CHILDREN WITH A STAR: JEWISH YOUTH IN NAZI EUROPE by Deborah Dwork; Yale University Press. $25.00
CHILDREN OF THE FLAMES: DR. JOSEF MENGELE AND THE UNTOLD STORY OF THE TWINS OF AUSCHWITZ by Lucette Matalon Lagnado and Sheila Cohn Dekel; William Morrow and Co., 256 pp., $20
Even as the Holocaust recedes further into the past and the witnesses of its horrors age, new memoirs continue to be published, as if with increased urgency. This year, a relatively untold story has been receiving special attention: the plight of the youngest victims, Jewish children during the years 1939-45. At the First International Gathering of Children Hidden During World War II [LILITH, Fall 1991], some 1600 men and women gathered in Manhattan to share memories and explore the special circumstances of their survival. In light of that event, the publication of two new books seems especially timely: Children With a Star by Deborah Dwork, which covers the lives of children through all the phases of the war against the Jews; and Children of the Flames by Lucette Matalon Lagnado and Sheila Cohn Dekel, which focuses on one chilling chapter of that nightmare world.
It was a world where being young only compounded the crime of being Jewish, for once in the clutches of the Nazis, children— like the elderly and ailing—were exterminated immediately, together with their mothers. One and one half million Jewish children perished during these years; only eleven and a half percent survived. The wholesale death of these children, writes Deborah Dwork, “uniquely clarifies…the horror and evil of the Nazi genocide of adults.” When a six-month-old infant is tossed into the flames, all questions of blame, all rationalizations and stereotypes are seen for what they are: irrelevant and obscene.
Dwork has written an excellent, well researched book about how the war years affected children and child life in all its guises and locales. Though its subject is grim and its tragic outcome all too familiar, the book is fresh and compelling—both psychologically and historically. The author stresses that her book is not about how the Nazi system sought to extinguish child life but rather about the daily existence of children until their escape, liberation or death. What did they do all day—in the ghettos, in the transit camps? What were their hopes and nightmares?
During the war years, the Germans methodically isolated the Jewish community from the outside world, harassing and terrorizing Jews before annihilating them completely. Dwork documents how each stage of the Nazi stranglehold was viewed from the perspective of the children: how children felt as they were cut off from friends, classmates and familiar sources of pleasure, such as sports events, parks, cinemas, libraries and ice-cream parlors; their initial feelings of shame; and how those from assimilated homes reacted to the new all- Jewish schools and teachers (usually with curiosity or excitement).
When it became clear that even a severely limited life would not be permitted, parents with no way out themselves attempted to save their children by hiding them with non-Jews. Dwork describes the various kinds of arrangements that were made and how the underground networks operated. This chapter, including eyewitness accounts of both children and rescuers, is particularly engrossing. The author notes that most of the people involved in the underground activities were quite young and many were women. Today, these rescuers (who refuse to see themselves as heroes) speculate that the fact that they did not have children themselves probably enabled them to do such work. Over and over again, these young men and women witnessed wrenching scenes of parents handing over their children to complete strangers with the knowledge that they might never see them again; older people, they say today, who better understood the intensity of the parent-child relationship, might not have been able to go on with it.
Most of the Jewish children who survived the war were hidden in some fashion. Some of them were hiding and visible—that is, they passed as Christians— and some were hiding and hidden. Some children were hidden along with other members of their family, while others were adopted by other families or placed in convents. Unquestionably, these were the lucky ones, which is one reason many of them have kept silent over the years. The tragedy at center-stage was so overwhelming, so inexplicable, so horrible, that it may have taken half a century to digest. The stories of hidden children, however pervaded with loss and pain, still have a human and moral dimension: There are saviors, good and evil foster parents, some happy endings. But mostly, these are not easy stories, and that is the other reason the survivors suppressed them for so long. Severed from loving homes, set into alien cultures, living daily with the tension of pretending and the fear of discovery, these children were severely traumatized.
The children who were not hidden proceeded to the transit camps and ghettos. Despite the misery surrounding them, they were able to find pleasure in small moments— secret lessons, for example. Dwork relates the desperate attempts of the leaders of “work” ghettos to train children over 10 to do adult factory work. Listing a child as part of the labor force was the only way to save him or her from the Nazi death machine. For the very young, there was no hope.
The book ends with the death and slave camps. Those young in years who entered that horrifying world had surely shed all vestiges of childhood by now. For most of them, this was the end of the line. Yet it is right here, in the shadow of the crematoria, that Lagnado and Dekel’s book begins. At the gates of Auschwitz, children and their mothers were automatically directed to the gas chambers—except if Josef Mengele, the impeccably dressed doctor who supervised the selections, wanted them for his medical experiments. Mengele was particularly fascinated by twins and, two by two, he plucked his specimens out of the jaws of death.
Children of the Flames lacks the historical overview and insights of Children With a Star. It is an emotional outpouring, consisting of the oral histories of twins who survived, interspersed with a quasi-biographical account of Mengele. The book’s novelistic technique—which presents Mengele as a character and ascribes thoughts and motives to him—seems ill-advised from the standpoints of psychology and taste. Considering the survivors’ admitted obsession with him (one survivor insists that he loved children), the narrative is disturbing.
In the end, it is the heart-rending voices of these child witnesses, both in this book and in Dwork’s, with which one is left. It is a twisted tale they tell, but those who lived it must tell it, and we must listen.
Sara Bizowsky is a senior editor at Parade magazine