Popular culture has nominated Anne Frank as the archetypal child of the Holocaust. Until recently, other Jewish youngsters who survived the war in hiding have not had their suffering validated. German reparation authorities continually deny payments to child survivors on the “logic” that they do not remember. How can these children be suffering, the argument goes, if they did not see, hear, feel, smell, or touch death every moment during the German Occupation.
After reading these four intimate, terror-filled memoirs, the skeptic’s questions about child survivors’ traumas should dissipate. The recollections of Odette Meyers and Sarah Kofman in France, Ruth Glasberg Gold in Transnistria, and the collection of children’s diaries edited by Laurel Holliday are adding to the once-muted voices of youngsters who went to a man-made hell and, for the most part, came back. These personal journeys into the abyss dispel another myth: that individuals who forget horrendous persecutory episodes are better adjusted than those who remember, indeed, the creative process of remembering and writing about Holocaust experiences is a constructive tool for mourning—for some survivors, a never-ending psychological salve.
For the rescued child, mourning raises questions of loyalty and disloyalty to the birth mother, and to the Christian foster mother—and specifically to the religious beliefs they hold. In Odette Meyers’ poetic rendition of life in post-war Paris, she resists giving up her adopted love for Jesus, Mary, the Church, and her desire to become a nun. Though Meyers’ altruistic rescuer, Madame Marie, attempts to tell the 12-year-old Odette that she belongs with the Jewish people and with their God, the girl develops a nervous tick that surfaces when she decides to stop wearing the cross. Concerned that without the cross she would not survive high school, Odette returns to wearing it, her inner conviction maintained.
Sarah Kofman’s savior, on the other hand, attempts to gain a daughter by rescuing her, and does not ease Kofman’s efforts in forming a bond with her own mother. On the contrary, her rescuer impedes Kofman’s attachment to her natural mother. Written in a concise and spare style, this unresolved conflict torments Kofman—one of France’s leading social critics—who committed suicide before the book was published in France three years ago. This fifth and final brief autobiographical sketch, eloquently translated and introduced by a French professor at Berkeley, was undoubtedly the most onerous part of Kofman’s examination of the mental torture of a rescuer who was relentless in seeking her love.
Secret diaries kept by children in the Holocaust and World War II, from my own favorite heroine Hannah Senesh to an unknown brother and sister in the Lodz Ghetto, give us a glimpse of the horrific daily life of children and adolescents. When we think we have heard it all, we confront petrified youngsters who helplessly watched their parents killed, who witnessed people being buried alive. We ask ourselves, how did they go on, in their adult lives, to trust, to love, to have children, and to contribute to society?
Ruth Glasberg Gold’s journey from Transnistria—a territory that yielded very few memoirs—speaks directly to these questions. As an 11-year old, Glasberg Gold was orphaned and lost her only brother, a musical prodigy. She survived a massacre of 250,000 Jews and wandered from foster home to orphanages to refugee camps. After liberation, she undertook the long and difficult journey of illegal entry to Palestine, healing herself by nurturing others she joined in building a kibbutz, working as a medic and nurse.
The child-survivor Holocaust memoirs are a unique genre. Among these memoirs, the female experience especially draws us into a world of relationships, identity, emotions, and resilience under terror. In giving us the details of their own travails, these writers undermine the anonymity of the Holocaust experience.
Eva Fogelman, Ph.D, a social psychologist and psychotherapist, is the author of Conscience and Courage: Rescuers of Jews During the Holocaust and co-editor of Children During the Nazi Reign.