Too Young to Remember

by Julie Heifetz, Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1989, 128pp., cloth $29.95, paper $15.95 

“Children, being small, have little market value,” wrote Janusz Korczak. He encouraged the orphans under his care in the Warsaw Ghetto to keep diaries as a way of mastering their feelings and empowering themselves. Even as he struggled to find food for their bodies, he tried to protect them from those who would take away their dignity and self-respect.

I thought of Janusz Korczak when I read Too Young To Remember, a sensitive rendering of interviews that Julie Heifetz did with six women who had been children during the Holocaust. Four of them had never told their story before. No one had asked. Because they were so young during the Nazi period, people didn’t think they would remember.

In order for the few children who managed to live through the Third Reich to survive psychologically, their adult selves had to seal off that dead space within which their childhood experiences lay buried. Was it possible that once upon a time such horrendous things had happened in the streets of Germany, in the concentration camps and ghettos of Poland? How could one separate reality from unreality? These are questions that Pirandello characters might ask. The six women who speak to us from the pages of this book were lucky to find their author in Heifetz, a psychotherapist and poet.

What does a child remember? Anna was two when her parents hid her in a false ceiling of their room in a forced labor camp. She was warned not to cry: everyone would be killed if she were discovered. She remembers holding onto old rags, as if they were stuffed animals. One night when she was let out to sleep with her parents, she remembers her father wanting to give her poison, and her mother arguing against it. Her newborn brother was not as lucky: he was taken’ away by her father and a few other men “like a piece of garbage” before he could give a first cry.

Kayla, disguised by her parents as a Christian child in Poland, remembers learning to lie about her name, her religion, and everything in the past, until she didn’t know the difference between a lie and the truth. Hedy remembers the principal at their German school screaming: “Get out, you dirty Jew.” Both she and Naomi remember Kristallnacht in November of 1938, when windows were smashed and their fathers and Jewish neighbors beaten, and taken off in chains. Regina remembers finding her younger brother being experimented on in Men-gele’s hospital in Treblinka; remembers “the ovens going around the clock” being faced with “nothing but death” feeling that “life had little meaning.”

The reader learns how resilient children can be. Anna managed not to cry during her three years in that dark attic. Regina and her brother hid in a ditch when a truck came to take all the children away. Kayla screamed and kicked so hard when a German soldier tried to separate her from her mother that he let her go. Frederika stopped talking for six years as a way of shutting out the pain.

We also learn that the confusion and anxiety did not end with the war. There was the chaos of the post-war world to adjust to, the misery of DP camps, the image of oneself as “a dirty little refugee” in an indifferent world.

These tales do not end happily ever after, but they leave us with hope. Some of the women demean themselves in unhappy first marriages, but all of them manage to recoup their inner forces. They are able to make contact with the lost child within them: to understand their negative self-image and rage. They become better mothers, go back to school, start careers, develop latent talents.

What is particularly impressive is that these child survivors never give up trying to survive. Anna admits: “I’m scared and lonely now, but I feel impatient to get on with life.” Regina says: “I have always been a fighter, just like in the camps. You do what you have to do.” Naomi concedes: “What matters is that the Holocaust took place and that human beings made it happen. But the guilt for that does not belong to me, except as a part of humanity.”

Betty Jean Lifton’s most recent books are The King of Children: A Biography of Janusz Korczak (New York: Schocken, 1989) and Lost and Found: The Adoption Experience (New York: Harper & Row, 198.