Only a precious remnant of Holocaust survivors is alive today, and many of them were just children when they went into hiding or ended up behind barbed wire. Indeed, there’s a heartbreaking irony in the fact that the last survivors are the ones who were the most at risk, precisely because the Germans had no use for youngsters who could not perform heavy labor.
The story is told in the first person in “How We Survived: 52 Personal Stories by Child Survivors of the Holocaust,” a publication of an organization called Child Survivors of the Holocaust Inc. ($30, childsurvivorsla.org). The book is dedicated to “the memory of the 1.5 million children who did not survive the Holocaust,” a noble gesture by a handful of children who did.
“Each story in this collection has been written in the author’s own voice,” Marie Kaufman explains in a preface to the book. She is a child survivor herself, and she served as chair of the editorial committee that brought the book into existence. “Each contributor to this book saw it as an opportunity, as the youngest and last witnesses of the Holocaust,” writes Kaufman, “to report their story while they could do so.”
One obstacle that had to be overcome is the skepticism of older survivors — and the authors and readers of Holocaust studies — who suspect that child survivors could not possibly remember what they endured. Yet the testimonies in “How We Survived” are proof that, in Kaufman’s words, “Even the very youngest, who may not have had the intellectual memory, do have the sensory memory — the smells, the colors, the sounds, the terror and the anxiety due to uncertainty from one day to the next.”
Then, too, the child survivors were especially vulnerable to the sense of danger that resulted in what has been called “The Great Silence.” “Survival so often depended on not being noticed,” explains psychiatrist Dr. Robert Krell, “on the ability to suppress tears, ignore pain.” Also, childhood experiences were pointedly ignored even by those who tended to the emotional needs of child survivors after the war.
“I was shocked to learn in the 1970s from child survivors,” writes Sarah Moskovitz, a psychologist known as the “mother” of the child survivor field, in a foreword to the book, “that they had been asked by therapists about their toilet training and other developmental markers, but not about the war they had lived through.”
The Great Silence is over, at least for the 52 child survivors who contributed their accounts to “How We Survived,” a harrowing but ultimately redemptive collection of short memoirs that considerably enriches the vast literature of the Holocaust. Each one is a gem of reminiscence, reflection and testimony, and each one unique in the same way that each human being is unique.
Veronica Bregman, for example, reveals a shattering truth that shadows her own survival: “My mother had wanted an abortion,” she writes. “So, it was only by chance that I was born.” Peter Daniels recalls how he turned 7 in the children’s barracks at Terezin and managed to survive until its liberation by the Red Army: “I was one of approximately 100 children still alive in the camp.” Harry Fischman describes the day when, at the age of 16, he arrived at Auschwitz: “My number,” he writes of the tattoo on his forearm, “is A6715.”
Significantly, many of the contributors survived because they were sheltered by Righteous Gentiles, sometimes friends and neighbors, sometimes strangers, a fact that explains why the child survivors were compelled to consult their rescuers to fill in the blanks in their memories. The point is affectingly made in Marie Kaufman’s chapter, “Born to Strangers.” Only in 1996, when she reached out to the citizenry of Milhars, the French town where she was hidden during the Holocaust, did she meet the adult children of her wartime protectors. “They want to tell you your story,” the mayor of Milhars said.
Some of the survivors render their childhood memories as art or song or poetry. Josette Frankel, for example, describes how she was forced to survive by her own wits when her parents joined the Belgian underground: “After one year, I became a mute, wild child,/Looking for scraps, roaming the paths, the streets/Through sunshine, snow, or rain,/I climbed trees, ran from vicious men, dogs, and falling shrapnel/and from morning ’til night, whispered to myself:/I mustn’t speak my name.”
Frankel, of course, is mute no longer, and she speaks her name aloud in the pages of “How We Survived.” Every contribution to the book, in fact, can be read as a courageous act of assertion against the German ambition to reduce the Jewish people to ashes and numbers. I can think of no better way to honor those who did not survive than by celebrating the ones who did.
Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of The Jewish Journal. His next book is “The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan,” which will be published by the Liveright imprint of W.W. Norton to coincide with the 75th anniversary year of Kristallnacht. He blogs at www.jewishjournal.com/twelvetwelve and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.