Children do as their parents tell them. I won't, I can't, because they are wrong. I will stay best friends with Lieselotte'" (51). Inge moves to a new level of ethical and self-perception where, as a thinking and feeling person, she engages in the struggle to acknowledge differences rather than to subsume persons in metonymic definitions. She records and remembers the moment of her "fall" precisely, for it is at this point that she breaks with parental authority and begins the lying that divides her into the officially good daughter and the faithful "blood sisterly" friend of a young Nazi.
The most poignant moment of Inge's struggle as a writer occurs in her entry for Saturday, March 12, 1938, one day after the Anschluss of Austria. It is sabbath; her father and grandfather have been arrested by the Nazis and are forced to scrub the pavement of Vienna with toothbrushes while Nazis and bystanders jeer and taunt them: "Something happened today that tore a hole in the world, at least that's how it felt. I couldn't have imagined it yesterday. I will write it down very calmly, or the hole (which got patched back together) will open again, and I'll feel again as though it is swallowing me up" (120). Systematically, she narrates the facts of that day, as they were told to her and as she experienced them. Nobody can comfort her, not even her usually controlled mother, who sobs "so hard that the bed shook. I felt I was in a nightmare, falling, as though the bed with us in it was falling down the hole. At the same time I felt very angry, like shaking her and screaming, You be the mother, you comfort me!" (122). Inge's only defense is the act of writing, which enables her to order raw experience and emotion and to place that ordering between herself and events.
The immediacy of the diary and the fact that Inge is at home on the day Vienna's Jews were abused in the streets limit the means with which the events of the day can be communicated, but they also preserve Inge from internalizing "the hole in the world." The meta-phor does not become "a hole in the heart" or a "hole in her being" as is frequently the case in memoirs of traumatized Holocaust survivors. Her writing, the support of her family (even as she rebels against them), and the fact that she experiences only what were the initial stages of persecution make it possible for her to remain relatively whole as a Jewish adolescent.
The disaster has come and torn the fragile assumptions of the Dornenwalds, the illusions of reprieve that made them delay applying for the quota numbers necessary to escape Austria. Highly conscious of her thirteen-year-old self at this historical moment, Inge had literally seen the writing on the walls in meterhigh letters: "Jews, Go Croak" (Juda Verrecke) (29). She looked, and looked away, but her grandfather admonished her: "'You should look. As hard as you need to, to know what you are seeing. Then you should write down what you saw…. It's good to write down what you see, also how you feel about it. It helps you understand things better. And later it helps you to remember'" (89).
Though Inge writes in part because she needs to communicate her feelings for Lieselotte and her anger against her parents, it is the historical crisis that transcends the "dear diary" mode. During those weeks that crisis will transform the Dornenwalds' comfortable life into a life or death situation. Once the "devil" has been welcomed to Vienna, flight is the only option for survival; no compromises are possible. Inge must, therefore, replace personal desires and feelings with clear-headed thinking. The diary, given to her by her grandfather as a book with empty pages, becomes during that time a repository of events and the containment of a friendship that history has made impossible. As Inge says to Lieselotte during their farewell meeting: "'Our friendship is in a book now'" (240). On one hand it is an achievement; on the other it is an expression of mourning. Inge's last sentence to her friend is in reply to Lieselotte's "'I wish I could read it'": "'I wish you could, too. May be some day you will'" (240). The friendship is over because of the rupture history opened between the two girls. Inge knows this but retains the wish for that friendship, a desire that informs the entire text.
Inge copies into her diary Lieselotte's letters about her Hitlermädel experiences, making them part of her text. Moreover, by the time she copies them, she has read the letters so many times that she "almost knows them by heart" (151). Thus she internalizes what it means to be a young female Nazi, but in copying the letters without commentary into her diary, she retraces Lieselotte's experiences vicariously, confirms Lieselotte's loyalty by making her part of the text, and, at the same time, controls and maintains the friendship history denies her.
Lieselotte, too, has a symbol parallel to Inge's "hole in the world." Her world also suddenly fractures and makes her conscious that nothing is normal anymore. When her father belts her for having lied about avoiding a class in National Socialist Ideology and for continuing to befriend Inge, she describes to Inge how she once had a favorite cowbell: "It sounded like green meadows and cows coming back after grazing on clover all day. I rang it and rang it. Then Heinz wanted to ring it, and he grabbed it. I grabbed it back, and the clapper came out. So then it was mute…. I feel like that bell now" (172).
Whereas the narrative line concerning Inge is typical of ironic comedy where the hero escapes a society that cannot be redeemed, Lieselotte, if she is to preserve her personal and religious values, will experience an increasing tragic isolation even as she appears to be politically coordinated. After her first Jungmädel excursion her vision is bleak indeed:
Looking down at the path, seeing all those dark-skirted, wind-jacketed, brown-capped girls marching by, was like seeing my whole future. I'll have to march with them, do everything they make you do; there is no way out. It made me want to die. In my religion that's an awful sin. And I can't confess it…. I just hope that God can forgive me directly [without confession and absolution] and that God helps me stay as I am…. On the outside I will be like them…. On the inside, God willing, I'll stay the me you know.
Because Lieselotte has the appearance and personality that corresponded to the image of female leadership in the Federation of German Girls, her struggle will not be easy. During this decisive first outing, Führerin Irmgard recruits her enthusiastically, not only because Lieselotte's father is advancing in the ranks of the SA but also, though Orgel does not mention it, because Lieselotte belongs by definition to the Kampfzeit, the time of struggle, of the Austrian BDM, which, like all Nazi affiliations, was outlawed in Austria before the Anschluss.4 After her family moves to Munich so that Herr Vessely can continue working in the SA, Lieselotte, in a fantasy parallel to Inge's singing the "Horst Wessel Lied," imagines that Inge will march with her in this first outing: "That would show them! Then they'd know what Quatsch [nonsense] that is, the stuff they say about the Jews" (152). As it is for Inge, the "nonsense" is everywhere. She describes the picture from Streicher's notorious book in which Jewish children are dismissed from school to the jeers of Aryan classmates.5 Accepting anti-Semitic propaganda in order to be accepted by her peers is a constant temptation for Lieselotte and the sinister side to the theatrics and glamour of the "fascinating fascism" that attracts her. Lieselotte's struggle to resist Nazi definitions suggests again the authorial wish that such a friendship, even if one partner in it has to go into inner immigration, is indeed possible.
Lieselotte's hope that Irmgard, the much-admired Jungmädel Führerin, could not possibly be anti-Semitic is shattered by Irmgard herself. Among the Jungmädel Lieselotte can escape her domineering father, her passive mother, and her bullying brother. Irmgard is beautiful, and many of the "girls have crushes on her." During the outing, Lieselotte's perceptions, too, are charged with preconscious erotic tension. Irmgard tells her enthusiastically about the events planned for the group, including a giant youth rally where Magda Goebbels, the most beautiful woman in the Reich, may make an appearance. She also promises that she will do everything to get Lieselotte into "Faith and Beauty," a select group within the BDM where girls considered physically and ideologically perfect prepared themselves for their designated roles in National Socialism.6 Lieselotte admits to Inge that she felt "so flattered my whole head started buzzing," but she also wondered why her belly ached the whole time (155).
Enthusiastically Irmgard asks her if she is not proud to be living in such exciting times and when she answers affirmatively Irmgard asks her to carry the flag. In writing to Inge, Lieselotte must split her consciousness as she juxtaposes "swastika" with "Inge, if you had seen me holding it, would you ever want to see me again?" At the time, however, she did not think of Inge. Instead, "I felt so strange, I felt as if my own breath from my lungs was rushing into it [the flag], making it billow like that, as if the flag were pulling me, instead of me carrying it…. Can you possibly know what I mean?" (156). Lieselotte is not conscious of Hitler's rhetoric regarding the flag, but the banner and her relation to it exert their effect on her thirteen-year-old self. Hitler wrote in Mein Kampf:
And what a symbol it really is! Not only that the unique colors, which all of us so passionately love and which once won so much honor for the German people, attest our veneration for the past; they were also the best embodiment of the movement's will. As National Socialists, we see our program in our flag. In red we see the social idea of the movement, in white the nationalistic idea, in the swastika the struggle of the mission for the victory of the Aryan man, and, by the same token, the victory of the idea of creative work, which as such always has been and always will be anti-Semitic.
(496-97, emphasis in original)
By being offered the opportunity to carry the Hitler Youth version of that flag, Lieselotte is called on to join and lead. Indeed, it appears to her that her feeling of elation over being selected animates the flag. Embodying the essence of the movement, the flag could not billow without the living person and, at the same time, as an emblem of the miranda of power the flag empowers and pulls the adherent forward into the movement's future. Orgel emphasizes this by having the troupe of girls start off the Hitler Youth anthem: "Unsere Fahne flattert uns voran" ("Our Flag Billows before Us") as they are led by Lieselotte into the "new time" (156).7 As yet the pressures on Lieselotte are relatively mild, but they are likely to increase, especially after Inge, her check and conscience, has disappeared from her life. Uniform and insignia, songs and propaganda, coupled with the need to be accepted by her peers, are pressures that threaten her promise to remain, if only in her deepest self, loyal to her young Jewish friend. When on her last day in school (March 22) Inge attends a Nazi-dominated school assembly, she is glad for her Jewishness, which excludes her from uttering Nazi propaganda, whereas Lieselotte has to rely on the "switch" in her mind that, she thinks, will enable her to turn the propaganda she utters into gibberish and thus save her from becoming a politically coordinated Nazi (207).
As flag and song inspire and inflate Lieselotte's ego during the outing, she matures, not, like Inge, through a "fall" but in her body's coming of age through the menarche. "White as a sheet" and with an acute bellyache, Lieselotte runs into the woods and stares at the inside of her underpants, where "the crotch was bright, bright red." Unable to comprehend at first what this signifies, she admires the stains "as if they were tulips." Then she worries that "I've hurt myself, I don't know how, I don't know where, but somewhere deep, too deep to ever heal…. Inge, can you imagine? I would never tell this to anyone else as long as I live" (157). It is not the discomfort of the menarche that has hurt her; rather, the deep wound that will never heal is her alignment with Nazism. It is a wound that makes her fleetingly consider suicide, even if that is against her religious values (159).
The blood of physical maturation becomes thus associated for Lieselotte with the ultimate blood sacrifice demanded by National Socialism of those willing to die for the Führer, as well as the bloody violence against all those the Nazis defined as the "other" or the enemy. Irmgard defuses Lieselotte's embarrassment and anxiety over the menarche by handing her a napkin and reassuring her matter-of-factly: "Just think, it happens to half the people in the whole world, every single month" (158). Lieselotte, whose mother tells her not to speak about the menarche so that her father and Heinz won't be offended by this "women's business" (161), is deeply grateful to Irmgard, who demonstrates the modern attitudes the Nazis advocated in these matters (158). Having trusted Irmgard with this intimate experience, Lieselotte is encouraged to ask: "'Irmgard, do you believe the things people say about the Jews?'" (159). With certainty the leader replies: "'Sure! Don't you?'" and gleefully begins to sing "when Jewish blood spurts from our knives" while assuring Inge that girls do not carry knives, but Hitler Youths do, and "'they are no toys'" (159). Though flippantly sung and casually commented on here by the Führerin, the blood imagery points to the murderous destiny the Nazis designed for the Jews of Europe.
Whatever joy and confidence Lieselotte experienced during the outing evaporates. She wants to escape into the woods and live on berries like a fairytale character, but she knows this is impossible and that her only option is her dismal vision of marching gleichgeschaltet (politically coordinated) into the future while trying to preserve her inner self with God's help alone, for she experiences herself as isolated from family, from peer group, and from Inge. Orgel has written for Lieselotte what is potentially a tragic story line about a girl conscious of her alienation in a mass movement.
Against her father's wishes, Lieselotte signs up for religious instruction rather than National Socialist ideology. When Herr Vessely is informed about how she lied and manipulated the system, he belts her three times. Lieselotte screams "like an animal" and vomits as her father not only destroys her world but rids her "of any good feeling I'd ever had for him" (170). Her "fall" is different from Inge's in that her confession and promises are inauthentic and ethically invalid because exacted during the infliction of physical violence and pain. For Inge the fall involves consciousness, guilt, and ethical conflict as her disobedience endangers the family. The brutality of Herr Vessely, however, though it makes Lieselotte mute, cannot force her to be ethically compliant or to have qualms over disobeying an abusive parent.
Inge reads Lieselotte's letters, written between November 9 and November 16, 1937, on March 15, 1938, the day Hitler addressed more than 200,000 enthusiastic Austrians in Vienna. Orgel artfully sublimates that celebratory day, which would truly have annulled Inge's fantasy of single-handedly rescuing the Jewish people. As a Jungmädel, Lieselotte has to strew flowers "for you know who" (143) in Hitler's triumph, a sight the friendship could not endure. Father Ludwig, Lieselotte's uncle, who refuses to flag the swastika at his church, is also in a minority, for the cardinal of Vienna—and Orgel does not comment on this—not only ordered all of Vienna's churches to flag the swastika but visited Hitler on March 15 to pledge the loyalty of Vienna's Catholics to the Nazi regime.
The lone symbolic gesture of a parish priest protesting the Anschluss and the friendship of two girls pledging undying "blood sisterly love" to each other are an authorial projection of a desire comparable to Inge's redemption fantasy, namely, that the personal can make a difference and that friendship with all its intimacies can survive the onslaught of a violent and death-driven political movement. Authorial desire that personal friendship can endure the violence of history is undercut, however, by events, particularly those of March 11-15, 1938. As one historian has stated, the Nazi takeover of Vienna on March 13 gave "the world an illustration of the Blitzverfolgung or lightning persecution" of the Jews that surpassed anything that had transpired so far in Germany (Berkley 259). Whatever seems outrageous in Orgel's narrative—such as Inge's father and grandfather being forced to scrub the streets—must be duplicated in scope and intensity many times in order to approximate historical reality.
For Hitler the triumphant return to cosmopolitan and multinational Vienna was a return to the place that had rejected him as an artist and turned him into an anti-Semite who admitted in Mein Kampf: "In this period there took shape within me a world picture and a philosophy which became the granite foundation of all my acts" (22). Vienna was thus a highly symbolic place for Hitler, who as a "down-and-outer" once stood awestruck "in front of the Opera" and who perceived the whole Ring Boulevard "like an enchantment out of The Thousand-and-One-Nights" (Mein Kampf 19) until the day his fantasies were realized when he addressed the masses in the Heldenplatz on March 15, 1938. Orgel spares young readers this triumph of a loser, spares them the enthusiasm of the Viennese, and spares them the sight of Lieselotte's participation in this event. She includes, however, enough historical information and examples of the harassment and humiliation of Jews to indicate that she is deeply familiar with the events that transpired in the few days covered in Inge's diary.
Inge records several events leading to the Anschluss. With the help of Germany, Austrian Nazis staged an unsuccessful putsch to gain control of the government in 1934. German policy after this focused on the possibility of achieving the Anschluss through an evolutionary process, facilitated especially by Franz von Papen, who was appointed ambassador to Vienna in 1936. The patience of German and Austrian Nazis ran short by 1937, the year the Vesselys moved to Munich because the Nazi Party was outlawed in Austria. Of the political events before March 11, 1938, Orgel includes Hitler's summoning of Chancellor Schuschnigg to Berchtesgaden to propose a nonmilitary annexation of Austria (Orgel 59) and demand the legalization of the Nazi Party as well as the release of all political prisoners. This "mountain top meeting," unlike the mountaintop meeting between Hanna and Franz Dornenwald as imagined by Inge (81), ended in an impasse. Schuschnigg returned to Austria and decided by March 6 to hold a plebiscite on March 13 for Austrian self-determination. Inge's family and friends, as well as the liberal teachers of Inge's humanistic gymnasium, welcomed this plan. On "black Friday," March 11, however, Hitler commissioned Göring to demand by telephone the resignation of Schuschnigg and the appointment of Nazi front man Seyss-Inquart to the office of chancellor. Inge records these events in detail (117-19) and includes a reference to Schuschnigg's moving resignation speech. But, as the family listens intently to the speech, Evi Fried, the only daughter of their Jewish neighbors, asks Inge to play. When Inge later hears that "the government has fallen" (119), she regresses into childlike literalness by imagining Austrian officials before an execution squad.
On March 12, under the pretense of "straightening out the chaos in Austria," Hitler arrived in Linz and in Braunau, his birthplace.8 On March 14, Hitler made his triumphal entry into Vienna, an event that is a textual blank in The Devil in Vienna because Inge is at home and Lieselotte is a participant in Vienna's welcome of Hitler. It is a significant textual blank, a very conscious and ethically motivated authorial choice that denies Nazism its inflated theatrics, its "triumph of the will," and focuses instead on the beginnings of Nazi brutalities against the Jews, which, after the onset of "the final solution," were never to be recorded but were to be, according to the head of the SS, "a page of glory in our history which has never been written and is never to be written."9
On March 11, the day before all Viennese schools were closed to make youths available for pro-Nazi demonstrations (Botz 74), Inge and her classmates are translating Cicero: "As yet I have encountered no man who would not rather yield to Caesar's demands than fight" (115), a critique of Austria's attitudes and a tribute to Latin, a language loved by Orgel and her mother. As the students leave school, they see that the streets are crowded with Nazis (116). As a warm-up for the main event, the Reich Youth leader Baldur von Schirach had arrived in Vienna to address 40,000 "Hitler Youths and BDM girls who in disciplined and orderly fashion lined up before him … [as] … he announced that 'from today on the Austrian Jungvolk would cease to exist, there would be only one Hitler Youth'" (Botz 70). Most of them participated in Hitler's triumphal entry into Vienna and listened to his March 15 address in the Heldenplatz, where he declaimed: "as Führer and Reich Chancellor of Germany I announce to history that my homeland has become part of the German Reich." The masses responded with roaring applause, sustained "Sieg Heils," and the singing of the German national anthem and the "Horst Wessel Lied." It is in this context that Lieselotte must be imagined. The pressures to conform in such situations are tremendous. Hitler concluded his business in Vienna that afternoon by receiving Cardinal Innitzer, who pledged his whole-hearted support followed by a pastoral letter instructing Catholics to vote for the Anschluss in the plebiscite. The Catholic Church's official position, then, makes Uncle Ludwig's stance very radical and rather unlikely as he facilitates the escape of the Dornenwalds and others by predating baptismal records.
Random and systematic violence against Europe's third-largest Jewish community began from the first days of Nazi rule; the Austrian police stood by:
The most visible and wide-spread form that this lightning persecution took was street-cleaning actions. Jews, young and old, rich and poor, reli-gious and non-religious, were ordered out into the streets to scrub pro-Schuschnigg slogans and symbols from the sidewalks and pavements. But the Nazis added several features to make the work more in keeping with their purposes. The water given to the Jews was often mixed with acid, which burned their fingers, and the implements they were given for this "cleansing" were often toothbrushes. Wealthy Jews were ordered to wear their best clothes.
As the Jews bent over their work, storm troopers and Hitler Youth stood by to harass and humiliate them in every way possible. In Währing, one of Vienna's wealthier sections, Nazis, after ordering Jewish women to scrub streets in their fur coats, then stood over them and urinated on their heads.
When Inge's father and grandfather come home from this ordeal on March 12, she does not recognize them: "I thought they were two old beggars…. O. O. was stooped over like a ninety-year-old man. Vati's eyes were red and swollen, he could hardly see out of them. His hands shook. His mouth quivered when he spoke" (127). They, too, had used the toothbrushes and had buckets of ammonia thrown over them while the crowd "joked and jeered, and not one said a word against it" (128). Dornenwald also mentions the moral heroism of Chief Rabbi Dr. Taglicht, who, while scrubbing the street, said, "I am cleaning God's earth," a gesture of almost futile dignity, desperately remembered in the midst of rampaging abuse (Orgel 128; Berkley 260).
Orgel was no doubt familiar with a well-known photograph depicting a Jewish boy painting the word Jud on the foundation of a Jewish business as he is being supervised by a Nazi in Austrian attire and surrounded by jeering youths (Berkley opposite 275). When Inge walks home on March 18, she encounters just such a scene: "I saw a bunch of people standing outside a stationery store. A little boy with a skullcap on was painting J E W on the window. A man in leather pants with a swastika armband on was making him do it. I only saw it for a second. I didn't need to look longer than that. It will always be there in my mind, and so will Herr Fried's store, smashed in, even when I am an old, old woman" (192).
Throughout the narrative, Orgel emphasizes the manner in which Inge sees anti-Semitic slogans scrawled on the walls: she looks at the threatening image and looks away, but the image stays imprinted (89). What she sees now distorts normal reality so that for a moment she is not sure what is real. When she arrives with Evi Fried on March 18 at Herr Fried's jewelry store to have the chain to her Mogen David necklace repaired, the trope of the "hole in the world," the deep wound inflicted on her when her father and grandfather were abused by the Nazis, concretizes itself in the shattered window of Fried's store, and her perception is momentarily disoriented in a world gone awry: "When we were nearly there, a car drove by, and the sun hit the wind-shield in such a way, it made a glare that hurt my eyes. I put my hand over my eyes. When I took my hand away, I thought my eyes were not working right—because the glass window of Herr Fried's jewelry store looked all zigzagged to me … it was smashed" (189-90). As the necklace, symbolic of her Jewish identity, is repaired, she relates the window to "the hole in the world I thought I was just making up as a way of writing how I felt on Saturday, and so that hole is just as real" (192). Metaphor has once more become historical reality.
The hole in the world, the abyss that destabilizes everything, makes life unbearable to Franz Dornenwald's business partner: "'Ingelein, he killed himself. They sent his brother to Dachau. Max couldn't bear it. He thought he might be next'" (187). Orgel acknowledges with one example the drastic increase in suicides after the Anschluss, especially between March 11 and 18, the majority of whom were Jews (Botz 98-105). How close Franz himself is to this act is revealed in his need for comfort as he pulls Inge into his lap and tells her that his partner did not have a daughter who would have kept him from such a desperate act. Inge, who has just come from a meeting with Lieselotte, feels sick with guilt as she extricates herself from her father's embrace. Ten days later, when she goes with her mother to the Yugoslavian consulate to negotiate for visas, she sees a Stürmer headline: A Hundred Jewish Suicides Daily Not Enough. Thousands Needed. Goering Calls for Jew-Cleansed Vienna (226). By that time it is clear to her that she "cannot go on 'endangering our lives'" by having Lieselotte as a friend (213).
The Dornenwalds cannot get a visa unless they present officials with a baptismal record dated no later than 1936. They hope that Father Ludwig will let them fill in the dates, but he insists that Herr and Frau Dornenwald go through the ritual of baptism. Thus the priest's willingness to falsify the date on the certificate is undercut by his unwillingness to spare the Dornenwalds the ritual. The enforced baptism, enacted so many times throughout history, makes Inge glad that she does not have to be present, because as a minor she will travel with her parents: "I didn't want to be there when it happened" (234). Young Inge can remain officially Jewish. In gratitude for the girls' friendship, which facilitated the Dornenwalds' escape to Yugoslavia, Inge's parents allow them one final get-together. They go to the Prater, Vienna's amusement park, and, when both are at the top of the Ferris wheel, Inge has the impulse to release her blue balloon and Lieselotte follows suit. As they watch them sailing into the sky, Lieselotte allegorizes: "'They look like our friendship floating away.'" Inge, however, neither needs nor can afford tropes: "'No, they're just balloons. They just have helium in them, not blood'" (240). After describing how Inge assures Lieselotte that their friendship will be in a book that she might, some day, be able to read, Orgel leaves blank the moment when the two friends actually part. At best, Lieselotte must live with a split consciousness, hiding her real self in her innermost being. Inge, however, can achieve closure through her maturation. She has accepted her Jewishness and no longer desires to be accepted by the community that ostracizes her. Finally, she has given closure to her friendship by containing it in a diary. As a result, Inge is "not sad to be leaving Vienna behind. Oh, sure, it's where I was born, and where my parents were born—and if we were not getting out, it's also the place where we might die. I don't mean when we're old, I mean a lot sooner" (242).
The sparing of the child, the shielding of the child as character and reader, is accomplished first of all by Orgel's choice of genre, which places Inge's account of history within the relatively narrow context of her life. There is one other gap, however, that the diarist herself creates. Inge emphasizes repeatedly that she writes in order to record how she "really feels" about Lieselotte, but Inge never describes those feelings as history begins to deconstruct their friendship. She describes her behavior toward Lieselotte, her actions and reactions, but not the nature of her bond. The dichotomies "a Nazi girl's best friend is a Jewish girl" and "a Jewish girl's best friend is a Nazi girl" create a subtextual uneasiness throughout the narrative. Except for very overt conflicts such as parental prohibitions, the implications of that uneasiness remain unexplored. The central fiction of the narrative—the possibility that such a friendship could endure through atrocious history—is made plausible by the immediacy of a thirteen-year-old's narrative point of view. I suspect that it was also for Orgel a necessary fiction, a stay against the hopelessness and despair that overwhelmed Jewish families during those days and in the months that followed. Inge leaves Vienna before Lieselotte is consumed by Nazi history, by the ruthless dominance that tore a hole in the world and negated hope for the fragile bond of friendship.
1. All biographical information is taken from Doris Orgel's essay about herself in Something about the Author.
2. Although a few critics have expressed doubts as to Inge's interest in current events, one Jewish survivor of that time remembers: "We children had to be alert and informed, and read the daily news, and not just the sports pages" (Chaimowicz 292).
3. Such fantasies were even part of dreams remembered by victims of anti-Semitism. See Beradt, The Third Reich of Dreams 127-29. Beradt records the dream of a Jewish doctor who "cured Hitler … the only one in the Reich who was able to."
4. The members of Germany's Hitler Youth who joined before October 2, 1932, were considered "old fighters" and received a gold medal in 1934 in recognition. After the seizure of power in 1933, the Hitler Youth soon lost their militant aura and became politically coordinated as Staatsjugend, youth of the state. In Austria the time of struggle lasted, of course, until the Anschluss.
5. Julius Streicher endorsed the infamous picture book by Elwira Bauer, "Trau keinem Fuchs auf grüner Heid und keinem Jud bei seinem Eid": Ein Bilderbuch für Gross und Klein. This book includes Aryan children jeering as Jewish students are dismissed from school and, significantly, has on its final page a picture showing Jews being driven out of the country along a one-way street. The image on the back cover shows a grotesque caricature of a Jew behind the star of David. The slogan underneath that image reads: Eine Lösung der Judenfrage, eine Erlösung der Menschen (A solution of the Jewish problem, a salvation of humanity). Satanic images abound in this picture book.
6. "Glaube und Schönheit," officially established by Baldur von Schirach, the Reich Youth Leader, in 1938, emphasized "feminine" education in domestic sciences and fashion design along with physical fitness and ideological correctness. Membership was not automatic and was for girls seventeen years or older. Orgel is probably correct in assuming that "Glaube und Schönheit" was discussed informally in 1937, but Lieselotte would not be eligible to join for at least four years.
7. The anthem was composed by Baldur von Schirach for the film version (1934) of the prototypical Nazi youth novel Hitlerjunge Quex. Its first stanza reads: "Our flag unfurls before us. / Moving into the future / Man for man. / We march for Hitler / Through night and need / With the flag of Youth for Freedom and bread. / Our flag unfurls before us, / Our flag is the new time / And our flag leads us into eternity! / Yes, our flag is more than death."
8. For historically summative accounts of Austria and the Anschluss consult Berkley, Vienna and Its Jews; Brooke-Shepherd, The Anschluss; Botz, Wien vom "Anschluss" zum Krieg; Chorherr, 1938—Anatomie eines Jahres; Wagner and Tomkowitz, Anschluss: The Week Hitler Seized Vienna.
9. This famous quotation is from the speech given by Heinrich Himmler in October 1943 when he exhorted the SS, who were by then implementing the final solution, to remain "decent" in spite of the difficult orders they had to follow. History, for once, seems to have been just in that the "unwritten page of history" has been filled indeed!
Bauer, Elwira. "Trau keinem Fuchs auf grüner Heid und keinem Jud bei seinem Eid": Ein Bilderbuch für Gross und Klein. Nuremberg: Stürmer Verlag, 1936.
Beradt, Charlotte. The Third Reich of Dreams. Trans. Adriane Gottwald. Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1968.
Berkley, George E. Vienna and Its Jews: The Tragedy of Success, 1880–1980. Cambridge: Abt Books, 1988.
Botz, Gerhard. Wien vom Anschluss zum Krieg. Vienna and Munich: Jugend und Volk Verlagsgesellschaft, 1978.
Brooke-Shepherd, Gordon. The Anschluss. New York: J. B. Lippincott, 1963.
Chaimowicz, Thomas. "'Lacht nicht ich wasche Gottes Erde': Als Jude und Legimitist im Wien von 1938." In 1938—Anatomie eines Jahres. Ed. Thomas Chorherr. Munich: Carl Ueberreuter, 1987.
Chorherr, Thomas, ed. 1938—Anatomie eines Jahres. Munich: Carl Ueberreuter, 1987.
Hitler, Adolf. Mein Kampf. Trans. Ralph Manheim. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1962.
Nakamura, Joyce, ed. Something about the Author. Autobiography Series 19. New York: Gale Research, 1995.
Orgel, Doris. The Devil in Vienna. New York: Penguin, 1988.
Sontag, Susan. "Fascinating Fascism." In Under the Sign of Saturn. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1972/80.
Toll, Claudia Maria. Ästhetik im Abseits: Der pädagogische Gestus als Prinzip der Gestaltung von Kinderliteratur am Beispiel von Büchern zum Thema Nationalsozialismus. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 1986.
Wagner, Dieter, and Gerhard Tomkowitz. Anschluss: The Week Hitler Seized Vienna. Trans. Geoffrey Strachan. New York: St. Martin's, 1971.
Louise Sylvester (essay date January 2002)
SOURCE: Sylvester, Louise. "A Knock at the Door: Reading Judith Kerr's Picture Books in the Context of Her Holocaust Fiction." Lion and the Unicorn 26, no. 1 (January 2002): 16-30.
[In the following essay, Sylvester contrasts British children's author Judith Kerr's ostensibly non-Holocaust picture books with her autobiographical When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, noting thematic elements that—for Sylvester—add an aspect of danger and fear to the former.]
The question of how the Holocaust should be represented to children, in particular through the medium of literature, has been much discussed. In "Holocaust Literature for Children," James Farnham lays out the first stage of the argument: "Initially we may be dealing with the general question of whether evil should be brought into children's literature at all … But if we agree that evil as such should be included in the presentation of reality in children's literature, then I can think of no reason why the Holocaust should be excluded" (55; Russell 267). Eric Kimmel's essay "Confronting the Ovens" reflects on the problems involved in the creation of Holocaust literature for children. Kimmel notes that the weight of creating a memorial to the dead "hangs especially heavy over the juvenile writer, who is torn between his duty to-ward his subject and his responsibility towards his craft" (84). This dilemma is taken up by Virginia Walter and Susan March, who suggest that "No matter how ambiguous or bleak the situation may seem throughout the plot, the conclusion must provide the child reader with some resolution" (37). The issue of resolution is brought into focus by Adrienne Kertzer's observation that "If we persist in thinking that children need hope and happy endings (and I must confess that I believe that they do), then the stories we give them about the Holocaust will be shaped by those expectations" (253). The problem, therefore, is that having accepted that we want books with which to educate our children about the Holocaust, we still require writers to be sensitive to the particular needs of their audience; the events of the Holocaust must be presented truthfully without the child being denied the possibility of an optimistic and life-affirming outcome to the story. As Walter and March conclude: "The problem of the less developed cognitive capacity and limited life experiences of the young reader often manifests itself in a tension between the need to protect the child and the need to inform" (39-40). This particular tension resonates to powerful effect on both sides of the equation: for those with stories to tell and for their child audiences.
The writer and illustrator Judith Kerr presents a particularly interesting paradigm because she has produced narratives about the Holocaust for all ages (the autobiographical trilogy Out of the Hitler Time), beside a large number of picture books for young children. The first volume of the trilogy, When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, is the only part of the fictionalized memoir specifically aimed at a child audience. Kerr's note informs the reader that "All my novels are based on things that happened to me a long time ago. I wanted to describe what it was like—what it was really like—to flee from the Nazis" (author's note, Out of the Hitler Time 810). Kerr is equally, if not more, celebrated for her picture books. The world of picture books designed for very young children is typically made up of a cozy round of picnics and domestic chores; in Kerr's picture books, however, danger is ever-present, as is a thread of anxiety about separation that runs through them. Commenting on Kerr's writing, Gillian Lathey suggests that the picture books and the autobiographical fiction should be viewed entirely separately; she notes that Kerr "had already established a successful career as the author and illustrator of picture books for younger children, for example Mog the Forgetful Cat (1970) and The Tiger Who Came to Tea (1968) when she started work on the trilogy of novels based on her childhood as a Jewish refugee in Europe and her new life in England" (33). Given their dates of publication, however, and Kerr's statement that she "writes slowly and with difficulty" (author's note, Out of the Hitler Time 810), it seems likely that she was working on her autobiographical novels at the same time as she was producing her early picture books. With this in mind, I should like to read Kerr's picture books, in particular The Tiger Who Came to Tea, within the context of the autobiographical children's novel When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit. In spite of the conventions of the picture book genre in which she has chosen to work, it seems to me that traces of Kerr's traumatic childhood experiences may be found throughout her writing.
When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit was first published in 1971, placing it fairly early in the process of recording the Holocaust and representing it artistically. The historian Tony Kushner observes that "it was to be several decades after 1945 before the Holocaust became established not only as an academic subject, but also in more popular cultural representations. Put boldly, before the 1960s at the earliest, the Holocaust as a self-enclosed entity had not yet entered into the general consciousness or memory of the Western world" (2-3). When considering Kerr's work it is important to note the context of a silence that was particular to the British Jewish community, but similar to that in all Jewish communities. In the introduction to their collection of interviews, the Jewish Women in London Group note that many Holocaust survivors and refugees coped by submerging their memories (11). One of their interviewees, Rita Altman, says several times that the traumatic experiences of the Holocaust went undiscussed, though she cannot say why (119-21). Yet compare comments by Maya Nagy in the same volume: "I learned very soon that the one thing I must not do is to talk about my experiences…. It's hard to talk about what early morning roll call was like in the concentration camp, and I shut up, I think, after two attempts—I just looked down and never talked about it" (181; see also Bolchover 48-53; Karpf 165-67). Anne Karpf comments on the shock and paralysis felt by British Jews when they saw the newsreel images of Jewish suffering with the knowledge of how little pressure they had attempted to exert from their relatively safe position: "One can imagine their sense of guilt and discomfort in the presence of survivors, walking reminders of what they were doubtless trying to forget" (199). As a refugee Kerr must have experienced both this and the incomprehension of the English population in general. The second volume of her fictional-ized autobiography, entitled The Other Way Round, describes the life of her alter ego Anna in London during the war. In this book Kerr offers her opinion, vocalized through Anna, of the well-known moment in which the British public was shown the opening up of the concentration camps:
In April the British and American armies overran the first concentration camps, and the first horrifying descriptions appeared in the press and on the radio. Anna was astonished at the reaction. Why was everyone so surprised? She had known about the concentration camps since she was nine years old. At least now the English will understand what it was like, she thought.
This last sentence offers an indication of the pressure of silence felt by Kerr's younger self. The effect of this silence may in part account for the way in which Kerr reserved the publication of her own story until after she had published her first picture books.
THE TIGER WHO CAME TO TEA
Kerr's picture book The Tiger Who Came to Tea has recently celebrated its thirtieth birthday. It has never been out of print in Britain, where it is her most famous work. The back of the current edition displays extracts from a review written by Antonia Fraser when the book was first published, in which she suggests that it will cause children to "scream with delicious pleasure at the dangerous naughtiness of the notion." It is the quality of danger conveyed by the story, rather than that of naughtiness, that I wish to focus on, in an attempt to investigate why Kerr's picture books seem so frightening to me, and perhaps to other readers who come to them from somewhere other than an undivided British background.
As the story opens a little girl called Sophie and her mother are having tea together. The doorbell rings, and the mother wonders who is at the door:
It can't be the milkman because he came this morning. And it can't be the boy from the grocer because this isn't the day he comes. And it can't be Daddy because he's got his key.
Sophie's mother is clearly not expecting any visitors, and is, moreover, disturbed by this unexpected summons to the door. Thus, under the guise of a mother amusing her daughter with a guessing game, a scene of extreme anxiety is indicated. The scene seems to resonate strongly with those literary works for adults that play on the threatening quality of unexpected visitors who crash into what has seemed to be a safe haven. A particularly pertinent example is that of Pinter's play The Birthday Party, in which the dubious home created by Meg, an archetypal mother-figure, and inhabited by Stanley, whose role is that of a son, is invaded by the suave and menacing figures of Goldberg and McCann. Pinter's work sets up echoes of the private fears we all feel of an unexpected and powerful stranger entering the nest. Unspoken in that text is also the particular threat of the knock at the door experienced by Jews in Europe during the Second World War, which seems now to be an inevitable point of reference. As John Russell Taylor notes:
The menace comes from outside, from the intruder whose arrival unsettles the warm and comfortable world bounded by four walls, and any intrusion can be menacing, because the element of uncertainty and unpredictability the intruder brings with him is in itself menacing … We can all fear an unexpected knock at the door … (it is surely not entirely without significance that Pinter, himself a Jew, grew up during the war, precisely the time when the menace inherent in such a situation would have been through the medium of the cinema or radio, most imaginatively present to any child and particularly perhaps a Jewish child).
It is interesting that despite the anxiety evinced by Sophie's mother, Kerr's illustration shows Sophie opening the door. Here we seem to see Kerr's ambivalence about her material. On the surface this is a romp for children, and Sophie's being sent by her mother to open the door serves to negate the earlier indication of fearfulness and to suggest that, on the contrary, nothing really menacing can lie behind the summons. When Sophie opens the door she finds a very large tiger, who asks if he can come in and have tea with them. In the illustrations, drawn by Kerr herself, the tiger is shown, in part at least, as attractive and soft; in one picture Sophie sits on the floor cuddling the tiger's tail as he crouches on the sink drinking water from the taps. Equally, however, he is clearly enormous. Inviting such a creature into the house, especially given that tigers are well-known predators of mammals, seems extremely fool-hardy. The air of danger is reinforced by the fact that, his speech apart, the tiger is given no quasihuman attributes such as clothes to anthropomorphize him (unlike, for example, the tiger in Ursula Moray Williams's Tiger Nanny). I read the implication of all this as a lack of choice on the part of Sophie, and more particularly on the part of her mother, who is clearly supposed to be looking after her—a responsibility that ought to involve preventing wild animals from entering the house, rather than inviting one to join the family tea. Sophie's mother is obviously constrained to behave politely to the tiger, who almost immediately oversteps the bounds of the invitation:
Sophie's mummy said, "Would you like a sandwich?" But the tiger didn't take just one sandwich. He took all the sandwiches on the plate and swallowed them in one big mouthful. Owp! And he still looked hungry, so Sophie passed him the buns. But again the tiger didn't eat just one bun. He ate all the buns on the dish.
The same thing happens with the biscuits and the cake. The tiger then drinks all the milk in the jug and all the tea in the teapot. Here again he does not behave as his manner may have led Sophie and her mother to expect. Kerr's illustration shows the milk jug lying overturned on the table, and the tiger raising the teapot to his mouth. It is this complete failure to observe the rules of the tea-party game, combined with his destructive consumption of all the tea, that presumably inspired Fraser's assessment of the naughtiness of the notion of having a tiger to tea. Looked at in another light, however, the tiger's behavior continues to set up the story as frightening; were he not so large, and presumably so threatening, it seems likely, given the children's picture book genre, that Sophie's mother would have given him some lessons in manners.
Having consumed everything on the tea-table, the tiger "looked round the kitchen to see what else he could find" (10-11). By this point in the story the tiger has stopped asking politely for what he wants, but just helps himself:
He ate all the supper that was cooking in the saucepans … and all the food in the fridge,… and all the packets and tins in the cupboard … and he drank all the milk, and all the orange juice, and all Daddy's beer, and all the water in the tap.
(12-16, ellipses in original)
The tiger then thanks Sophie and her mother and leaves. The illustration shows a smiling tiger waving and leaving, and the backs of Sophie and her mother. The text at this point eschews adjectives or any emotional information; Sophie's mother merely remarks that she does not know what to do as she has "nothing for Daddy's supper, the tiger has eaten it all" (19). The picture, however, shows her red-faced (her blush perhaps reflecting the shame that is almost always felt by victims), with her hand to her mouth, her other hand holding a broom. The kitchen is shown in turmoil, with cupboard doors open, and bowls, spoons, saucepans, empty packets, and upside-down teapot all over the floor. The tiger has not, it seems, come just for tea, but for all of their tea, and for everything they have. On the following page Sophie makes the discovery that she cannot have her bath because the tiger has drunk all the water in the tap. Here Kerr appears to be reinforcing the point even beyond the logic of her own story. Water is normally seen as an unfailing utility; falling from the sky as a gift of nature, it cannot be consumed within one household to the point at which it runs out. The tiger has, in effect, cut off the family's supply of an essential element, leaving them dangerously stranded (if only, it is implied, temporarily).
The departure of the tiger and the exposition of the aftermath of his visit would seem to be the end of the story. Kerr, though, recognizes that some happier resolution is required, so at this point an alternative authority figure in the shape of Sophie's father enters the house. On hearing the story, he offers a version of an outside world in which food is plentiful and available and in which movement is unrestricted. He takes the family out to a café for supper. The following pages provide further reassurance by depicting Sophie and her mother shopping for food to replace that which was ravaged by the tiger. Kerr cannot quite leave it there, however, and she includes the information that Sophie and her mother also buy a large tin of tiger food, in case the tiger should ever return. Readers who turn over what seems to be the final page find the line "But he never did" (28), but the positioning of this line, alone on a page on which it could easily escape notice, seems to suggest ambivalence on Kerr's part about providing this final reassurance to her readers. Indeed, it is not entirely reassuring in any case, for it offers the possibility that though the tiger never returned to Sophie's house, he continued on his way seeking out the homes and food of other children.
The Tiger Who Came to Tea offers a perfect example of a picture book for young children. It may also be seen as capturing a very painful episode of Kerr's childhood history. Her autobiographical novel When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit opens at the very beginning of 1933, just before the elections in Germany. Its protagonist, Anna (the Kerr character), is nine years old: old enough to notice and discuss the posters of Hitler that she and her friends see on their way home from school, and to respond to her friend's informa-tion that Hitler "wants everybody to vote for him in the elections and then he's going to stop the Jews" with the surprising news that she herself is Jewish (8). Anna returns home from school a few days later to find that her father has disappeared. It turns out that he has received a tip-off and has left Germany on the night train to Prague. He arranges for Anna and her mother and older brother to meet him in Switzerland. There Anna falls ill and on her recovery, in what seems to me to be a pivotal scene for the reading of Kerr's work for children, Anna's brother tells her the news:
"We can't get a house because we haven't any furniture."
"But …" said Anna.
"The Nazis have pinched the lot," said Max. "It's called confiscation of property."…
"Max, this … confiscation of property, whatever it's called—did the Nazis take everything—even our things?"
Anna tried to imagine it. The piano was gone … the dining-room curtains with the flowers … her bed … all her toys which included her stuffed Pink Rabbit….
"I always knew we should have brought the games compendium," said Max. "Hitler's probably playing Snakes and Ladders with it this very minute."
"And snuggling my Pink Rabbit!" said Anna and laughed. But some tears had come into her eyes and were running down her cheeks all at the same time.
(63-65, ellipses within lines in original)
Kerr thus presents in this novel the child's-eye view of the Gestapo marching into her home and confiscating her family's property. The scene is rendered especially powerful because neither of the children has witnessed it; they have had to take it on trust that it could happen, and indeed that it has happened. Despite the evidence of change and the upheaval of their sudden emigration from Germany, the scene they imagine remains in some sense surreal: the confiscation of property means that their home has changed, and they imagine Hitler is playing with their board games. This combination of events means not only that their property would now seem to be permanently unavailable to them, but that adults are powerless to stop people walking into someone's home, taking everything and, presumably, leaving chaos in their wake. The parallel with the story of The Tiger Who Came to Tea seems exact. The information that the adult Kerr clearly knows, but does not reveal in When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, concerns the families who did not leave Germany, and who were still in their homes when the Nazis came for them and for their property. The very title of The Tiger Who Came to Tea reveals Kerr's concerns, which are not with pogroms and round-ups, but rather with that moment in which civilization, a world governed by rights and freedoms, collides with a new world in which it is almost impossible (though clearly essential) to understand the rules, and in which a knock at the door offers real menace. It may be revealing, too, about the collision in Kerr's mind between the dissolution of what she had supposed was a secure childhood home, and the difficulties experienced in what she was assured was a safe and civilized country (depicted in The Other Way Round). In its representation of the unexpected and terrifying visitor, Kerr's picture book, like Pinter's Birthday Party, finds a resonance with our deepest and most buried fears.
THE MOG BOOKS
After The Tiger Who Came to Tea, the books for which Kerr is best known in England are those in the series that concerns Mog, the Thomas family's cat. Examining Kerr's picture books in the context of her Holocaust fiction, a number of connections may be drawn between When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, The Tiger Who Came to Tea and the Mog books: connections that contribute to the sense of disruption and of imminent danger that is always present in Kerr's work for young children.
The theme of being exiled from one's home (which Kerr experienced) is depicted with great originality, and some risk, in Mog in the Dark. Through the book runs a refrain of yearning: "I want my house and my people" (14); "I want my house and my people" (22); "Where is my house and where are my people?" (25); "I want my house and my people" (27). After a number of fearful adventures Mog finds herself back in her original home, but the book is so full of fantastical elements that the ending looks even more like wish-fulfilment than is usual with happy endings in children's books. The whole adventure appears to have been a nightmare, but there are hints that the events depicted might really have taken place.
Dreams and nightmares are pervasive throughout Kerr's books. Sometimes these provide light relief, for example Mog's dream that she can fly in Mog the Forgetful Cat; at other times they are a function of the plot, such as the Thomas daughter's nightmare, in the same book, that a tiger wants to eat her. Kerr also makes use of the dream format to explore the emotional responses of her characters. Nightmares are used in When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit to reveal Anna's concern about her father and her anxieties about finding herself in a new country with a new language to learn. In Mog on Fox Night, Mog has a "cross dream" in which Mr. Thomas has put all the eggs in the world into a binbag and is trying to take them away from her. Most commonly, however, dreams in Kerr's books serve to articulate fear. As its title indicates, Mog's Amazing Birthday Caper is intended to teach the alphabet to children. Beginning at D, in which Mog "dreams and dreams and dreams. She dreams of dragons doing damage in the dark," and continuing with E for "elephants eating Emily" and F for "her family floating far into a fog," the text delineates a series of nightmares that reaches its apogee at S: "Soaring into the sky, Mog sees survivors struggling on a sinking sofa, surrounded by smiling sharks" and T: "They're terrified! They're Mr. and Mrs. Thomas!" As in real nightmares, it is not clear to the reader until the end that all the scenes depicted are part of Mog's dream. There are, too, some unusual choices of words for a children's alphabet book, most notably the term "survivors"; and in the pages that follow, the fate of the family is extremely uncertain: U stands for "Unbalanced! Upset! Upended! Underwater!" Here, as happens often in Kerr's picture books, the depiction of a terrifying situation that involves separation from loved ones seems to overstep the boundaries set up by our expectations of the genre.
A powerful link with Kerr's fictionalized memoir is provided by Mog and Bunny, in which Mog is given a cuddly toy, shown in the illustrations throughout the book as a pink rabbit. Mog takes it everywhere, to the repeated disgust and annoyance of Mr. and Mrs. Thomas; one illustration shows Mrs. Thomas furtively trying to drop the bunny into the dustbin. The pink bunny is Mog's favorite thing and ultimately, despite the threats of those in authority, she is allowed to keep it. It is impossible not to be reminded of the terrible choice faced by Anna in When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, when there is only room in the suitcase for one cuddly toy and she must choose between a brand new woolly dog and her old pink rabbit. Later Anna is sure that she has made the wrong choice, and that this choice is irrevocable: "She felt terribly sad about Pink Rabbit … How could she ever have chosen to pack that characterless woolly dog in its stead? It had been a terrible mistake, and now she would never be able to put it right" (64). The lost pink rabbit finds another echo in the cuddly toy on the bed of the Thomas daughter in Mog on Fox Night; once again, it is a pink rabbit. It seems as if Kerr cannot help but return again and again to the trauma of being severed from the toy that she represents as the chief companion of the childhood of her fictionalized self. This experience clearly stands as a metaphor for her disrupted childhood.
These elements are not the focus of the Mog stories, but they resonate strongly with themes explored by Kerr in her autobiographical fiction. They provide unconscious echoes from her life story and offer a pervasive subtext of loss, separation and danger that is overlaid by the bright colors and happy endings demanded by the picture book genre. Even when Kerr writes about these childhood experiences overtly, the tone she adopts is for the most part cheerful. At the beginning of When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, Anna's belief in the security of her family is intact. She is represented as a sensitive child, however, concerned about her hopes of becoming a writer like her father (and like Kerr's father), and an artist:
Lately she had been producing a number of illustrated poems which had been much admired both at home and at school. There had been one about a fire, one about an earthquake and one about a man who died in dreadful agonies after being cursed by a tramp. Why not try her hand at a shipwreck?…
"My teacher Fraulein Schmidt thinks I should write about more cheerful subjects like the spring and the flowers."
"And do you want to write about the spring and the flowers?"
"No," said Anna sadly. "Right now all I seem to be able to do is disasters."
Papa gave a little sideways smile and said that perhaps she was in tune with the times.
"Do you think then," asked Anna anxiously, "that disasters are all right to write about?" Papa became serious at once.
"Of course!" he said. "If you want to write about disasters, that's what you must do. It's no use trying to write what other people want."
Here Kerr is on the brink of acknowledging that her creative work is informed by the historical process in which she is caught up. Although the narrative voice seems to condemn the teacher for her lack of insight in wishing to impose cheerful subject matter on Anna, Kerr seems reluctant to confront the reasons for Anna's repeated choice of disasters as subjects for her poems, finally giving to Papa the observation that it is the times in which she lives and the clouds closing in on the Jews that may be influencing her writing.
One question we are left with is how far the interpretations I have offered of The Tiger Who Came to Tea and of the Mog stories are available, at least to the adults reading the story to their children. The presentation of the Holocaust in literature continues to be debated. The fiftieth anniversary of the end of the war marked a watershed, following which writers began to depict the Holocaust in ways that had not seemed appropriate (perhaps not even permissible) before. Farnham concludes his consideration of Holocaust literature for children by noting that, "In recent years an open and public debate about the Holocaust has been evident in many forums. Children's literature should participate in this dialogue" (61). Kerr's treatment of the theme is not explicit in The Tiger Who Came to Tea, nor should it be, given the age of its target audience. It seems very unlikely that even Jewish parents, the group with the most acute need to teach their children about the Holocaust, would consider the age at which picture books appeal a suitable one for this education to begin. In his article "Narrative Voice in Young Readers' Fictions about Nazism, the Holocaust, and Nuclear War," Hamida Bosmajian questions the motivation of adults who choose to write narratives about the history of Nazism and the Holocaust for children (308). Studies of picture books which have attempted explicit portrayal of the Holocaust, for example discussions of Margaret Wild's Let the Celebrations Begin!, seem unanimous in their conclusion that Wild's text and Vivas's illustrations depict an unlikely and anomalous piece of history, and that their book forms a puzzling addition to the picture book genre (Walter and March 42-45; Kertzer 245-46). There are, of course, exceptions to the conclusion that the depiction of the Holocaust in a picture book for young children is impossible to achieve. The children's book Rose Blanche, by Roberto Innocenti and Christophe Gallaz, offers a more successful attempt to represent the Holocaust within the format of a picture book (Walter and March 48).
For young children an implicit theme may resound very loudly. Noting that Aranka Siegal's Holocaust memoirs are marketed as children's books, Adrienne Kertzer suggests that this decision "demonstrates more than the ineptness of publishers in recognizing the features of age-specific reading, but the way the Holocaust mocks our belief in any clear relationship between maturity and understanding" (241). It must also be remembered that reading a picture book is an activity in which the experience is simultaneously shared by adult and child. As Walter and March note:
Our analysis of two picture books about the unlikely topic of the Jewish Holocaust … has thus led us to a new element in the ongoing discussion of the nature of children's books. We suggest that the context in which a children's book is read is as important as the content or the format. Let the Celebrations Begin! and Rose Blanche should not be viewed as simply children's picture books, or even as picture books for "older children"; they are children's books for adults to share with children. They imply not only a child reader, but also an adult mediator.
What Kerr's picture books seem to offer is realism, of a fairly harsh kind, dressed as fantasy. There are signs of Kerr's ambivalence towards her material, for example the occasional dissonance between her illustrations and her text. One of the two frontispieces of The Tiger Who Came to Tea depicts Sophie riding on the tiger's back beneath a blue sky and a shining smiling yellow sun, a scene that does not appear anywhere in the story. Similarly, in Mog in the Dark an illustration in the text shows a very worried-looking Mog standing on the back of the very large and grim-looking creature, half mouse and half dog, with large wings. This scene is also depicted on the title page, but here the mousedogbird faces out of the picture. It is smiling, and Mog, now seated, looks quite excited. Some of the symbols of Kerr's childhood retain their potency even at the surface level of her texts; the lost pink rabbit, for example, comes to represent the impossibility of recapturing her past life, from which she was severed so abruptly.
Kerr has spoken of her childhood as having been frozen in time; for many years it was inaccessible to her and was not linked in any way to her present self (Lathey 73). This lack of connection is expressed both explicitly and implicitly in the fictionalized memoir of her childhood. In the section of the book in which the family is living in Switzerland, Anna's feelings of displacement are expressed only as dissatisfaction with the way in which her tenth birthday is marked; the family join Papa on an outing with the Zurich Literary Society, which in no way lives up to the celebrations of previous birthdays. On the outing her father tells her that they will need to move to yet another country, as he cannot find a publisher for his writing. His attitude to this is more than sanguine: "Don't you mind?" Anna asks him. "'In a way,' said Papa. 'But I find it very interesting.'" (91). Anna clearly adores her father, and takes her emotional cue from him. She watches the lights of the boat come on:
"Isn't it lovely!" cried Anna and somehow, suddenly, she no longer minded about her birthday and her presents. It seemed rather fine and adventurous to be a refugee, to have no home and not to know where one was going to live…. "I think I might quite like being a refugee," said Anna.
Anna's sense that she must bury her feelings about the disruption of her childhood and the loss of her home and her mother tongue if she is to survive intact is made explicit at one moment in When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit. An overheard discussion of the fate of a German professor in a concentration camp causes Anna to feel sick and faint: "she wanted to tell Max what she had heard but could not bring herself to talk about it. It was better not even to think about it. In future she would try never to think about Germany at all" (114).
It seems that traumas do not submit to burial so easily. I should like to suggest that Kerr's picture books for young children cannot be separated from her other writing. Beneath the surface, and sometimes in defiance of her own illustrations, her books include a sense that danger is ever present, and that we confront terrible losses even in childhood. These themes may unconsciously resonate with all our hidden losses and griefs, even though these may not be as tangible as those Kerr sustained. It is presumably Kerr's sensitivity to the anxieties and fears of childhood that accounts for the way in which her picture books reach out to their audiences of children and their parents.
1. See also Eva Figes's memoir Little Eden: A Child at War (1978) in which Figes describes discovering the truth of what it meant to be a Jew sitting in the dark cinema and watching the newsreel of Belsen. The same experience is depicted in Diane Samuels's play Kindertransport (1995).
Bolchover, Richard. British Jewry and the Holocaust. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.
Bosmajian, Hamida. "Narrative Voice in Young Readers' Fictions about Nazism, the Holocaust, and Nuclear War." The Voice of the Narrator in Children's Literature: Insights from Writers and Critics. Ed. Charlotte F. Otten and Gary D. Schmidt. New York: Greenwood, 1989. 308-24.
Farnham, James. "Holocaust Literature for Children: The Presentation of Evil." University of Hartford Studies in Literature 18: 2-3 (1986): 55-62.
Figes, Eva. Little Eden: A Child at War. London: Faber & Faber, 1978.
Innocenti, Roberto, and Christophe Gallaz. Rose Blanche. Minnesota: Creative Education, 1985.
Jewish Women in London Group. Generations of Memories: Voices of Jewish Women. London: The Women's Press, 1989.
Karpf, Anne. The War After: Living with the Holocaust. London: Heinemann, 1996.
Kerr, Judith. The Tiger Who Came to Tea. London: Collins, 1968
――――――. Mog and Bunny. London: Collins, 1988.
――――――. Mog in the Dark. London: Collins, 1983.
――――――. Mog on Fox Night. London: Collins, 1993.
――――――. Mog the Forgetful Cat. London: Collins, 1970.
――――――. Mog's Amazing Birthday Caper. London: Collins, 1986.
――――――. The Other Way Round. London: Collins, 1975.
――――――. Out of the Hitler Time. London: Lions, 1994.
――――――. When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbi. London: Collins, 1971.
Kertzer, Adrienne. "'Do You Know What "Auschwitz" Means?' Children's Literature and the Holocaust." The Lion and the Unicorn 23:2 (1999): 238-56.
Kimmel, Eric. "Confronting the Ovens: The Holocaust and Juvenile Fiction." The Horn Book Magazine 53 (1977): 84-91.
Kushner, Tony. The Holocaust and the Liberal Imagination. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1994.
Lathey, Gillian. The Impossible Legacy: Identity and Purpose in Autobiographical Children's Literature Set in the Third Reich and the Second World War. Bern, NY: Peter Lang, 1998.
Pinter, Harold. The Birthday Party. London: Methuen, 1965.
Russell, David L. "Reading the Shards and Fragments: Holocaust Literature for Young Readers." The Lion and the Unicorn 21:2 (1997): 267-80.
Samuels, Diane. Kindertransport. London: Nick Hern Books, 1995.
Siegal, Aranka. Grace in the Wilderness: After the Liberation, 1945–1948. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1985.
――――――. Upon the Head of the Goat: A Childhood in Hungary, 1939–1944. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1981.
Taylor, John Russell. Anger and After: A Guide to the New British Drama. London: Methuen, 1969.
Walter, Virginia A., and Susan F. March. "Juvenile Picture Books about the Holocaust: Extending the Definitions of Children's Literature." Publishing Research Quarterly 9:3 (1993): 36-51.
Wild, Margaret. Let the Celebrations Begin! Ill. Julie Vivas. New York: Puffin Books, 1991.
Williams, Ursula Moray. Tiger Nanny. Nashville: Nelson, 1974.
I should like to thank my sister Debbie Amichai for many discussions about Judith Kerr's picture books. I should also like to express my gratitude to Stewart Brookes, Gillian Lathey, Kim Reynolds, and Diane Samuels, who read and commented on earlier versions of this essay.
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Benny Kraut (review date winter 1998)
SOURCE: Kraut, Benny. Review of The Diary of Dawid Sierakowiak: Five Notebooks from the Lodz Ghetto, by Dawid Sierakowiak, edited by Alan Adelson. History: Review of New Books 26, no. 2 (winter 1998): 93-4.
[In the following review, Kraut highlights how The Diary of Dawid Sierakowiak: Five Notebooks from the Lodz Ghetto presents a unique and compelling portrait of the Holocaust.]
This compelling diary of teenager Dawid Sierakowiak [The Diary of Dawid Sierakowiak: Five Notebooks from the Lodz Ghetto], who perished in the Lodz ghetto on 9 August 1943, joins other critical works, notably Lucjan Dobroszycki's The Chronicle of the Lodz Ghetto (1984), as an absolutely essential source for understanding the Lodz ghetto experience. Edited by Alan Adelson, who previously produced and codirected the film documentary Lodz Ghetto and coedited the film's accompanying narrative volume, Lodz Ghetto: Inside a Community Under Siege, this book consists of five notebooks written by the youth between age fifteen and nineteen, which were found by a gentile after World War II. Although two notebooks are apparently missing, leaving unfortunate gaps in the account, the diary makes absorbing but very painful reading.
Punctuated by an unrelenting emotional urgency, devoid of any contrived posturing, the diary records Sierakowiak's astute observations of ghetto conditions and events; probing reflections on key personalities, such as tyrannical yet skillful ghetto council leader Mordechai Rumbowski, as well as on members of his own family; and the searing physical and emotional pain that he himself endured. As noted in Lawrence Langer's insightful foreword, this diary differs fundamentally from that of Anne Frank, whose musings reveal the interior of her world hidden from the flux and brutality of daily life. Not so this text, which resonates with the raw barbarism of the Lodz ghetto, the first such established by the Nazis in early 1940 and the second largest after Warsaw, which surrounded the young man.
Dawid's diary underscores the critical circumstances contributing to everworsening ghetto conditions over time: the omnipresence of hunger and its destructive potential—killing people physically and spiritually and overturning human relations (Dawid's venal father steals rations from each family member); the importance of work for one's survival; the social divisions among Jews, which saw the privileged and well-connected consistently get extra rations and cushier jobs (Dawid was an ardent communist, despising the inequities and rapacity of capitalism); the overwhelming uncertainty bedeviling all decision making—such as whether one should volunteer for labor details and deportations or not; and the impossibility of gaining reliable information in the face of the wild rumors circulating. These were among the daily challenges confronting ghetto dwellers, making their life hell and continuously transforming hope into despair. Ultimately, this diary demonstrates what was really lost in the Holocaust: countless human beings like Dawid, whose unrealized potential fell victim to the Nazi onslaught. The diary reveals Dawid to be an extraordinarily resilient, intellectual, perceptive, and idealistic young man, mature beyond his years, a gifted student of languages, history, and philosophy who tried to sustain his study and writing in the face of overwhelming trauma.
Permeating this book are powerfully evocative photographs of the Lodz ghetto taken by Mendel Grossman and Henryk Ross, who captured both the glory and debasement of Jews and Jewish life. The diary text together with the visual images make this volume gripping and unforgettable.
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David Patterson (essay date 2002)
SOURCE: Patterson, David. "Flinker, Moshe (1926–1944)." In Encyclopedia of Holocaust Literature, edited by David Patterson, Alan L. Berger, and Sandra Cargas, pp. 50-1. Westport, Conn.: Oryx Press, 2002.
[In the following essay, Patterson expounds on Hana'ar Moshe (Young Moshe's Diary), the lesser-known diary of Moshe Flinker, a sixteen-year-old Dutch Jew who examined the nature of the Holocaust from a much more religious perspective than his contemporary, Anne Frank.]
Originally written in Hebrew, Moshe Flinker's Holocaust diary, Hana'ar Moshe, 1958 (Young Moshe's Diary, 1971) reveals traces of greatness in a young soul engaged in a struggle between hope and despair. The depth of this teenager's ordeal lies not only in his insight into history but also in his compassion to the point of guilt over the suffering of his fellow Jews. "I see myself as if I were a traitor," he confesses, "who fled from his people at the time of their anguish" (p. 65). Very much aware of the ramifica-tions of the historical events of his time, Moshe was even more aware of what those events meant for the people of Israel and their relation to the God of Israel. As a devout Zionist, he was determined to be part of his people's return to their homeland, but he could see that their return was becoming more and more impossible. While he says he could see his homeland in his prayers (pp. 81-82), around him his eyes see nothing but ruin.
Born in The Hague on October 9, 1926, Moshe Flinker was educated both in the general studies of public school and in the biblical studies of Hebrew school. In 1940 his father, Eliezer Flinker, a Polish-born businessman living in the Netherlands, moved the family from German-occupied Holland to German-occupied Belgium. A wealthy man, Flinker was able to obtain an "Aryan" permit to live in Brussels, where he and his family remained relatively safe until April 7, 1944, the Eve of Passover; on that date, the Germans began their roundup of the Jews of Brussels. Since the Flinker family was orthodox in their lifestyle, they were unable to hide from the Germans the fact that they were Jews. The entire family was arrested that Passover and sent to Auschwitz. Although Moshe's five sisters and younger brother managed to survive, he and his parents perished.
While writing his diary, from November 1942 to September 1943, Moshe struggled to understand the Holocaust not only in terms of human history but also in terms of sacred history. Indeed, as a religious Jew, he believed that God is involved in the design of history, the aim of which is the messianic era. "It seems to me," he wrote on November 26, 1942, "that the time has come for our redemption" (p. 26). Moshe sees the world war as the "birthpang of the Messiah" (p. 55), which meant that "not from the English nor the Americans nor the Russians but from the Lord Himself will our redemption come" (p. 73). Whereas some diary writers see the absence of God in this event, Moshe tries to see the hand of God. He turns to the prayers and to the Scriptures and incorporates those texts into his own text, making his diary itself into a kind of prayer.
As the night of the Holocaust grew darker, however, Moshe felt himself slipping ever deeper into a spiritual void. On February 2, 1943 he wrote, "When I pray I feel as if I am praying to the wall and am not heard at all…. I think that the holy spark which I always felt with me has been taken from me" (p. 77). Before long the Scriptures too are lost on him, as he indicated in an entry dated July 4, 1943: "Formerly, when I took up my Bible and read it, it was as if I had returned to life, as if the Lord had taken pity on me; even in my darkest moments I found consolation in Him. Now even this is denied me" (p. 99). In Moshe's movement from prayer to emptiness, from Holy Word to empty void, one sees a very important feature of this Holocaust diary: the diary begins as a vehicle for God's utterance reverberating in voice of the diarist and ends as a lamentation over the cessation of that utterance.
Thus Moshe sees the content of his diary as a "reflection of [his] spiritual life" (p. 109). If that spiritual life revolves around God's presence and absence, then perhaps Moshe's outcry over the silence of God might bear a trace of God's own outcry. Reading Moshe Flinker's diary, one wonders whether the absent God might be hiding in the question concerning His absence. In any case, this diary written under singular conditions has universal implications for humanity's ongoing inquiry into the meaning of history.
Selected Works by the Author
Hana'ar Moshe: Yoman shel Moshe Flinker. Jerusalem: Yad Vashem, 1958; Young Moshe's Diary. Trans. Shaul Esh and Geoffrey Wigoder. Jerusalem: Yad Vashem, 1971.
Caplan, Nigel A. "Revisiting the Diary: Rereading Anne Frank's Rewriting." Lion and the Unicorn 28, no. 1 (January 2004): 77-95.
Asserts that Anne Frank's rewrites of The Diary of a Young Girl serve as a model for later revisionist efforts in Holocaust nonfiction.
Kertzer, Adrienne. "Saving the Picture: Holocaust Photographs in Children's Books." In My Mother's Voice: Children, Literature, and the Holocaust, pp. 231-74. Peterborough, Canada: Broadview Press, 2002.
Explores how photographs are used to explore aspects of the Holocaust in children's literature.
Kopf, Hedda Rosner. "The Diary as Literature." In Understanding Anne Frank's "The Diary of a Young Girl": A Student Casebook to Issues, Sources, and Historical Documents, pp. 1-10. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1997.
Outlines the history of Frank's The Diary of a Young Girl, including how it came to be published, challenges made regarding its authenticity, and the differences between the various editions.
Lathey, Gillian. "A Question of Identity: Jewish Writers and the Quest for Social Acceptance." In The Impossible Legacy: Identity and Purpose in Autobiographical Children's Literature Set in the Third Reich and the Second World War, pp. 72-6. New York, N.Y.: Peter Lang AG, 1999.
Examines the notion of self-identity in seven children's novels written by authors who survived the Holocaust.
Sherman, Ursula F. "Why Would a Child Want to Read about That?: The Holocaust Period in Children's Literature." In How Much Do We Tell the Children?: The Politics of Children's Literature, edited by Betty Bacon, pp. 173-84. Minneapolis, Minn.: MEP Publications, 1988.
Discusses why the Holocaust should be taught to children, citing examples from juvenile literature.
Stan, Susan. "Rose Blanche in Translation." Children's Literature in Education 35, no. 1 (March 2004): 21-33.
Compares three translated editions of Roberto Innocenti's Rose Blanche.
Staub, Michael E. "The Shoah Goes On and On: Remembrance and Representation in Art Spiegelman's Maus." MELUS 20, no. 3 (autumn 1995): 33-46.
Analysis of the "oral narrative" in Art Spiegelman's two-volume Maus graphic novels.