Notes from Underground: A Gathering of Children Hidden During the Holocaust

The first thing that strikes me is how good-looking everyone is. I wonder, is it because it’s a European crowd (there are over 500 here from Europe), or does it actually have something to do with their survivorship? Were they especially beautiful children who had, because of their beauty, squeezed through an infinitesimal crack in a brutal Nazi guard’s heart? Some have stories to that effect—the German policeman who inexplicably whispered “run” to a five year old, the Polish woman who, faced with a “Sophie’s choice” when caught hiding children, gave two up in exchange for keeping “this little hugging one.” The crowd is, really, extraordinarily beautiful. The second thing that strikes me—also in the looks department—is how blond the room is. There are real blonds and fake blonds, but still, many more blonds per capita than one would find at a Hadassah convention or a CAJE conference. Every real blond, of course, means an Aryan-looking child, one who was more easily passed off as a Gentile’s “orphaned niece” or a Catholic convent child. One woman says, “To this day, I walk down a busy street and see waves of hair—blond, black, blond, black, and what I am saying to myself is ‘life’, ‘death’, ‘life,’ ‘death.'”

In the same way, a male survivor talks about gender. There are, after all, many times more women than men at the conference. “A circumcised penis meant death,” he says, “a child who was impossible to hide.” One woman shares what happened when she was a teenager trying to hide a baby boy. “It was more and more impossible to hide with him,” she says, because he was circumcized. “Finally, I was running through a field one day, knowing I was about to be caught. I handed my baby to someone, and I never saw him again. He would be 48 years old today. He looked like me.” [Unexpressed are the words, “Have any of you seen him?”]

Of course, as with many of the people in this room, that baby (now if living, a middle-aged man) did not know his name. Surviving without knowing your name. Talk about loss! What a disorienting loss, something that many of the youngest survivors in the room share.

Another woman who also lost a baby boy says, “I swore to myself at that time that if I ever had more boys, I would never circumcise them. But now,” she continues, “I have three grown sons, all born in America, all circumcised, two lawyers and a college professor.”

A man says, “To this day, I can’t urinate in a public men’s room. If someone walks in, zzzzzzzttt,” he makes a motion indicating an abrupt stop. Two other men in the room agree. One mumbles in astonishment, “I’ve never met anyone before who has this same problem!”

“I wore a dress for two years,” says one of the men. “The hardest thing was not urinating on my shoes.” They laugh.

“For me the hardest thing was remembering my girl name,” says another man, an attractive therapist here with his son. (It seems as if half the people at the conference stand up and identify themselves as therapists.) “I was only three, and the Polish language has different suffixes for male speakers and for females. I could never get it right. It almost cost me my life.”

To get back to the blondness in the room. . . the fake blonds were of interest, too. What does it mean—to a 2 year old, or 4 year old, or 8 year old—to be blond? It means to be safe. It means to be “one of the strong ones” as one woman puts it. “To be Christian meant security to me. After the war, when my father came back to get me, I remember thinking, ‘Why should I go with this weak Jew? These people—in my Christian house—are the ones who can really take care of me and protect me. Here, I’m safe.'”

In the same way that blondness means safety, silence means safety. Hiding safely, after all, meant silence, either absolute (if you were hiding beneath floorboards) or selective (if you were hiding in an orphanage). It’s adaptive to be silent, so that even opening one’s mouth at this conference, after years of silence, is something that many cannot do. Speaking remains dangerous.

Some of the conference attendees have a lifelong ambivalence, a love-hate relationship, with both Judaism and Christianity. An awful lot have married non-Jews. Some have married more than once—one time to a Christian, the next time to a Jew, as if only in serial living can they express the complexity—and exclusivity—of their lives, for they are both Jewish and Christian.

Everyone’s story is different, and too idiosyncratic for invention. One woman tells how, as a girl, she begged and cried and screamed until her survivor-mother converted to Christianity too.

There are several pairs of siblings in which one is Christian and the other Jewish. Some formally converted back to Judaism as adults; several have known only for a couple of years that they are adopted and are biologically Jewish.

One woman cries as she speaks. “I’m so unhappy,” she says. “I can’t find my place—I’m not Jewish. I’m not Christian. I don’t remember a thing about my real family.” Another woman stands from the back of the room. “I’m her sister,” she explains. “My sister was two when we went into hiding. I was five. I remembered a lot about my parents; I remembered my real whole name. I felt already really Jewish. I have had a happy life”—a life without the fundamental existential vaccum of some of the younger survivors.

Bleached blonds… mezuzzahs… two small expressions of more deeply felt issues of identity and safety. We have a discussion about mezuzzahs, a tiny detail in most of these people’s lives, but one that we could examine for, oh, maybe a week?

One man says he has put mezuzzahs on every door on the inside of his house, but can’t bring himself to put one on the outside of his house. “I’m still afraid of what it means for the public to discover that you’re Jewish.” He actually whispers. He is an engineer and a Hebrew School teacher, married to a non-Jew. “The fear is inside of you,” answers someone else. “Put the mezuzzah on that outside door and get the fear out of you.” Another woman says, “I’ve had a mezzuzah in my diningroom drawer for over 40 years—I keep meaning to put it up, but something stops me.”

If there is any competition at all— and there is hardly any—it is subtly in the direction not of who has the most amazing story, a kind of Ripley’s Believe-it-or-Not approach (which the press, with their cameras flashing everywhere, encourage), but of who is happiest. Loud applause goes to a woman who stands up, with rosy cheeks and a thick French accent, to tell her story of hiding in a convent. Her parents died in concentration camps. “I was ten when I went into hiding,” she says. “I had a strong sense of my parents, of how my mother thought positively of me. I remember one thing in particular about my childhood. I used to write on the walls, to draw caricatures of my parents’ friends after they’d gone home after a visit. My mother never scolded me for these or said, ‘Oh, now I have to re-paint the walls.’ No, she used to say, ‘Camille—this is a good likeness,’ and she’d laugh.”

In the workshops, people stand to talk without regard to theme or subject. There is a sense of so much to say and so little time; so much to say for the first time. “I only heard my name once,” says a woman. “I was hiding in a crawlspace in the kitchen—I didn’t know my real name. I suppose I had forgotten it, or I was too young. It had probably been rehearsed out of me.” (Many nods around the room—many had been “rehearsed out of knowledge.”) But a German soldier came in and he asked if – was here. I instinctively knew that was my name. I said it to myself over and over. I was four.”

“Ah yes,” answers another hidden child. “I remember hearing things in hiding, too. Early on, I heard a neighboring couple—they were also hiding a Jew— talking in the kitchen with the couple who was hiding me. ‘Our Jew is an ungrateful Jew,’ said the other couple. ‘He whines and cries and complains. We don’t like him.’ ‘Our Jew is a good Jew,’ said my couple. ‘He is grateful and sweet.’ To this day I am ‘grateful and sweet,'” says the grown hidden child. “Even then, if they said to me, ‘Do you want to eat these rotten potatoes?’ I would say, ‘I love rotten potatoes.’ I think I did love rotten potatoes. But who likes rotten potatoes?”

Small children have a way of encapsulating meaningful experience into one concrete memory. I have the sense that if each hidden child were told to relate only one sentence about her childhood, she would know immediately what to report.

“I sat on a basket in a closet for two years,” says one woman. She is finished talking. The others push her to go on. “I often wonder what made me sit so quietly,” she adds, when pressed further. “How did I understand not to cry? Not to sneeze?” A lot of people’s hands go up in recognition. “I always think about that,” one woman says. “I was only three. How did I know to sit so silently, so uncomplainingly? We hid in the hay mow in the barn, and they used to come by with bayonets and throw them through the straw to see if anyone was hiding in there. I never peeped, never cried.”.

“I was three,” says another woman. “My experience was like a piece of furniture. They passed me from house to house. My mother would come and take me, then move me to another house. Then she’d go back to the ghetto. I saw money exchange hands. No one ever explained a thing to me. Why didn’t they? If they had only explained one thing. Just one thing.”

Many people nod about feeling like “a piece of furniture.” “You see, so you must explain things to your children,” cries a child of a hidden child. “Instead, we become new pieces of furniture.”

“I too saw the money exchange hands,” says another woman. “And the jewelry! I knew the people that took me didn’t like me. They didn’t love me. I knew that at four years old. Maybe I would be a different person today if I’d never seen the money.”

A single memory of biological parents seems to be very important, something that could keep a child going through months and years of hiding and loneliness and deprivation. “I remember my parents leaving me in a strange house. ‘We’re going to come back with ice cream,’ they said. “I never saw them again. But I often remembered what they said about the ice cream, and it made me happy.”

“I remember my uncle’s pocket—a piece of gum was in there. I often thought of the feel of that gum—putting my hand in his pocket and feeling it there.”

There are many memories of parents who walked away from their children without saying goodbye, a vacuum that’s still felt fifty years later. Ostensibly, the parents couldn’t have borne to leave if they’d had actually to say goodbye. Many parents, it seems, walked away quickly or pretending casualness. It was too risky to say goodbye—physically, emotionally. What counted was the moment: the children would cry less if their parents didn’t say goodbye. Maybe the parents knew that they couldn’t say goodbye to their children without letting leak their hopelessness and knowledge of doom.

“If only I had one memory of them, just one,” says a beautiful Dutch woman.

A different theme is touched on by a man who was a young teenager in hiding. “I was a product of a yeshiva education,” he explains. “So what was happening seemed commonplace, to be expected. After all, I’d learned Jewish history, the Inquisition, pogroms, exiles. Jews had always hidden. By myself, I prayed every day. I wasn’t afraid. What kept me company was history. I was part of history.”

Many preface their remarks by saying, “I’m not really a hidden child.” This means that they’d been either “hidden” in the open—in convents, or pretending to be gentiles, or fighting with anti-Jewish partisans in the woods, or they’d been sent away from family to England or to America. One man was a “feather boy”—he held a feather up to people’s noses after they’d been shot and he counted to 20—to see if they were really dead. He was 8.) Still, they’d lost family, lost childhood, lost identity, had singular fears and lived with real effects from those years. Generally, someone answers these demurrers: “You are hidden.”

One senses that the vague sense of “not really being a…” is a lifetime’s nagging sense of being an imposter. “We’re not really Holocaust survivors because we weren’t in the camps,” says one woman from Belgium. “Many of us have felt— until yesterday—that our experience somehow didn’t really ‘count.'”

Maybe 100-200 Righteous Gentiles are at the conference. Some of them have kept in touch with their ‘hidden child’ through the years; others are newly reunited; many are honored in an awards ceremony. Their presence makes us wonder: How does one inculcate altruism into a society? How can we, as Jews, teach ourselves the value of altruism? The Righteous Gentiles are modest. In Polish, one tells a story of how her hidden Jews—standing between the wallboards of a room—are saved and then almost lost because of paprika. “The Germans were coming with their dogs. I knew the dogs would smell the Jews. I panicked—what do I do? Someone said, ‘paprika—sprinkle it everywhere. It will confuse the dogs!’ I ran to a neighbor for paprika and came home and threw it everywhere. But then my Jews started sneezing. Luckily, the Germans passed over my house.”

Later, in a workshop, a hidden child says, “It wasn’t just Christians who saved Jews. Jews saved Jews too. ”

“That’s not possible,” someone answers.

The first speaker hesitates. “Well, I was saved by a Jew.”

He stops again and has to be encouraged to go on. “Well, the last time—and only time—I told this story, someone said to me, ‘No one should survive at that price.'”

Everyone is quiet.

“My Jewish aunt saved me,” he says. “Before the war, a boy had liked her— she detested him. Now he was a Nazi soldier. She went to him (she was caring for me then) and pretended to like him. She slept with him. Then she said, ‘I’m pregnant with your child. If you want to make sure your child survives, help us hide through the war.’ So he took care of us. Of course, my aunt wasn’t pregnant. So she made love with someone else until she became pregnant. The baby saved us. But at 7 months, the baby died of malnutrition.”

No one says anything. It is a group that understands, accepts and supports.

It is a group of real hidden children.