Janusz Korczak's experiment before the war: He took one child from an orphanage and without saying a word went with it on a walk along the noisy streets of Warsaw. Then he led it into a darkened lecture-room filled with students and there placed it in front of an x-ray apparatus. The tiny heart of the child, trembling with fear, appeared on the x-ray screen. And Dr. Korczak, turning to his students, said: "Do not ever forget this picture. Before you raise your hand against the child, before you punish it, recall how its frightened heart beats."
(from Richard C. Lukas's Did the Children Cry? Hitler's War against Jewish and Polish Children, 1939-1945, Hippocrene Books, 1994)
Given the abundance of World War II memorials cast in ink, cellulose, and stone, one may seek, in vain it seems, for those increasingly elusive lacunae in the representation of the Holocaust. For many years, one category of survivor was largely ignored, forgotten, silenced-namely, the children who evaded being sent to the camps, the youths who, in order to escape the persecution, were forced into hiding.
There have been a couple of notable exceptions, of course. Anne Frank is the most famous of the "physically" hidden Jewish children. After twenty-five months in a cramped attic over an Amsterdam warehouse, she was betrayed and deported with her family to the death camps from which only her father emerged alive. The diary that she left of her time behind the annexe wall has been translated into sixty languages since its revelational first publication in 1947, and is the standard against which all subsequent Holocaust memoirs are measured. Moreover, it has spawned an industry of its own, generating a play by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett (which, in turn, was made into a movie), a compelling documentary film on the girl who died in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, and most recently, a biography entitled Roses from the Earth by Carol Ann Lee. The effective presence of this slip of a girl persists in our collective consciousness over fifty years after her death.
At first glance, Lee's opus appears to be a shameless attempt to cash in on the popularity of this icon. I admit this was my gut reaction, for Anne's diary is sufficient unto itself: it possesses the authenticity and authority of the first-person testimonial scripted at the time of the event; and it is an intimate, frank record of a child dealing with the strains of forced concealment and the inevitability of loss. But Lee does Anne no great disservice. The book, written with the cooperation of the surviving Frank family, serves a useful function by complementing the internal life presented in the diary with a meticulously researched external portrait that is respectful of Anne's memory. The author conducted exhaustive interviews with people who had known the girl in order to reconstruct a life-and a death. She delves into the family history, presents the historical context, and manages to skillfully convey the terror that gradually gripped the country. The overall effect, curiously however, distances the reader from the subject whose emotional and intellectual life we know so well. Even when she writes about Anne's final days in the camp, we seem to see her only as others could: in glimpses across the barbed wire fence, in snatches of words exchanged, in conjecture.
The real problem with the biography is that the provocative question it asks and purports to answer more definitively than has been done to date-Who betrayed the Franks?-remains unanswered. It is probably unanswerable. More to the point, the question itself is philosophically meaningless and misdirected: who the actual perpetrator was is no longer relevant; only the act of betrayal itself, and the moral implications and devastatingly real consequences stemming from that act are what should give us and our consciences cause to ponder. As it stands, the book participates in a convulsive witch-hunt, and the posing of the question seems to be nothing more than a sensational publicity ploy.
The other famous account of the hidden child phenomenon is fictional: American writer Jerzy Kosinski's stunningly brilliant The Painted Bird (1965). Structured like a picaresque novel in which a Jewish boy is subjected to a series of increasingly brutal encounters with depraved peasants as he hides out in the Eastern Polish countryside during the war, The Painted Bird generated a great deal of controversy. The story, told in the first person, has the trappings of fictionalized autobiography. In reality, the Lewinkopf family "hid out" in the open in Central Poland, first in Sandomierz and then in the village of Dabrowa. They changed their name to Kosinski in an attempt to efface their Semitic background. The Lewinkopfs-Kosinskis, moreover, encountered much goodwill from the rural populace, which sheltered and watched over them.
The author, in his preface to the second edition in 1976, tried to evade the criticism by emphasizing that the book is fiction carried out in a mythical realm: the title, recalling Aristophanes' The Birds, refers to the peasant custom of catching a bird, and painting and releasing it so it is torn at by its flock, which perceives it as alien. This was an actual practice in Dabrowa. However, the slyly embedded truth-claim-"I knew fiction could present lives as they are truly lived"-lends ambiguity to the stated authorial intention. This ambiguity has been given life, as biographies repeat the myth Kosinski created through fiction as real fact. To give one example, the entry in The Cambridge Dictionary of American Biography reads: "[Kosinski] had a horrific childhood hiding from the Nazis during World War II... [H]e drew upon his past experiences to write semiautobiographical novels with elements of violence, anxiety, and eroticism, as in The Painted Bird.."
Since the mid-eighties, the number of hidden children testimonials has increased dramatically. The publishing phenomenon has been due, in part, to the First International Gathering of Children Hidden During World War II, which convened in May 1991 in New York City. The conference generated a number of books based on interviews with Jews who, as children, had been concealed by other Jews and Christians throughout Europe, in forests, underground bunkers, convents, caves, sewers, attics, stables or out in broad daylight. These children endured a broad spectrum of trials. Their survival often depended on split-second decisions and pure chance. At the end of the war, they were confronted with a new set of ordeals: there were reunions with family members who were now strangers; many were orphaned and either left to fend for themselves in a world still hostile to Jews, or, for the more fortunate, adopted into other families.
The experiences, it quickly becomes evident, are much too varied, too dependent on factors such as the age of the survivor and the country lived in, to be generalized and framed by a few authoritative sentences. What does emerge from the studies, fictional accounts, and memoirs, though, is a permutation on the issues of silence and forgetfulness that the Holocaust raises. In the case of the hidden Jewish children, silence-about their very presence behind a fake wall or about their Jewish heritage-was an imperative for survival that had a profound impact on them. This impact was psychological, causing pain, guilt, anger, lost childhoods, and the inability to bond with the parents who had "abandoned" them for their safe-keeping or to communicate their experiences to others. The impact went even deeper, to an ontological level, causing alienation from the self and others: in order to survive, those hidden "out in daylight" had to deny who and what they were, to "double" their identity, to repress, even to forget, their Jewish heritage, and to engage in a very consequential form of role-playing. As embodied in masker extraordinaire Jerzy Kosinski, in making-believe and making others believe they were other than themselves, they ingested otherness as a sometimes discordantly constitutive part of their selfhood. The silence, the attainment of a temporary forgetfulness, and the condition of being hidden often continued well into adulthood when, after the war, their experiences discredited, they were placed in the position of having to defend themselves for abandoning their family and for being fortunate enough not to have endured the extermination camps.
Typical, in many respects, of this literature is the recently released Your Name is Renée by Stacy Cretzmeyer. The book is a first-person account of a young Jewish girl in Nazi-occupied France who, in 1941, at the age of four, learns the danger of using her own name. When the family hides out in a village, she must play at being a Catholic French girl, and then, when the family decides it is safer for Ruth to wait out the war in a Catholic convent, an orphan. Told with touching honesty from the perspective of an innocent child becoming conscious of, and coming to terms with, the political reality around her, the memoir also pays a debt of gratitude to the ordinary people from the French countryside who took great risks to protect the Kapp family, and to the efficient underground Resistance network that saved them.
Changing allegiances during the Second World War forced many peoples into a condition of hiding. Similar dynamics of concealment were at play with those caught behind enemy lines in Europe as borders were being redrawn overnight. In My Hands is a true story told from the other side of the fence-by a woman, Irene Gut Opdyke, who was named by the Israeli Holocaust Commission as one of the Righteous Among the Nations for her efforts in rescuing Jews. Just seventeen when the war began, the Polish student nurse found herself suddenly stripped of all she loved: her family, her home, her innocence. Arrested while hiding out in the forest with a group of medics when Eastern Poland was occupied by the Russians, she escaped from the Ternopol hospital where she was forced to work under guard, and made her way to a village outside Kiev where she pretended to be Rachel Meyer, the doctor's cousin from another village. Later, she used her blond hair, blue eyes, and fluency in German to create an Aryan mask in order to facilitate her return to German-occupied Poland. Once there, and in the employ of a Nazi major, she resolved to help those whose situation was even more dire than her own.
In My Hands is a powerful story that deserves to be told, for aiding Jews at the time was punishable by death. The author may be forgiven the occasional lapses into an annoying tendency to elevate herself to heroic stature through modesty ("I was just a girl") or to keep referring to her repeated confessions of having been brutally gang-raped by Soviet soldiers: her story is dramatic, compelling, and heroic in itself. It would have been more effective as a story if the author had simply presented the facts and let the reader respond with the emotional content. The interjected confessional commentary and unevenly successful attempts to bestow literariness on the memoir (for example, by incorporating the extended metaphor of the bird) are completely unnecessary and interfere with what is otherwise a good and enlightening read.
If you've ever held a bird in your hand, you will recall how its frightened heart can beat. When you hold these books in your hand, you will feel that heart.
Here is a partial list of Hidden Children Literature:
André Stein's Broken Silence: Dialogues from the Edge (Lester & Orpen Dennys, 1984) & Hidden Children: Forgotten Survivors of the Holocaust (Viking, 1993).
Jane Marks' The Hidden Children: The Secret Survivors of the Holocaust (Fawcett Columbine, 1993).
Kenneth Jacobson's Embattled Selves: An Investigation into the Nature of Identity Through Oral Histories of Holocaust Survivors (Atlantic Monthly, 1994).
Jack Kuper's After the Smoke Has Cleared (Stoddart, 1994).
Lucille Eichengreen and Harriet Hyman Chamber-lain's From Ashes to Life: My Memories of the Holocaust (Mercury House, 1994).
Felicja Nowak's My Star: Memoirs of a Holocaust Survivor (Polish-Canadian Publishing Fund, 1995).
D. Alicia Sloboda is a Toronto writer